Concrete Policies Based on Concrete Values

When I read Ezra Klein's review of my book, The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World, I had two immediate reactions. First, the neo-cons have truly won if their legacy is to leave Democrats talking about competence and Republicans talking about values. Second, much as I respect him, I hope that Klein is not advising any Democratic presidential candidates.

I find Klein's manifesto deeply depressing. "I'm fed up with values," he writes. "Entirely. They've failed this country. As a lodestar, there is none worse." He wants "a foreign policy vision that builds [not] from a foundation of values, but from one of consequences."

He can't really be serious -- a vision based entirely on consequences is one in which the ends will always justify the means. It is a vision that means if anyone can show empirically the effectiveness of certain kinds of torture at extracting information useful in fighting terrorist networks, torture should be permitted. Or if, as realists like Barry Posen have written, a civil war in Iraq would actually benefit the U.S. geopolitically by keeping all the warring parties in the region at one another's throats rather than focused on us, then we should embrace that outcome.

I wrote The Idea That Is America precisely because I cannot stand the trampling and perversion of the values I believe in as an American and as a human being. Torture offers perhaps the best example. To quote from the book:

I can argue why ruling out torture and humiliating and degrading treatment is strongly in American interests, how interrogation of this sort rarely works. I can explain how the damage it does to us in the world far outweighs any specific information that we get. Indeed, even if we get information that actually succeeds in stopping a particular attack today, we are breeding legions of new terrorists tomorrow. I can also point out how seriously we endanger our own soldiers when they are captured abroad. I can talk about how fundamentally we degrade ourselves, beginning with the young men and women ordered to carry out such treatment and ending with our very identity as a nation. As President Theodore Roosevelt said in his 1906 State of the Union address, "No man can take part in the torture of a human being without having his own moral nature permanently lowered."

I can make those arguments. I believe them. But what I really want is an America that will simply stand up and say, as President Bush did when he saw the Abu Ghraib photographs, that this is not who we are. I want a president, and a country, who means it.

And that's the larger point. Not just saying it, meaning it. That is precisely where the concrete policies that Klein says he wants come in. Ralph Waldo Emerson exhorted his fellow citizens to "put your creed into your deed," words that resonate today. If we are going to talk about liberty, then we have to recognize that liberty cannot exist without law, either domestically, which means we must pay as much attention to building the rule of law in a country as holding elections, or internationally, which means that we must abide by international rules to assure our own freedom of action just as any other nation must. If we are going to talk about democracy, then how exactly do we explain a world in which our decisions on carbon emissions could wipe out entire nations without their ever having a say in the matter? If we are going to talk about justice, then how can we possibly justify maintaining a prison that the British attorney general -- the highest legal officer in the land that gave us our own legal system -- describes as a "legal black hole"?

In each of these cases, the values that Klein dismisses as "abstract concepts" are our only hope. If we put faith in anything, it must be that in the end words must have some meaning, otherwise we accept the permanence of an Orwellian universe. That, after all, is the way of law, of constitutional government, of the articulation of rules drafted by men and women speaking a common language, and the empowerment of other men and women who speak the same language to assess whether or not specific behavior conforms to those rules. It is that system, as I illustrate repeatedly in my book, that allows the same constitutional phrase -- equal protection of the law -- to permit segregation in the 19th century but to demand integration in the 20th century, or the phrase "all men are created equal" to mean only white men with property in the 18th century but to mean men and women of every color in the 21st century.

Today, in this particular election campaign, the way of law is also the way of politics. Korha, one of the commenters on Klein's review, got it exactly right:

Everyone is a values voter. ... what you really mean is that you don't want politicians to use the language of values to explicate their policies, even if, in fact, those are really the values animating those policies. This, to me, seems extremely misguided. ...From a political viewpoint, it's directly ceding the language of values to the other side -- an approach made of utter failure. We're not going to rid of values in public discourse, that's a naive dream.

In the world of actual American politics, of which the blogosphere is still only a relatively small part, it is impossible to escape values. In Virginia, where I grew up and where Washington, Jefferson, and Madison are still treated as neighbors; in the west, the land of the frontier; in the Mid-West, which still resonates to Walt Whitman; in New England towns where Emerson and Thoreau are local heroes, the job of any man or woman seeking both to represent and lead voters across the country is not to duck values but to find ways to connect those values to policies that work.

Klein recommends making a "hardnosed case for restraint and multilateralism." I make that case often -- in my book and elsewhere. But it is a far stronger case if it is backed not only by interest, but by principle, by a sense of "this is who we are and this is what we do." If we don't live up to a particular notion of who we are, we have betrayed ourselves in a very fundamental way. That is precisely why American citizens must insist that holding our government to account by pointing out the gaps between its rhetoric and its results is an essential part of patriotism.

I understand Klein's frustration. He and I seek the same ends. But he has succumbed to the temporary attractions of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." He sees what neo-cons have wrought in the name of American values and concludes that it is the values that are to blame. The far better response is Al Gore's, in a speech that he gave right after the release of the pictures from Abu Ghraib. Instead of rejecting values, he gave voice to the anguish and outrage that so many of us feel, asking how dare the administration "humiliate our nation and our people in the eyes of the world and in the conscience of our own people?" That is the anguish and outrage that I have tried to express in my book, while at the same time offering an understanding of our values that offers an unvarnished view of how often we have fallen short of achieving them.

Above all, let us remember that it is an idea of America that means what it says that inspired activists and heroes such as Anne Hutchinson, Frederick Douglas, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Korematsu, and Martin Luther King. We need a new generation of activists and heroes today -- not to turn their back on values, but to insist, in our turn, that liberty goes hand in hand with security; that democracy means more than mob rule; that equality means genuine equality of opportunity for all Americans through education and decent healthcare; that justice means freedom from physical abuse and access to law and courts for all who are imprisoned, whomever they may be; that tolerance means tolerance for all Americans, from atheists to Zoroastrians; that humility means a genuine recognition of our flaws; and that faith equally accommodates a faith in enlightenment and religious values.

And if others disagree with that interpretation of our values, as they will, then let us have the debate. But let us not pretend that it is not a debate worth having. May the best party win, and win with a mandate to restore our values, not ignore them.