The View From 1776
Friday, February 01, 2008
Why Jimmy Carter Loves Dictators
An insight into why our former President has made a habit of touring the world and fondly embracing dictators, from North Korea and Venezuela, to the Palestine of the late Yassir Arafat.
In the “Best of the Web” feature of the Wall Street Journal, James Taranto writes:
?On Wednesday, we linked to the famous quote from Jimmy Carter’s November 1976 Playboy interview, in which the soon-to-be-president admitted, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust.” This line is still good for a laugh after 32 years, but reader Gayle Trotter read the longer quote and had a thought-provoking insight:
I’m too young to have remembered the Playboy interview the first time around. I had always thought he was just being humble and the press had blown it out of proportion.
When I read the interview for the first time this week, I was struck by how the roots of his current accommodationist philosophy were evident even in 1976.
In the interview, he takes his own presumably slight failings in one area (lust) and uses that as an excuse to justify antisocial behavior by others. He says, “But that doesn’t mean that I condemn someone who not only looks on a woman with lust but who leaves his wife and shacks up with somebody out of wedlock. Christ says, don’t consider yourself better than someone else because one guy screws a whole bunch of women while the other guy is loyal to his wife.”
Doesn’t he do the same with North Korea, et al., today? We, the U.S., have slight failings in certain areas (pick one of the liberals’ favorite causes like “social justice”), and because of our failings, the North Korean dictators have the justification to continue to develop nuclear capabilities, starve their people, and suppress religious liberty and the free press. Where is the prophetic voice condemning the terrible behavior? Carter is too busy making sure he doesn’t condemn anyone.
Time reported contemporaneously on the interview under the assumption that Carter was simply pandering to the kind of man who reads Playboy. Yet it really does seem to shed some light on Carter’s worldview more broadly, and on liberal sanctimony more generally.
Carter focuses on one particular sin—pride—and suggests that it is more problematic than lust or even adultery. In this telling, we all are subject to lust, even Jimmy Carter. Some of us succumb to it, and some do not. If you are one of those who do not, it is a sin for you to think that makes you a superior man.
So far, so good. But the Carter of the Playboy interview does not measure up to his own standard. He begins by acknowledging his own lustfulness, but then describes a hypothetical man who “leaves his wife and shacks up with somebody out of wedlock” and one who “screws a whole bunch of women.” Carter’s protestations notwithstanding, there is no escaping that this comparison is highly favorable to him.
Why does Carter feel it necessary to contrast others’ reprobate behavior with his own relatively innocent conduct? Not, he asserts, because he thinks he is better than anyone else, but precisely because he thinks he isn’t. Not only does he live a sexually upright life, but he isn’t proud of it. He wants everyone to know that he has risen above the sin of pride. But that proves that he has not.
Carter’s formulation of morality is entirely self-centered. For his purposes, the adulterer and the lothario exist only as instruments, enabling him to display his own ability to be nonjudgmental. What does not figure into Carter’s equation at all is the wife and children the adulterer betrays, or the string of women the lothario uses. It is a morality in which intention counts for everything and consequences for nothing.
This is where the analogy to a certain kind of liberal foreign policy becomes clear. The idea is that America (or another Western country, usually Israel) is not perfect, and therefore has no business passing judgment on the affairs of its adversaries. All nations, like all men, are predisposed to sin, and the greatest national sin of all is for a dominant power to exhibit pride. By this reasoning, it is morally worse for an American leader to call (say) the regimes of North Korea, Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq “evil” than it is for those regimes to undertake actions that deliberately hurt or endanger innocent people.
When applied to public as opposed to private morality, this kind of above-it-all attitude, this self-regard masquerading as humility, provides an excuse for inaction in the face of evil. To be sure, sometimes inaction is a wise course, because available actions would only make matters worse. But this is a practical question—one of consequences, not intention.
To make the perfect the enemy of the good, to make a principle of responding to evil with inaction, is a dangerous way to approach the world. That should have been the lesson of the Carter presidency. It is a lesson American voters would do well to keep in mind as November approaches.