How would Americans feel if they erased racism

Value pluralism and tolerance

Richard Herzinger

To person

Dr. phil., born 1955; Publicist and editor in the politics department of the weekly newspaper "Die Zeit" in Hamburg.

Address: Die Zeit, 20079 Hamburg.
e-mail: [email protected]

Publications including: The tyranny of the common sense, Berlin 1997; Republic without a center, Berlin 2001.

There are two manifestos of American right and left intellectuals. They were published on the occasion of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.


Earlier this year, 60 prominent American intellectuals published a manifesto entitled "What we're fighting for." In it they declare their support for the US government's war on terror and try to justify it in terms of legal philosophy and moral theory. The signatories include, in prominent positions, the historian Samuel Huntington, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, the sociologist Michael Walzer and Amitai Etzioni, who has become known as a leading head of the communitarian school of thought.

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  • In their manifesto, the authors stress that a matter as grave as war, which "involves the sacrifice and extermination of precious human life," absolutely requires careful ethical justification. You acknowledge that United States foreign policy has historically been marked by errors and aberrations. And they combine their approval of military action against international terrorism with the assurance that "everything will be done against the dire temptation that nations are prone to at war - especially arrogance and chauvinism".

    However, the authors feel all the more compelled to take a stand for the attitude of their government. Because Islamist terrorism has declared deadly war not only on you, but on America and its values ​​as a whole, and thus every single American. So the signatories ask: "So who are we? What are our values?" And they now cite those "basic truths" on which the self-image of the American nation is based: All human beings have the right to freedom, dignity and equality of rights, to truth, freedom of conscience and freedom of belief. In addition, there are other values ​​in the manifesto that are connected in a special way to the founding ideals of American democracy. These are the commitment to the realization of the principle of equality in the democratic form of government, to the existence of generally valid moral truths such as the equality of all people before God and the right to strive for their own happiness, as well as to a plurality of opinions carried out in a spirit of openness and difference of opinion.

    The 60 intellectuals have been violently attacked from various quarters for their initiative. They were accused of nationalism and cultural imperialism not only from Arab intellectuals such as the American-Palestinian literary scholar Edward Said, but also from Europe. What provoked the critics most was that the authors claim that the "American values" they named are at the same time universal values, that is, values ​​that are fundamentally valid for all people.

    Most recently, a counter-declaration by 130 American left-wing intellectuals who "set" apologists for US war policy "set" American values, was published in the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" on April 10, 2002 and called a "letter from US citizens to our friends in Europe" "equates with the" exercise of economic and, above all, military power of the USA abroad ". The counter-declaration, signed by the writer Gore Vidal, the Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton and the physicist Alan Sokal, among others, also denies that the 9/11 attacks were alleged to have been against "American values"; rather, they were a reaction against the "brutal use of power" practiced by the US around the world. Indeed, it is even claimed that the attacks in New York and Washington were not the cause, but only the pretext for the "war on terror": the war plans of the US government against arbitrarily selected victims of its aggression efforts had long been established. In this "anti-imperialist" worldview, which is always the same, the USA is regarded as the absolute evil, as the sole cause of all misery and all violence in the world. Consequently, mass murderous terror like that of Islamist extremists appears as an understandable counter-defense.

    Self-exposing reactions like this show that the declaration of the 60 intellectuals hit a nerve. Touches your statement that American fundamental values ​​are a civilizational good of all humanity, but a philosophical issue that is of utmost relevance to the current political debate about the legitimacy of the American war on terror. Because opinions are currently divided on these questions, not least in Europe: How far can one follow the USA in its strategy against terror? Was the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 an attack against the entire western world, or did it have its specific cause in a fatal great power policy of the United States? And connected with this the question: Should Europe continue to see itself in solidarity with America, or should it not go its own way right now, define its own values ​​and interests and assert them against its big brother on the other side of the Atlantic?

    Of course, explanations like that of the 60 intellectuals offer such critics of the American claim to universality points of attack - albeit in a different way than their own cultural relativism intends. Because the signatories of the declaration are absolutely right against their critics when they refer to the universalistic character of the fundamental American values ​​that they enumerate in their paper. The merit of the declaration lies precisely in the fact that it reminds us of this universalistic obligation of American politics, especially in times of war, and underlines that "American values" can only be used to justify war if and to the extent that they are in accordance with universal human rights stand. The fact that American governments have frequently violated these values ​​themselves is no reason to question their universal character. Because they were expressly formulated by the founding fathers of the United States, even primarily as a protective device against possible attacks by their own government. And they act in American society to this day as a strong bulwark against the despotic ambitions of state power.

    Rather, the weakness of the paper lies in its attempt to define the self-image of American society in a substantive way based on moral-philosophical truths. In doing so, they miss the crucial dimension of what makes the pluralistic societies of the West so attractive around the world. Right at the beginning of their statement, the authors admit that there are some values ​​in America that are "not worth striving for": for example, "consumption as a purpose in life" or "the weakening of marriage and family life". In contrast, they then set those truly substantial values ​​that form the foundation of American society and that must be defended against terrorism. With this distinction between contemptible, worthless and noble, valuable values, the authors have already fallen into the trap of the terrorist apocalypticists. In truth, the latter is not at all interested in what the individual people who they wiped out in the World Trade Center on September 11th believed in. What needs to be defended against these mass murderers is not primarily a certain moral conviction, but the bare right of free people to exist. The Islamist extremists deny the right to life for everyone who does not share their psychopathic version of a single right belief in God. What they hate most about the West is precisely the freedom that prevails there for every individual to live according to their own values, without having these prescribed by higher-ranking authorities of a solely blissful worldview. In the face of such a challenge, all To defend people's right to life and free development - regardless of whether one (or one) has chosen consumption or the family as their "purpose in life". Because this freedom to choose one's own sense of existence constitutes the really central value of the pluralistic civilization of the western world. To put it bluntly: What the individual citizens consider to be worth living in is none of the business of moral theorists like Huntington and Etzioni. And certainly not some Islamist chief ideologues who want to punish us for our "decadence".

    The contempt with which the authors of the declaration speak of "consumption as a purpose in life" is also completely inappropriate. Because the consumer principle is perhaps the most important invention with which the United States revolutionized the world, and it expresses the American principle of freedom and equality better and more vividly than any philosophical declaration of principles. The USA not only liberated Europe from National Socialism and protected it against Soviet totalitarianism; its presence has changed Europe at heart since 1945. America has pacified (Western) Europe by implanting a new, overarching ideal of existence into it: the egalitarian consumer democracy. The much-scolded fixation on mass consumption as a social end goal has undermined violent religious, national, ethnic and ideological ambitions of supremacy that plagued Europe for centuries more effectively than many proclamations of international understanding. The consumption principle is the American integration concept par excellence: It focuses all progress efforts on the private happiness of the individual. The individual, however, can assure himself of his individuality as a consumer, but at the same time feel in harmony with the large consumer community - consumerism is both individualistic and collectivistic. The focus on consumption also keeps racism and religious-cultural hatred in check; After all, every individual, regardless of skin color, religion or cultural origin, is a potential consumer, which is why nobody can be excluded from consumer democracy.

    The consumer culture is the actual "leading culture" of the western world. The secret of the success of the so-called "Americanization", against which the guardians of the Grail of cultural purity all over the world are so violently upset, is based on its global appeal, and not so much on the military and technological superiority of the USA. But "Americanization" is not an expression of cultural imperialism; it is not a dictation imposed from outside, but is so successful precisely because of its great flexibility and compatibility: no country takes over the imports of American mass culture without adapting them to their own specific conditions. American mass culture itself is the product of such a "hybridization", as cultural sociology calls this process: foreign cultures meet in a very small space and enter into new kinds of connections with one another. She translates this into a universal code that can be deciphered by everyone. American mass culture is the product of an internal dynamic with which the multiethnic American society is able to absorb new cultural influences and bring them into harmony with its self-image.

    But what is the inner force that enables America in such an unprecedented way to transform potential cultural divisions into productivity and self-assurance? It is probably the pragmatism in dealing with opposites and conflicts that is hardly comprehensible from the European point of view - at best from the English, because there is a similar disposition there. Or more precisely: the willingness to perceive the element of equality in extreme cultural and social differences. The cause is to be found in the American-style individualistic, universalistic image of man. In order to be considered a good American today, it no longer matters which religious or cultural rites are celebrated. This is basically considered a private matter. It is also secondary whether one looks for one's well-being in ethnic-cultural isolation or mixing. The decisive factor, on the other hand, is whether one adheres to the American belief in the self-responsible striving for individual success as the actual sense of existence of a person. The conviction that this pursuit of happiness is innate in every individual, regardless of which cultural area they come from, justifies the leap of faith that is in principle placed in immigrants. Paradoxically, it is precisely the renunciation of the idea of ​​society as a homogeneous unit that ensures American society its extraordinarily strong sense of togetherness and its exemplary capacity for renewal.

    This principle of social heterogeneity is increasingly becoming the model for all modern pluralistic societies - but, as the tough debate about the immigration law in Germany has recently shown, it is not only unsettling in the Islamic world, but even in European democratic nations. And not even large parts of the American intelligentsia, as the attempt of the 60 intellectuals shows to substantiate American society. Since her moral-philosophical definition of American values ​​- strongly shaped by communitarian thinking on this point - aims at homogenization, she escapes the tension in which the moral convictions of Western societies stand.

    For the declaration of the 60, the war against terrorism is a "just war" because it is waged against an enemy who has declared war on the elementary rights of all people. So far one can follow their argument. But this only means that the United States is generally entitled to defend itself against declared mortal enemies. However, it does not say anything about the extent to which certain military actions are politically, legally and ethically permissible. Incidentally, specific interest-political and military-strategic aspects play an essential role here. A possible war against Iraq, for example, can be judged very differently according to these criteria than the deployment in Afghanistan.

    The elimination of the Taliban regime and the expulsion of Al-Qaeda from their main bastion, Afghanistan, are a strong justification for the American bombing war. But how many civilian casualties could one accept for this goal? The question leads - whatever moral-philosophical criteria one applies - into an ethical dilemma. Individual human life is the highest good of that pluralistic order that the United States and its Western allies must defend in wars like the one in Afghanistan. The fact that one has to touch this highest good in the process, however, remains a moral flaw that can only be endured, but not wiped away.

    This ability to withstand insoluble contradictions and to name them openly in order to be able to counter grievances shows the superiority of an open society over systems that rely on the violent harmonization of conflicts. If you ask what constitutes the common ground that connects Western democracies in a "community of values", you will soon find that the term "West" does not describe anything static. The practice of the death penalty in the US is rightly condemned as inhumane by Europeans. But it wasn't long ago that Europeans themselves abolished the death penalty. France and Belgium waged cruel colonial wars just a few decades ago, and the French army appears to have systematically used torture in the Algerian war. In the southern United States, racist segregation laws were in force until the 1960s, banning black citizens from voting and stamping them as pariah. It was the black civil rights movement and the anti-racist organizations allied with it who represented "the West" during these years - and in a state that was the leading power of the western world, they had to feel as if they were in hostile territory.

    Since then, enormous changes have taken place in Western democracies. Universal human rights now enjoy the status of a civil religion on which international alliance and treaty structures as well as new types of institutions such as the International War Crimes Tribunal are based. But such achievements are always in jeopardy, and no system-immanent progressive movement towards an ever fairer society can be derived from them. Racism and violence will continue to exist in Western countries - at best, it can be possible to reduce these phenomena and contain them in the long term.The open society has no promise of a better world in which all opposites would one day dissolve into the peaceful coexistence of a single "Family of Man". What it has ahead of other social systems is its ability to question and change itself, which gives it an unprecedented dynamic of adapting its structures to economic and cultural changes as well as to new social conflict constellations.

    The West is nothing more and nothing less than the promise that it is possible to face even the worst dangers and problems that society faces while respecting the dignity and freedom of the individual. His maxim is that every elimination of an injustice, which includes the elimination of freedom, is worse than this injustice itself. It is the maxim of a defensive understanding of freedom: Only the validity of individual basic rights, which protect the individual and the minorities from the arbitrary will of the majority, makes a democratic society a free democracy. The open society is also based on values ​​that cannot be completely reconciled with one another, and sometimes even stand in irreconcilable contradiction to one another. As a rule, the achievement of a positive goal is at the expense of another, equally worthwhile goal. Individual freedom and social equality are such values ​​to be valued equally highly, but which can never be completely reconciled. Pluralism does not mean that at the end of the permitted dispute everyone pulls in the same direction, but that opposites can continue to exist in active conflict with one another.

    The open society thus keeps itself in a precarious balance, which it would lose precisely if one wanted to overcome its experimental character in favor of a unified value regulation. The West is built on a traditional set of values ​​that the 60 American intellectuals rightly recalled. But his real strength lies in his joy in contingency. The writer Salman Rushdie came closer to the truth about the values ​​that we must defend together with the USA in the war on terror when he countered the fundamentalists with "what matters to us": "Kissing in public, ham sandwiches, more publicly Quarrel, sharp clothes, literature, generosity, water, a fairer distribution of the world's resources, cinema, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love ": In short: a free, varied life.