Balance of Principle and Pragmatism

“By putting a premium  on listening, not lecturing, and by injecting a corrective dose of pragmatism, an impression has been left that America’s historic support for the spread of democratic values has diminished,” wrote James Rubin in the December 14, 2009 edition of Newsweek. His article, How America’s Commitment to Democratic Values is Waning, sheds light on omissions in contemporary American rhetoric and policy and suggests we consider whether these omissions were accidental slips or signs of a more substantive change.

Rubin confidently intones that “our power and our values cannot be separated. More than any other country on earth, America has been committed to principles in foreign affairs.” But, I’m left unconvinced. I’m not setting out to demonize our government or to gainsay the American ideal; I’m just wondering if, as a nation, we’re drifting closer or farther from our values. Hell, I’d even be satisfied if I could determine we were just staying the course.

This week I saw James Cameron‘s Avatar – twice. I’m a little ashamed by how infatuated I am with the film, despite it being a suspiciously perfect amalgamation of Fern Gully, Dances With Wolves, and The Matrix (but that’s neither here nor there). As I left the theatre, I was working through some of the questions raised in my mind when I suddenly became concerned. The question I stumbled over was: Could the human race would actually be capable of the acts performed in that movie?

At first, this was one of the more insignificant questions inspired in me by Avatar – more a wisp of air than a real, tangible question. Just as I was about to brush away the notion as patently impossible (of course the human race would never commit such desolate, evil acts!) it occurred to me: we have done exactly that. And not just long ago in our distant past, but recently! The Holocaust, apartheid, and a dozen other genocidal campaigns that we too easily forget are poignant, but haunting reminders. I’m not suddenly afraid of an impending racial doom – but I’m forced to wonder: is James Cameron’s vision of us in 2154 possible? Are we growing more enlightened, more dedicated to our values? Or are we growing apart from our values and calling it “realism?”

James Rubin doesn’t seem afraid that we’re on the brink of catastrophe, but you have to admit that when the question of whether or not we’re dedicated to our values even needs to be asked, something is seriously wrong. That, I think, should be our first hint to self-evaluate and get back on the right track.

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