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The Surprising Reason Americans Are Vulnerable to Moral Relativism

Is this lovely, vibrant girl the source of our existential peril?



August 25, 2013 - 11:00 am
Is this....

Is this…. 

One of the scourges of the modern American mindset is the moral relativism which holds that no culture is better than any other – subject to the caveat that America’s is actually worst. This view allowed Michael Moore to apply the “freedom fighter” label to al-Qaeda, a definition that works only if one describes them as fighting for the people’s “freedom” to be unwilling subjects of Islamic totalitarianism. Likewise, it was under the banner of mushy relativism that Barack Obama likened the struggle to the death between two tyrannies in Egypt, one secularist and one Islamist, to some inchoate American “democratic journey [that] took us through some mighty struggles to perfect our union.”

Moral relativism is a staple item in the leftist arsenal because it’s hard to destroy a society that believes in itself, and all too easy to destroy a society that’s been convinced its values are valueless. An unexamined issue, though, is how it came about that Americans so quickly abandoned their belief in American exceptionalism. Shouldn’t late 20th/early 21st century Americans have had at least a little pride in themselves?

After all, despite her failings (one cannot whitewash our past conduct towards blacks and Indians), America is an admirable country. Neither our national identity nor our laws demand that we wipe out races or religions from the earth or that we rejoice in the death of innocents. When we go to war to defend ourselves, we view with despair, not enthusiasm, the fact that even just wars kill innocents. We therefore do not intentionally target noncombatants, and we judge ourselves harshly when they die. Having said that, we also understand that, when it comes to innocents and war, sometimes the greatest gift we can give them is to destroy the tyranny that rules their lives.

. . . the same as this?

. . . the same as this?

Is this lovely girl the source of our existential peril?

On the home front, although poverty persists (with its pervasiveness being measured differently depending on political outlook), we’ve never had famine and we’ve gone for generations without epidemic diseases. We have universal education, although there’s no doubt that children stuck in Democrat-dominated school districts get the short end of that stick. Leftist cries to the contrary, we are no longer a country of racist laws or, for the most part, racist behavior. Women have full rights and, indeed, are doing better economically and educationally than men.

At no time before in human history have as many people lived as well, whether one considers longevity, child mortality, available food, wealth creation, transportation… whatever. Our credo is to free people, not enslave them, and we have tried to do so around the world (with mixed outcomes) for almost 100 years. We are indeed an exceptional society.

Given that, why are we so willing to agree that all other societies – including those premised on imprisoning women; killing Jews, Christians, and gays; and depriving individuals of all basic freedoms – are just good as ours? This delusion is both pathological and pathetic, yet it’s strong enough to render us incapable of defending our culture and our nation against attacks by other nations – nations that, by any other metric, should be at best pitied and at worst despised.

Our vulnerability to the toxic drip-drip of moral relativism can be traced to a surprising source: Anne Frank. Yes. Really.

These people were not truly good at heart.

These people were not truly good at heart.

Since the 1960s, every single even slightly educated American schoolchild has read Anne Frank’s luminous diary. During the Anne Frank lessons, most teachers spend an inordinate amount of time reiterating Anne’s most famous words, written on July 15, 1944, exactly two years after she and her family went into hiding to escape the Nazis:

It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. [Emphasis mine.]

Thanks to those words, Americans accept that “people are truly good at heart.” This belief creates a syllogism, one that sees Americans claiming that it must be a lie when someone dares to claim that another group doesn’t meet certain moral absolutes. How can there be moral absolutes when all “people are truly good at heart”?

The problem with this post-1960s syllogism is that Anne Frank was completely and totally wrong.
Residents of the secret annex

Before I get into the global wrongness of Anne’s position, it’s useful to understand the context in which Anne wrote those words, as well as to remember what happened to Anne within days of writing them. As Anne freely admitted in the sentence immediately following her famous statement, she wrote those words because she needed to give meaning to a life spent in hiding and a world that had devolved into sadistic chaos.

Two weeks after writing her homage to human kind’s innate goodness, an informer’s tip resulted in the Nazis rounding up the annex’s residents and shipping them off to the heart of the Holocaust. Here’s what happened to them:

1. Mr. Van Daan (Hermann van Pels) was gassed immediately on his arrival in Auschwitz.
2. Mrs. Van Daan (Auguste van Pels) was shuffled from Auschwitz, to Bergen-Belsen, to Buchenwald, to Theresienstadt, and finally to another unknown camp where she apparently died shortly before war’s end.
3. Peter van Daan (Peter van Pels) survived a death march from Auschwitz to Mauthausen, only to die three days before the camp was liberated.
4. Mr. Dussel (Fritz Pfeffer), after having spent time in either Buchenwald or Sachenhausen, died in Neuengamme a few months after being arrested.
5. Edith Frank (Anne’s mother) died in Auschwitz from starvation and exhaustion.
6. Otto Frank (Anne’s father) survived – and was the only one of the eight annex residents to do so.

As for Anne and Margot:

Margot and Anne Frank were transported from Auschwitz at the end of October and brought to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp near Hanover (Germany). The typhus epidemic that broke out in the winter of 1944-1945, as a result of the horrendous hygienic conditions, killed thousands of prisoners, including Margot and, a few days later, Anne. She must have died in late February or early March. The bodies of both girls were probably dumped in Bergen-Belsen’s mass graves. (From the Afterward to The Diary of a Young Girl : The Definitive Edition, published by Anchor Books Doubleday in 1996)

Was one of these bodies Anne's?

Did one of these bodies at Bergen Belsen belong to Anne?

Nor did Anne die peacefully or gracefully. Instead, her last days on earth were a nightmare of cold, hunger, loneliness, deep suffering, and fear:

Anne was briefly reunited with two friends, Hanneli Goslar (named “Lies” in the diary) and Nanette Blitz, who both survived the war. They said that Anne, naked but for a piece of blanket, explained she was infested with lice and had thrown her clothes away. They described her as bald, emaciated and shivering but although ill herself, she told them that she was more concerned about Margot, whose illness seemed to be more severe. Goslar and Blitz did not see Margot who remained in her bunk, too weak to walk. Anne said they were alone as both of their parents were dead. (From the Afterward to The Diary of a Young Girl : The Definitive Edition, published by Anchor Books Doubleday in 1996)

Why am I emphasizing all this horror? Because I don’t want there to be any doubt about Anne’s wrongness when she claimed that all people are innately good at heart. People are not innately good. Her words were whistling in the dark, written to give herself courage under terrible circumstances. In that context they are admirable. However, it is a grave error to use them as a yardstick for measuring human beings’ natural state.

Anyone who has children knows that, while they have a tremendous capacity for love, and have within them the potential for reason and kindness, their innate state is more Lord of the Flies than universal brotherhood. Children are naturally violent, greedy, and jealous. What tempers children is a society’s externally imposed value system. Significantly, these value systems don’t spring out of whole cloth. They are the results of centuries of give and take, violence, refining, and thought.
big_Proud To Be An American01

In a chauvinistic way that I’m not even going to bother to defend at length, I firmly believe that our modern Judeo-Christian value system is one of the best ever created — and it’s not innate, it’s learned. I’ll go even further here: I don’t like the current fundamentalist Islamic value system, with its denigration of women, Jews, homosexuals, and non-Muslims, and its obsession with visiting extreme physical violence (and here I include beheading and other slaughters) on those so denigrated. Nor do I like socialist Europe, which has deified the state and is again giving itself permission to approve of or ignore Jewish genocide. People in those cultures, rather than being “truly good at heart,” have been taught inferior values from the cradle on.

Americans are not innately good and those in the fundamentalist Islamic Middle East or in socialist Europe are not inherently bad. We are all humans – but we Americans have the better value system. It’s therefore terribly dangerous for people to put their faith in Anne Frank’s touching but misguided words about humans’ innate goodness. If we pretend that no difference exists between us and the Muslim Brotherhood, then we cannot fight for our superior values because we have deliberately blinded ourselves to their superiority.

To understand how pernicious this problem is, consider the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, a large complex that includes the “Secret Annex.” The Anne Frank Museum, which was remodeled in 1999, is splendidly done and absolutely worth visiting. (Buy tickets online if you go there, though. The crowds waiting to get in are staggering.) Nevertheless, it falls prey to the moral relativism that Anne herself made possible.

Ninety percent of the museum focuses tightly on Anne, her family, and her friends. By doing so, it makes the Holocaust very personal, thereby avoiding the pitfall that Stalin so brutally articulated: “When one man dies, it is a tragedy; when thousands die, it’s statistics.”

Are the people in black truly good at heart?  I don't think so.

Do you think the men in black are truly good at heart? I don’t.

Where the museum fails is that it never pulls back from that tight focus on the individual to look at the perils of socialism, fascism, nationalism, and antisemitism – all of which are antithetical to individual liberty. The museum instead falls into the classic leftist habit of substituting moral relativism and navel-gazing for facts and analysis. While the Nazis are shown as being evil insofar as they killed Jews, the museum makes no effort whatsoever to try to define precisely what madness drove the Germans from being one of Europe’s more civilized, sophisticated societies to becoming a nation in thrall to a deranged demagogue.

Stultified by moral relativism’s inherent denial of reality, the Left can only insist that, until an ideology’s adherents actually fire up the death camp ovens, we must ignore any evidence that the ideology is leading to the gas chamber. After all, per poor Anne, all “people are truly good at heart.

The culmination of this relativism occurs at the museum’s end, where one finds the “Free2Choose” video exhibit:

Free2choose was designed to encourage people to think about the crucial importance of human rights. These rights, enshrined in constitutions and declarations of human rights, are key pillars of every democratic society. But no right is absolute. What happens to these rights if the protection of democracy is at stake? And what happens when these fundamental rights come into conflict with each other?

Each video is about special interest demands against a traditional Western culture. The videos begin by focusing on a fictional young person with needs, and then, having personalized that need, give a brief, shallow, fairly even-handed look at the issue, whether it’s veils in schools, forcing Christian civil servants to perform gay marriages, or allowing people to serve in the military while wearing religious garb.

None of the videos delve into the deeper issues. For example, are the veil-wearing girls embracing Dutch culture, or undermining it? If the veil is a symbol of religious faith, that’s one thing; if it represents the wedge for sharia, that’s quite another thing. By simplifying and personalizing complex questions about overarching societal values, the Anne Frank Museum manages to say that a country’s desire to protect certain laudable institutions against a religion that has tyrannical statism embedded within it is tantamount to Nazis killing Anne Frank.

Reading Anne Frank’s diary is a deeply moving experience, as one gets to walk side-by-side with a teenage girl while she matures under heinous circumstances. That she was able to maintain some faith in mankind’s essential goodness is a testament to her character and a reminder that a bright light in the universe blinked out when she died. But that doesn’t mean Anne was right in her conclusions, and our country will continue to commit cultural suicide if Americans don’t put limits on the meaning they ascribe to her famous encomium to humankind.

Bookworm is a writer living in Marin, California. Her personal blog is Bookworm Room.

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
We're better off not speculating about what others are at heart. If they threaten us, we need to act in realistic ways, proven in the past, to remove the threat.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
"by what right did the early european explorers land in the americas and assume that all of the already inhabited lands belonged to them?"

By what right do you question their right to do so?

Only through your lens of Western morality. Shaka, Genghiz, Ibn Zayid and a long list of other conquerors still considered heroes among their people would have done the same, and no one today would ever ask your questions. You and many others ask about Columbus's right of conquest, a Muslim would not ask about the right of Ibn Zayid's to conquer Spain.

The difference, sir, is that you are Westerner. You are an heir to the civilization that invented Conscience. Introspection. The idea that ALL people are deserving of rights. It is a bizarre fluke of our culture, and you act is if it something natural and universal! How typically Western!
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (59)
All Comments   (59)
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40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
The deal-breaker is what cultures decide to institutionalize, which ebbs and flows between reality and pragmatism and good works and hate, unreality and even madness.

In America we have seen slavery and then Jim Crow institutionalized, but then had the good sense to deinstitutionalize them. It's a question of who holds the reigns of law and sometimes it comes to violence like the Civil War.

Anti-Semitism surely existed in Germany shortly before the '30s but could do little harm because of a lack of institutions that could act against Jews. But then suddenly laws were made and what may have been a minority expression of hate suddenly became de facto hate for everyone and off Jews went to die.

One can presume America didn't go from being pro-alcohol to anti-alcohol in one night when prohibition was enacted in 1919, and that the reverse occurred in 1933 when those laws were changed. Probably the average American had the same views throughout that period. It was a question of who controlled law.

We are tempted to look at history in terms of a culture's law reflecting the culture but that is not so. We have laws to pay taxes; does that mean people will look back and say Americans loved paying taxes? Did we love Jim Crow and Prohibition simply because laws existed, or hate those things when they did not?

Islam is a minority expression in its harshest extremities. When it holds the reins of power you have harsh conservatism. When it is marginalized those societies have looser constraints. Look at the Taliban or Saudi Arabia.

In WW II Japan and Germany went mad institutionally, not culturally, because they let madmen seize power.

Today in America we are in the process of re-institutionalizing racism, and institutionalizing blame, complaint and self-pity. This is called political correctness. We are slowly headed down that path of madness, and with what consequences none can see, other that some type of massive failure will be the result.

Eventually something will break and something else will come along to try and purge that failure. America has abandoned common sense and principle and hard times are ahead. Our institutions are churning out dead head youths who take the easy way simply because it is there. Lack of principle means we can't make simple comparisons and so almost anything trendy will decide what is right and wrong.

Our colleges, once the best in the world, and with the same capacity to be so, have turned feral intellectually, and people who hate and fear hold the reins of education in the liberal arts. That is how a party of cultural suicide like the Dem Party comes into powers and creates institutions of harm.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Western Civilization: That wicked brew of Christianity and Greco-Roman civilization responsible for the atrocities of Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, the Sacred Scriptures, Herodotus, Thucydides, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Doctor Johnson, and Saint Francis; guilty of inventing the disciplines of philosophy, theology, political science, systematic mathematics, historiography, geology, logic, linguistics, and musical theory; plaguing the world with orphanages, monasteries, universities, hospitals, schools for the poor, hospices, trade guilds, museums, chapels, and cathedrals; burdening mankind, in its Christian manifestation, with the dread calls to faith, hope, and charity.

Anthony Esolen
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
America's national identity is that we are Europeans -- NW Europeans mostly. Now that kids are being taught that 'American' is a meaningless term, referring to any American citizen of any race or ethnic group, there is no such thing as an American. So, who is going to be proud of being.....nothing?
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
We're better off not speculating about what others are at heart. If they threaten us, we need to act in realistic ways, proven in the past, to remove the threat.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
The 1960's did bring us moral relativism as well as its evil twins postmodernism and multiculturalism.

Now their offspring control the levers of power in Washington DC.

What a bunch of BS all of that is, imagining that a society, any society, can continue to coherently function without a universally respected and unbreakable moral consensus.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
"I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. "

Read her diary and years ago visited the actual hideout/home, not a museum replica.

Feel the same thing every day looking at the perfect sky and all the creatures sustained by this Earth, that is, when humans and their water demands and subvisions don't completely destroy habitat.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Is there even such a thing as objective, culture transcendent moral obligation? If not than it is ethnocentric of us to make any value judgments on any other culture. But if so, is there a better basis than mere moral feelings?
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yes, there is such a thing, and there is a better basis. God gets to say what the standards are. No one else. because the moment a man starts deciding what is moral or not, it always leads to all kinds of evil. The Ten Commandments are His word, His rules. These things thou shalt not do. These other things thou shalt do.

How do we know these things are right, empirically? Because they run directly contrary to human nature, and they have proven themselves to work, when we obey. They make us happy, and they make civilization possible. Those who do not obey act like savages, demonstrating every vile human trait.

You engage in the usual, hollow, intellectual exercise. You consider morality in a vacuum, instead of viewing through the lens of human nature. So, you end up playing word games with no meaning.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
And why should it be wrong for us to be ethnocentric? Have you overlooked the fact that people of other cultures pass value judgments on us all the time?
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Basic moral obligations: Do not intentionally inflict suffering on other human beings. Help other human beings not to suffer.

That's the best foundation I can come up with. It's not based on mere moral feelings.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
I think because if our actions couldn't cause suffering, then we wouldn't need a moral code to tell us what not to do.

41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
The hippies believed much the same thing while a monster like Charles Manson walked among them. Would you blame The Beatles or Donovan? Evil can take on any disguise and I am disgusted that you would lay this at Anne Frank's door.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Bookworm, while I agree with your underlying hypothesis -- that people are not born with either ethics or morality but must be taught them -- I must respectfully disagree with your assertion that it stems from Anne Frank.

Frankly, I think it stems more from being spoiled rotten, having too much material wealth, arrogance, selfishness and failing to learn from history than it does from poor Anne's diary.

"The laws ought to have authority over men, and not men over the laws." -- Pausanias
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yeah. If anything, a more accurate root to the problem lies with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, especially seeing how many of the acts of the French Revolution had predated the acts of what Nazi Germany did.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
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