Something Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said recently returned my mind to a theme I had been contemplating over the Christmas holiday. I’ll get to that in a second and why, but first let me cite her statement:
I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.
The implication is that as long as a person’s intentions are good, then facts do not matter. Related to that is the self-assurance that one’s intentions are good and righteous and that, therefore, anyone who opposes them is obviously evil. It’s not that far removed from the sense of self-righteousness that has driven tyrannical movements throughout history from the Salem Witch Trials to the Communist purges. They all have the same source: pride and the accompanying sense of self-righteousness that goes along with it, divorced from humility before God.
In fact, this sense of self-righteousness and a belief in the absolute power of good intentions afflicts many public policy debates: gun control, urban development, social aid, among others. Politicians propose policies that they must know will have no positive impact on the social ill they state they are seeking to minimize, but because their stated goal is “morally correct,” then they expect people to go along with their proposal, and many do. (The alternative is that the politicians are willfully ignorant of facts and reality, but perhaps I repeat myself.)
So, around Christmas I was contemplating the 1985 Live Aid concert. There are two reasons this was on my mind at that time. First was the release of the Bohemian Rhapsody movie which revolves around the concert as a plot anchor (full disclosure, I have not seen the movie, although I like Queen’s music, but the albums are enough for me, I don’t need the movie). Second was the fact that “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” a song which led to the Live Aid fundraiser, is played every Christmas. I’ll make the sad confession now that I actually like this song, even though it dredges up in my mind the terrible situation that Live Aid was meant, well-intentionally, to help – well – “aid.”
For the younger among us, a refresher. Live Aid was a benefit concert held in July 1985 to help raise money to ease the famine which was then occurring in Ethiopia. The intent was to send food aid to the country, which did in fact happen. After all, who wouldn’t want to help starving people in Africa? What a noble and well-intentioned cause!
Well, a few things went wrong in this effort. First, it must be admitted that everyone meant well. Moral arguments were certainly on their side, and people donated time and money with the best of intentions. However, these intentions were divorced from facts and reality and led to the opposite of what was intended.
The famine in Ethiopia was caused by weather conditions, but was made immensely worse by the Ethiopian government of the time. The government was a military communist regime which seized power in 1974 and ruled until it finally fell in 1991. In fighting against rebels which controlled parts of the country, the government forced people to relocate to areas which it could control. The fighting and forced relocation of the population intensified the famine.
In stepped the food aid from Western donors. An old dictum, attributed to Napoleon, is that an “army marches on its stomach.” Food is both a fuel and a weapon to be wielded. The Ethiopian government, as the “legitimate” ruler of the country, was able to use the Western aid in its effort to fight the rebels, forcing people to submit to its rule as well as feeding its own soldiers. The regime also threw lavish parties for itself in the capital, while people in the countryside starved. Thus, rather than help alleviate the suffering of the Ethiopian people, the aid had the effect of strengthening the tyrannical government and may have caused more deaths than would have otherwise occurred. A 2005 Guardian article and a 1986 Spin article (republished in 2015) both detail this, as does the excellent 1988 book “Surrender or Starve” by Robert Kaplan. Kaplan’s book is particularly important as he traveled in the area contemporaneously and saw first-hand the devastation.
The point is that self-righteous self-assurance of one’s “moral correctness” can blind people to facts and to solutions which would actually be helpful. It can also cause them to commit harmful actions themselves. Look at all the media outlets who were so sure a few days ago that the Catholic high schoolers at the March for Life were in the wrong, only to later realize that the facts did not fit their moral narrative. Or, look at the tyranny of the social justice movement which penalizes anyone who does not agree with them or who steps outside the bounds of their narrative. All in the name of moral certitude divorced from the only God from whom this certitude comes.
Children have the luxury of maxing absolutist statements without owning any sense of responsibility for the effects of what their statements imply. Adults, however, have a responsibility to think through their actions and policies, while considering the fact that the world is not black and white, that there are gray areas, and that there are often no good solutions, only a choice between “bad” and “not so bad.” My fear is that our country is increasingly being turned over to the children who will content themselves with making bold, “morally correct” statements without considering the reality of the situation and the facts. Combined with a lack of humility before God and an innate respect for fellow man, this is a dangerous situation.