The West’s Presumption of Moral Superiority

West Is Best?

Writing in the Daily Mirror on April 22, Tony Parsons raged at the brutal killing of four American security guards in Falluja: “The gloating sadistic savagery of those Iraqi ‘freedom fighters’ appals me”, Parsons declared, before concluding with a judgement that echoes down the centuries:

“There is something rotten at the heart of Iraq.” (Parsons, ‘Reign of evil in Iraq’, Daily Mirror)

Consider the logic: the West armed Iraq at the height of Saddam Hussein’s atrocities; it wrecked the country with the equivalent of seven Hiroshima-size atom bombs during the 1991 war; it killed a million civilians through “genocidal” sanctions, according to senior UN diplomats who resigned in protest. Last year, the West again waged a massive war based on a set of completely false pretexts killing another 50,000 people, allowing the country to be looted and burned, and has recently killed 600 more people in Falluja alone. But, according to Parsons, there is something rotten at the heart of +Iraq+!

Compare Parson’s view with that of the British governor of Kenya, who declared in 1955: “The task to which we have set our minds is to civilise a great mass of human beings who are in a very primitive moral and social state.” (Quoted, John Pilger, ‘Iraq is a War of National Liberation’, The New Statesman, April 15, 2004)

In “civilising” the country, the British army killed 10,000 Kenyans for the loss of 32 European lives.

The horrific irony of this casual presumption of moral superiority is that journalists view the world through the lens of that presumption – Western acts, no matter how immoral, tend to become, by definition, necessary and just; or, at worst, well-intended mistakes.

The same arrogance was expressed in a March 2000 Guardian article by Polly Toynbee entitled, ‘The West really is the best’. Toynbee wrote:

“In our political and social culture we have a democratic way of life which we know, without any doubt at all, is far better than any other in the history of humanity. Even if we don’t like to admit it, we are all missionaries and believers that our own way is the best when it comes to the things that really matter.” (Toynbee, The Observer, March 5, 2000)

In the New York Times, Michael Wines warned in 1999 that despite America’s “victory over Communism and inhumanity” in Kosovo, problems remained. Americans often perceived their morals as universal, Wines wrote, but in fact there was “a yawning gap between the West and much of the world on the value of a single human life.” (FAIR, Action Alert, June 17, 1999)

Likewise, reporting the sale of children by impoverished Cambodian mothers, John Irvine opined on ITN news last month: “The people of Cambodia don’t hold to moral values that we take for granted.” (John Irvine, ITN 10:30 News, March 24, 2004)

The reason, Irvine explained, was that the morality of Cambodian society had been shattered by the madness of Pol Pot’s genocidal rule. The hypocrisy of Irvine’s moral judgement is staggering. David P. Chandler, former US Foreign Service Officer in Phnom Penh, describes a primary cause of the genocide:

“To a large extent, I think, American actions are to blame. From 1969 to 1973, after all, we dropped more than 500,000 tons of bombs on the Cambodian countryside. Nearly half of this tonnage fell in 1973… In those few months, we may have driven thousands of people out of their minds. We certainly accelerated the course of the [Pol Pot] revolution.” (Quoted, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, After The Cataclysm, South End Press, 1979, p.154)

Imagine the outrage if Irvine had said something similar of Germany or Israel after Hitler, declaring that traumatised Germans or Israelis no longer hold to the moral values that “we” take for granted. A damning statement of this kind would have to be based on massive evidence and research – not the observations of a visiting journalist backed up by the anecdotal comments of a single Cambodian academic, as in the case of Irvine’s report. But such requirements disappear out the window when it comes to reporting on impoverished Third World countries, which are hardly in a position to protest their portrayal in our media.

There is a deep irony here. After all, if there is a heart to the moral values claimed for the West, it must lie in a capacity for compassion and respect for all peoples regardless of nationality, race or religion. The problem is that journalists consistently patronise Third World people as children of a lesser moral God, with their suffering treated as being of strictly secondary importance.

In his reporting from Iraq last year, Irvine, like so many journalists, portrayed the West as moral and political saviours of the benighted people of Iraq: “A war of three weeks has brought an end to decades of Iraqi misery”, he reported on April 9. (ITN Evening News, April 9, 2003)

Astonishingly naive words one year on.

Standing beside a deep crater that had once been a restaurant and residential area in the heart of Baghdad – destroyed in a US attempt to kill Saddam Hussein – Irvine said in response to the destruction of dozens of civilian lives:

“It’s the Americans who are setting the agenda. After this, Saddam Hussein is a dead man walking.” (ITN Evening News, April 7, 2003)

There was none of the outrage at the taking of Western lives that naturally fills media reports in the morally superior West.

Great Satan Lens?

An aggrieved American writer emailed us at Media Lens recently, saying:  “Your hatred for the United States and everything American is so obvious, you really should change the name of your organization to ‘'” (Email to Media Lens, April 22)

This is badly mistaken. We believe that hatred and contempt for others are precisely the +cause+ of many problems afflicting the modern world. Of course the US and UK are not responsible for all of these horrors, of course crimes are committed against them – the killing of the four Americans in Falluja last month +was+ an obscenity.

But, as we have seen, focusing laser-like on the crimes of official enemies merely reinforces a moral blindness to our +own+ violence and depravity beneath the rhetoric of a society which “without any doubt at all, is far better than any other in the history of humanity”.

Thus, in discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the BBC’s Question Time, Baroness Amos, Leader of the House of Lords, talked of “terrorism on the Palestinian side” but merely of “activities” on the Israeli side (BBC1, April 29, 2004). And yet Israel is the occupying power using armed force to impose illegal settlements and horrific oppression on a captive people.

This tendency to downplay Western crimes is all around us, constantly influencing how we see ourselves and our world. Last week we had this exchange of emails with Channel 4 News presenter, Jon Snow:

Dear Jon

In tonight’s Snowmail you refer to “awful shots of US military personnel enjoying sordid japes at the humiliating expense of Iraqi prisoners”. This happened in “The very same institution in which Saddam did his torturing”.

Saddam tortures, “we” engage in ‘sordid japes’. Why the difference? And is it reasonable to describe these horrific acts as merely “sordid japes”?

Best wishes

David Edwards and David Cromwell (April 30)

Snow replied:

“well having been there myself..i guess the extraction of finger and toenails, live disembowling and death itself may be a touch worse than these vile images, but i guess morally u are right they just the, jon snow” (April 30)

Thanks, Jon
Totally agree, torture can be more and less severe – actual disembowlings are way beyond the threat of electrocution. But that isn’t the point we’re making – threatening someone with electrocution is still a severe form of torture, not a “jape”.

Similarly, the level of fear required to force Iraqi men to submit to such degradation – presumably induced by threatened or actual violence – also constitutes very real torture.

It really is impossible to imagine Channel 4 responding to photos of similar acts performed on US or UK soldiers as “sordid japes”. We only need to recall the reaction when ‘coalition’ POWs were shown on TV by the Iraqi army.

Best wishes

David Edwards and David Cromwell” (April 30)

Snow again replied:

“you clearly cant have loked closely at the photos these guys and the woman are actually laughing..they regard it as a jape..we raegard as a fould war crime..such is life..” (May 4)

We responded:

Nobody was laughing in the picture of an Iraqi being threatened with electrocution. Even if there had been, their regarding torture as “a jape” would not have justified Channel 4 describing their actions in the same terms, obviously. If the victims had been US or UK troops, it is unthinkable that Channel 4 would have defined events from the point of view of the torturers.

Best wishes

David Edwards and David Cromwell (May 4)

“Ok well thanks..very helpful..snowmail will have to be reigned slow stuff clearly dangerous..i’ll ensure that no such errors occur again, thank you for pointing it out. Best wishes, Jon snow” (May 4)

Solutions Begin With the Mirror

The most powerful solutions to hatred, violence and injustice are rooted in compassion and respect for others. But compassion begins in honesty, in the recognition that all human beings are of equal value and importance. We in the West need to face the fact that our historical refusal to accept this basic moral premise – instead subordinating ‘Third World’ people to power and profit – has resulted in appalling misery around the world.

By looking honestly in the mirror in this way, the possibility is raised of working to limit the destructiveness of our society, and so of resolving many of the problems facing us. How can we hope to become less harmful, more just, if we remain fooled by the propaganda that insists we are already paragons of virtue?

People who call themselves ‘realists’, even ‘Machiavellian realists’, argue that this is all nonsense – compassion and concern for others are all very well, but in ‘the real world’ corporations are legally obliged to maximise profits. And as for state policy, that is very often designed to deliver on that same obligation, regardless of the costs to people and planet.

True enough. But, ultimately, corporations and states are mere abstract concepts – they are run by real, thinking people. And people are always able to choose compassion and common sense over blind, institutionalised greed.

It seems clear that governments are restrained in their use of force to the extent that the public and media oppose the killing of innocents. And there surely has been progress in this regard. If the current crisis in Iraq had happened forty years ago, for example, we believe Falluja would now lie completely in ruins.

Last year, a Spanish friend told us how, every weekend, vast crowds of anti-war protestors thronged the streets of major cities throughout Spain in the weeks ahead of the assault on Iraq. He said it was breathtaking, astonishing. The Machiavellians of the Aznar government backed Bush and Blair to the hilt, but 90% of the Spanish people did not – they opposed war in all circumstances.

The people are still there. The Aznar government has gone, and the troops are coming home.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

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