Published: 00:47, June 17, 2024
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Washington finds itself in moral muddle
By Michael Edesess

The United States has long regarded itself as the most moral country in the world, with the highest moral standards and the might to enforce them globally if necessary. While this belief has never been entirely true, it was magnified by America’s crucial role during and after World War II, not only in America’s eyes but also in the eyes of much of the rest of the world.

But the US has never been in such a moral muddle as it is now. Two recent incidents illustrate the confusion.

On May 22, a Palestinian-American nurse, Hesen Jabr, an American native who grew up in the state of Louisiana, was fired from her job at New York University’s Langone Health shortly after speaking on the occasion of her acceptance of an award given to her by Langone for her compassionate care of mothers who had lost babies. During her speech, she said, “It pains me to see the women from my country going through unimaginable losses themselves during the current genocide in Gaza. This award is deeply personal to me for those reasons.”

This statement led to her almost immediate firing. A spokesman for Langone said that “Hesen Jabr was warned in December, following a previous incident, not to bring her views on this divisive and charged issue into the workplace.”

Now imagine, if you will, that instead of being a Palestinian-American, Jabr was Uygur, and instead of saying she was pained by the losses during the genocide in Gaza, she said she was pained by the “genocide” in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region of China. Would she be fired for saying that?

And yet, no convincing evidence has ever been presented to prove the killing of any Uygurs, let alone hordes of them. In Gaza, by comparison, at least 25,000 dead have been fully identified. The allegation of “genocide” in Xinjiang is — there should be little doubt — divisive and charged, at least in the politics of the US vis-a-vis China.

But were it true that a Uygur Jabr would not have been fired for lamenting a “genocide” in Xinjiang, it must be because that alleged genocide is not regarded as a “divisive and charged issue” — at least not in the US. Indeed, it is not a divisive and charged issue within the US, while the alleged genocide in Gaza decidedly is.

Here is another example of the confusion. In my travels in the past few years in Europe and the US, I have frequently been asked whether it is difficult to live in Hong Kong now. I often bring up the fact because it seems not to be widely known that there were not just peaceful pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019 but almost six months of daily violent riots, causing massive property damage in the streets, malls and metros.

Invariably, in my experience, without exception, my interlocutor expresses astonishment to learn this. They say that they knew nothing about it. That is because the violent riots were barely reported in the mainstream Western press, even the best of it, such as The New York Times. All the unrest in Hong Kong was reported as “pro-democracy protests”.

Now contrast that with The New York Times’ coverage of the turmoil in Israel, Gaza, and the Palestinian West Bank. Divisive and charged issue though it is, The Times managed to publish a brutal expose of Jewish settler violence in the occupied territories of the West Bank. In that expose, The Times writes, “For decades, most Israelis have considered Palestinian terrorism the country’s biggest security concern. But there is another threat that may be even more destabilizing for Israel’s future as a democracy: Jewish terrorism and violence, and the failure to enforce the law against it.”

Why was The Times able to publish — against the grain of US pro-Israeli policy — an expose of Jewish settler violence in the West Bank, while it was unable to publish a similar expose of, or even mention, the violence of the US’ preferred faction in Hong Kong?

The answer appears to lie in the US’ reductionist way of resolving — or rather, failing even to recognize — its moral muddle. It boils down to “authoritarianism versus democracy”.

Democracies can be complicated. They can contain competing, even warring factions. And that’s OK, in the end, because democracies have the means to right their course, if not immediately, then eventually. Even if they stray far from the right path, they will return to it through a bottom-up correction process. Autocracies, by contrast, do not have the means to right themselves. They are rigid, monolithic, inflexible and top-down. They are not complicated, like democracies.

This is a thoroughly misguided and oversimplified depiction of the difference. First of all, most national systems have both authoritarianism-like features and democracy-like features. Yet the US and many of its allies portray the difference in black-and-white terms.

This makes it easier to ignore or discount the possibility of complexity in authoritarian systems. It simplifies judgment. A genocide is a genocide, without regard to its history or reasons, never mind whether the term even comes anywhere close to accurately describing the actual situation.

On the other hand, in Israel and Gaza, while the facts visible to the naked eye might suggest genocide, any such judgment is tempered — indeed contravened — by the complicated current and historical context.

It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that this view of the world is lazy and ridiculously simplistic. And yet, it is unfortunately the view held by much of the US government, its media, and its people.

The author is an adjunct professor in the Division of Environment and Sustainability at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.