Friday, July 14, 2023

More on Moral Virtue and Politics


More on Moral Virtue and Politics

Peter Schultz


            In his book, Deadly Paradigms, D. Michael Shafer points out in his assessment of US policies in Vietnam that US elites were “focused on Diem.” [254] By implication, Diem [and his brother, Ngo] was the problem; i.e., “Diem’s personal idiosyncrasies” were the problem. In brief, Diem lacked the necessary moral virtue, as he was attached to “paternalism and … to premodern forms of government.” So, it was because of his personal failings, his lack of moral virtue, that Diem could not offer the kind of leadership needed. If Diem, or someone, had possessed the necessary moral virtue – like the kind possessed by the Americans – then US elites “saw no fundamental limits to leadership capacity.”


            This is, essentially, a moralistic mindset. That is, US elites decided that Diem didn’t possess or couldn’t demonstrate the necessary moral virtue; Diem could not, “did not reform his government.” [254] US elites dismissed the thought that it was the oligarchic character of the Vietnamese political order, an order created by and for French colonial elites, that made it impossible for Diem to reform the government, regardless of his lack of moral virtue. As one villager put it: If Diem were to “protect the villagers’ interests,” he would have had to “hurt the interests of some very influential men.” If he had pleased “these men,” he would have had to “harm the villagers’ interests.” The problem wasn’t a moral problem; it was a political problem, viz., the existence of oligarchic political order, one created to serve the interests of very influential men.


            Time and again, US elites made the same mistake, thinking that they were confronting moral issues when they were confronting political issues. Even in 1961, US elites thought in moralistic terms, e.g., thinking that “a generous infusion of American personnel” – that is, an infusion of the virtuous Americans – “to all levels of the Vietnamese government and Army [would] instill them with the right kind of winning spirit….” [250] And, hence, the “optimism” that characterized US elites in their assessments of the situation in Vietnam. They were convinced that because they were virtuous, “a vigorous American effort [could] provide the South Vietnamese government and Army with the elan and style needed to win.” [251, added]


            Such moralizing leads to the idea that leadership is the all-important political variable and that those leaders are distinguished by their moral virtues, which bring real political reforms in their wake. Interestingly, the embrace of a politics of leadership is the result of moralizing politics. So, for example, after the attacks of 9/11, President Bush presented himself as a man of moral, Christian virtues, whom, he claimed once, God had chosen to lead the United States because of the 9/11 attacks. And his war on terror was not directed at bin Laden, but at evil. And the American people rallied wholeheartedly to his cause – at least for a little while – just as they had rallied to Ronald Reagan’s claim that the Vietnam War was “a noble undertaking” fought by morally virtuous Americans against an “evil empire.”

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