In response to Trump’s The West is under siege speech questioning whether, “we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost,” the Washington Post’s editorial board rightfully asks if “Trump wants us to defend ‘our values’. Which ones?”
This reminds me of 2003 during the Iraq War when a woman at my gym in Madrid, upon learning that I was American, felt the need to insult me over the lack of values of my country and countrymen. When I asked if she had ever been to my country to see for herself, she said that she would never go as long as we still had the death penalty.
Only four industrialized nations still have capital punishment: the United States, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. In this sense, the Spanish woman was right. Maybe the United States does not represent Western values after all, being the only Western country on the list. In fact, the Europeans use Turkey’s continued application of the death penalty as a key reason for denying them entry into the European Union.
But as I reminded the woman yelling at me, European abolishment of the death penalty began in the 1990s. Did that mean that no one should have visited Spain prior to that time or that Europeans didn’t have values before? Europe and America have different political histories and experiences. It takes time for societies to evolve.
For example, when Medieval Christians judged the innocence or guilt of a person by seeing if he could float or endure grueling pain, Islam represented a revolution in civil and criminal rights. In order to be convicted of a crime, Islamic law dictated that there must be witnesses to the crime and evidence presented against the accused.
As I wrote recently, Christianity in the U.S. was used as the main justification for chattel slavery and the subsequent torture, killings, acts of terrorism, denial of rights, and overall brutality that constituted Jim Crow until 1970. Certainly none of those acts represent Western values today. Does that mean that Americans or American Christianity did not share Western values until recently? Or did Western values change?
When the French, Belgians, English, Spanish and Italians colonized much of Africa to the south and the Middle East, India and South East Asia to the east, whose values were they representing? For example, when the Belgians slaughtered millions of Congolese for both sport and economic gain, were they manifesting Western values? Or when the French complain today about Muslims immigrants not integrating into French society or accepting French culture, did their French grandparents integrate or show any respect for the local cultures of the societies they were raping and pillaging less than 100 years ago? Or did their grandparents simply not yet accept Western values?
In part that is why Mr. Trump’s pontification in Poland is so contradictory: he preaches the values and need to defend the West precisely on the soil where so many human lives were brutally murdered to defend the superiority of those located directly to the west (not to the east). So then what does Trump mean by the “West”?
The Washington Post editorial questions whether these values are really exclusive to the West or:
If by “the West” he means anyone embracing the values of human rights, freedom and the dignity of every individual, he may be right. But those are hardly the property of the United States and Europe. They are treasured by the ailing Liu Xiaobo in China, by bloggers fighting for freedom in Uganda and by legislators fighting off the Maduro regime’s thugs in Venezuela. They belong to people of all colors, all sexual orientations and all — or no — religion. When Mr. Trump urges “us all to fight like the Poles, for family, for freedom, for country and for God,” does “all” truly mean “all”?
But why does the Washington Post ignore the obvious example of the Arab Spring? Egyptians citizens – secular, religious and in between – were protesting to be able to elect their own representatives against a corrupt oligarchy and against the exact same things that the Founding Fathers had declared independence over. Yet instead of siding with these so-called Western values, the U.S. defended first the Mubarak government (personal friends of the Clinton family) and now the Sisi military dictatorship. To date the U.S. has yet to side with the people of a Middle Eastern country over their repressive and U.S. backed regimes.
Why do we talk about Judeo-Christian values when Islam is part of the same Abrahamic tradition with practically the same values? In fact, most American Christians and devout Muslims have the same political position on abortion, same sex marriage and certain gender issues. If there is difference between East and West, then maybe what we like to consider as Western values are not in fact Judeo-Christian values at all, but secular values derived from the Enlightenment which contradict the religious ones. But even then there are differences amongst Western countries.
And is the U.S. even a good example of Western values? As conservative pundit David Frum notes:
Even pre-Trump, it was hard to argue that the United States was a consistently more liberal society than Germany or Britain, let alone Denmark or Canada. In some ways, yes: Free speech is more protected in the United States than other places. In some ways, no: The right to vote is better protected almost everywhere else in the democratic world than in the United States.
. . . Who your parents were and where you came from matters probably more in the United States than in most other advanced economies, at least if statistics on upward mobility are to be believed.
America’s uniqueness, even pre-Trump, was expressed as much through negative indicators as positive. It is more violent than other comparable societies, both one-on-one and in the gun massacres to which the country has become so habituated. It has worse health outcomes than comparably wealthy countries, and some of the most important of them are deteriorating further even as they improve almost everywhere else. America’s average levels of academic achievement lag those of other advanced countries. Fewer Americans vote—and in no other democracy does organized money count for so much in political life. A century ago, H.L. Mencken observed the American “national genius for corruption,” and (again pre-Trump) Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index ranks the U.S. in 18th place, behind Hong Kong, Belgium, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany—never mind first-place finishers Denmark and New Zealand.
If all European countries consider free access to universal health care a right, then isn’t this a Western value that Americans do not share? If the U.S. is also a Western outlier on gun control, the death penalty, climate change, enhanced interrogation/torture, preemptive war, and privacy rights, then we surely don’t share all Western values.
Meanwhile, politically conservative American Christians are in stark disagreement with the Catholic Church on a number of issues such as the use of military force, capital punishment, universal health care, the environment and public welfare. Nevertheless, these same Americans are perfectly aligned with the Catholic Church, conservative Muslims and Jews on gay and reproductive rights. While throughout Europe, women are free to go topless on public beaches. In the U.S., as well as most Muslim countries and Israel doing so is a crime.
There are also often conflicts between the law and the views of religious groups. So for example, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided for the past forty years that women have a right to obtain an abortion. This is a common right amongst the different Western countries, albeit to different degrees. Thus, we can assume that the right to an abortion is a Western value, even though religious groups oppose it vehemently. Assuming that we consider official state law (instead of religious conviction) as representative of a nation’s values, when comparing the U.S. and Europe, this is what we are left with:
|Right to Abortion||Yes||Yes|
|Same Sex Marriage||Yes||50% yes|
|Universal Health Care||No||Yes|
Press freedom, abortion, same sex marriage (based on the current trend), secular government, and women’s rights would all be common U.S. and European values. Meanwhile, the West would consider the U.S. a pariah on the following values: gun control, health care, nudity, the environment, torture or preemptive war. Is the Trump administration prepared to accept this definition of Western values? Or would they prefer for the West to be ruled more like Saudi Arabia?