Western Values or Human Values?

July 16, 2017

charter08bookOn July 6, Donald Trump delivered a speech in Poland celebrating ‘western values.’ He linked together historic threats (including both Nazi terror and Soviet domination) against which Poland struggled and the current threats that the United States and other countries (Trump especially mentioned European countries) face from “radical Islamic terrorism.”  He said this:

Because as the Polish experience reminds us, the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have.  The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.  Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?  Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?  Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?  (Applause.)

“Our values:” Over and over, Trump referred to “the West” as the source and identity of the values to which he was referring.  He was a smidge light in articulating the content of these values, but he did say this:

above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom.  That is who we are.  Those are the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization.

Dignity, rights, freedom, equality: these will do as markers for what Trump was defending. For the moment, pass over the question of whether Donald Trump has any standing to stand up for these rights.  I want to ask a different question:  Is it appropriate to speak of these values as being grounded in or belonging to “the West?” Also, what is encompassed within “the West” and what is set outside the pale?

Of course it became commonplace during the Cold War to refer to the United States and its NATO allies as “the West,” and to the U.S.S.R., and its allies (China, the Warsaw Pact countries) as “the East.” In that way of speaking, “the West” was the standard bearer of those values: dignity, rights, freedom, and equality.  That was a crude characterization then (the years of the Cold War) but does it bear resurrection today, a quarter century after the collapse of the U.S.S.R.?  (That’s what Trump was doing.)

For one thing, he was celebrating “the West” in Poland, which used to be part of “the East;” Poland was a secure member of the Warsaw Pact.  Wait, you object, Trump is right to celebrate Poland in this way because its history, rightfully told, is one of standing up for these values.  But of course Poland also has another thread to its history that denies those values. Should that disqualify Poland? For that matter, how about Germany with its Nazi era? Vichy France? the racist strands of the United States? Etc.  What country can be said to have an unbroken and fully consistent adherence to these values?

We know — don’t we? — that the emergence of this package of values has a long and complex history.  The Greeks and Romans play a part in their beginning, but even at their best those societies stood solidly against human equality and didn’t understand freedom the way we do (they were more interested in the liberty of communities than of individuals).  We want to think of religion as playing a role, meaning by ‘religion’ certain aspects of Judaism and Christianity.  But we want to pass over in silence many moments when those great religious movements were a threat not a support to these values. Are we right to leave Islam out of the religious impulses that birth these values?  I don’t believe so.  For one thing, we owe a huge debt to many Muslim scholars for preserving and transmitting the great writings of the Greeks and Romans.  That Islamic history has illiberal moments is no objection to its inclusion in the foundations of these values, not when we remember the excesses of Christianity (celebration of slavery, subjection of women, defense of autocracy, justification of savage war, etc.).

I believe these values (dignity, rights, freedom, equality) deserve our fullest commitment, but we do them no favor when we tell ourselves fake history about how they have emerged.  And here is where it is important to remember that Donald Trump represents the obverse of these values more fully than their positive expression.

All these thoughts are especially on my mind because of the passing of Liu Xiaobo.  Among the deeds for which he was imprisoned was signing (to his peril) Charter 08, a document signed in 2008 by more than 2000 courageous Chinese citizens affirming these very values.  (Read the document: I urge you.)  China? An affirmation of Western values? Charter 08 does not call them “Western” values. Instead it calls them “basic universal values.”  As “fundamental principles” it names freedom, human rights, equality, republicanism, democracy and constitutional rule.

Charter 08 did not limit the dominion of these values to “the West.” Instead it lifted them up as universal and basic.  It stands squarely in the tradition of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed and proclaimed by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. In its original form, eight countries abstained from its approval: Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Ukraine, the USSR, and Yugoslavia.  All subsequently became signatories.

What needs defending are not us-against-them values, not “our values, not “Western values,” but rather basic, universal, human values.  They are the foundation for our living together in dignity, peace and justice.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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