The Surprising Reason Americans Are Vulnerable to Moral Relativism
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.”
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.