In the last few weeks, the dispute between Washington and Tel Aviv over Israeli construction in East Jerusalem reignited a long smoldering debate: is our alliance with Israel harmful to American interests? Despite our efforts to act as a mediator in the Middle East, one side contends, America tends in the end to defend Israel’s interests, or at least fails to oppose Israeli policy when Israel’s government is sufficiently determined to pursue and defend it. This tendency, it is held, draws the rage of Israel’s enemies upon the United States, thus threatening our security. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens argues—very plausibly—that this account of the matter is too superficial. Opposition to Israeli policy, he argues, comes to a considerable extent from the Islamic world. Radical Islam, however, has harbored and will continue to harbor a deep-seated hatred of America irrespective of America’s support of Israel. The adherents of radical Islam, after all, despise America because of the perceived decadence of its culture, which they think is no accident but instead a necessary consequence of America’s fundamental commitment to individual liberty. They abhor some of the most indefensible aspects of American culture, an abhorrence which has bled over into a hate-filled rejection of Western liberties.
To counter this, Stephens claims that America should try to export its liberties to the Muslim world precisely with a view to changing its culture in the direction of our own. As he observes, the permissiveness of American liberty is attractive even to many Muslims in traditionally Muslim nations. While the export of our culture to Muslim nations may “provoke censorious and violent reactions” in the short run, in the long run, their ongoing embrace of American-style liberty, and the morally permissive culture that accompanies it, will gradually erode the deepest ground of their anti-Americanism. He concludes: “If America wants to tilt the balance of Muslim sentiment in its favor, it needs to stand up for its liberties, its principles and its friends—Israel, Playboy, and Lady Gaga included.”
I have no quarrel with Stephens’s primary points. He is certainly correct that America cannot win over radical Islamists by distancing itself from Israel, and that a leavening of individual freedom would to a considerable extent moderate Muslim hostility toward American culture. He goes too far, however, in his concluding formulation. We should stand up for our friends, Israel included; but should we really, as Stephens suggests, regard Playboy, and the culture of sexual permissiveness that it symbolizes, as a manifestation of our “liberties” and our “principles”?
Stephens falls into an understandable but unfortunate human tendency: the desire to distinguish ourselves as completely as possible from our enemies, even to the extent of defining our own identity in opposition to theirs. We see our enemies’ vices with perfect clarity, and we spontaneously desire to distance ourselves from them as much as we can. The problem with this impulse, however, is that, as Aristotle reminds us, virtue is a mean between two vicious extremes. Thus, in fleeing unreflectively from the failings of our foes, we may run right past the virtuous mean and into an opposed, and vicious, extreme. Properly repelled by the baseness of the coward or the miser, a man may go too far in pursuit of courage or generosity and become foolishly rash or careless with money.
Societies face similar temptations, but they resist them if they are wise. In the depths of the Cold War, for example, America, despite its need to distinguish itself from Communist collectivism, did not dismantle its social safety net and embrace a thoroughgoing individualism that held that every man was on his own. Similarly, our revulsion at Nazism’s militarization of society did not lead us to reject the draft as a necessary tool of national self-defense. By the same token, we should not let our (quite proper) rejection of radical Islam’s repressiveness lead us to embrace an equally problematic permissiveness.
Stephens is correct to suggest that an injection of moral and cultural permissiveness could improve societies dominated by radical Islamism. It is sometimes the case that one form of corruption can moderate another, and realistic statesmanship cannot be above recognizing this truth. But what is medicine for the sick may well be poison for the healthy, and our current moral libertarianism, which even many Americans think has gone too far, may be harmful for us even if it could be good for others. Let us grant that radical Islam degrades human beings in general by its excessive repression of human sexuality, and that it degrades women in particular by subjecting female sexuality to male domination. Let us further grant that such disorders could be ameliorated by a move in the direction of individual liberation. It may nevertheless be true that, American culture, having moved too far in that direction, also degrades human beings generally—through trivializing human sexuality by detaching it from its natural purposes, such as the generation of new life—and women in particular—by making feminine sexuality into an object of commerce and by fostering an excessive concern with, and fantastic ideals of, physical beauty.
In any case, it is strange to hold that Playboy and the sexually permissive culture it represents are manifestations of American principles and American liberty. Both the magazine itself and the sexual behavior that it encourages would have been actively suppressed by American law and mores even as recently as sixty years ago. Are we to understand that America then was not a free country? This would be news to the Americans of that time, who understood themselves to have just finished a tremendous national exertion intended precisely to preserve a free society—a society distinguished from others, they might have held, by a commitment to ordered liberty, and not to unrestricted license.
Indeed, it would be closer to the truth to say that Playboy, and the culture of sexual permissiveness in which it can flourish, are perversions of American principles. Pornography could take root and grow in America’s public culture because the Supreme Court chose to give it the protection of the First Amendment. The First Amendment’s provisions on freedom of speech and of the press, however, were originally intended to protect the reasonable and responsible public discourse necessary for a self-governing people. They were not designed to shelter materials that the leading founders would have regarded, to a man, as outrageous affronts to human dignity, and the dissemination of which they would have thought a licentious abuse of freedom. Moreover, this expanded, pornography-protecting interpretation of the First Amendment has been wielded by the Court repeatedly to mow down anti-obscenity laws enacted by both the Congress of the United States and various state legislatures. Accordingly, we can say that the Playboy culture could not have arisen without an erosion of both the traditional understanding of the First Amendment and of our commitment to representative self-government.
Considering the preceding argument, some might wonder: if America were to reclaim its traditional identity, if it were to return to the original understanding of its principles and its liberties and a more conservative sexual culture, how would we distinguish ourselves from the repressive societies that Bret Stephens rightly deplores? The distinctions, indeed, would still be very significant. Moderation is not the same as repression. A society that uses law and mores to guide human sexual energies toward their natural and noble ends—marriage and procreation—has little in common with one that represses our sexuality as something unseemly, and much less with one that seeks to subordinate one sex to the other. As Tocqueville noted, America was at one time distinguished from other nations by its adherence to a rigorous sexual morality that it expected both sexes to respect. That America, he held, stood out for its freedom, its enlightenment, and its lofty conception of marriage.
In our current struggle against radical Islamic anti-Americanism, as in our past wars, some citizens have admonished us that it is possible to prevail militarily and yet still lose the war. This paradoxical outcome will follow, they have warned, if in prosecuting war we become like our enemies, illiberal and intolerant. Such warnings are well taken. We should fight our wars not only to preserve American lives but also to preserve the American way of life, including the just liberties to which it is committed. We also need to remember, however, that in time of war our identity is threatened not only by the temptation to win at all costs, but also by the temptation to distinguish ourselves from our enemies in every way. The unreflective indulgence of that temptation can lead us to lose ourselves by embracing, contrary to reason and our own traditions, the worst aspects of our present culture, simply because our enemies have used them to justify their hostility. Both temptations grant our enemies influence over our identity as a nation, and both temptations should accordingly be resisted equally.