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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

From King to Mugabe (WSJ)

Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2008; Page A20

In 1986, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst awarded Robert Mugabe an honorary degree. This was several years after Zimbabwe's anticolonialist "liberator" had deployed his notorious Fifth Brigade – trained by his North Korean allies – to murder an estimated 20,000 members of the Ndebele people. Mr. Mugabe is tribally Shona.

Mr. Mugabe's accolades from Western intelligentsia – he also received honorary doctorates from Michigan State in 1990 and the University of Edinburgh in 1984 – are worth recalling as Americans memorialize the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Morally, philosophically and politically, King and Mr. Mugabe stand at opposite ends of a spectrum, the former a champion of liberalism's best convictions, the latter of the totalitarian impulse inherent in the politics of "liberation." So how is it that so many of the same people – liberals, "progressives," the bien pensant – who see themselves as heirs of King's legacy were, until fairly recently, Mr. Mugabe's fellow travelers, excuse-makers and apologists-in-crime?

I used to have a simple answer to this question: In conflating the rights of the individual with those of the collective, liberals were guilty of what logicians call the fallacy of composition: the notion that what is true of a part must also be true of the whole. In American politics, this goes back at least to Woodrow Wilson, and his fixation with "national self-determination" – the view that individual freedom was contingent on group freedom, which in turn required ethnic or cultural homogeneity, political sovereignty and the mechanisms of state to control both.

There is an element of truth in that view, and an element of falsehood. There is also a considerable margin for abuse, particularly when recognition of the differences between nations slides into a posture of moral and cultural relativism.

"Clearly, human rights and the rule of law have to continue to be central in the bedrock of our relationships but we have to understand the local context," said then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during a meeting with Mr. Mugabe in 1997. "We have to realize the difference in these countries and the various evolutions they are going through and it is only appropriate that the United States, while pressing our agenda, respect the agendas in these countries." At the time, Mr. Mugabe had just ordered a bloody crackdown on a demonstration and beaten up Morgan Tsvangirai, the apparent winner of the recent presidential election.

Still, this explanation goes only so far in explaining the left's long love affair with various "liberators" – if no longer with Mr. Mugabe himself (Edinburgh revoked his degree last year, while UMass formally "rebuked" him), then, at various times in various places, with Che Guevara and Yasser Arafat and Marwan Barghouti. Could it be a function of guilt, specifically white guilt?

[Robert Mugabe]After Mr. Mugabe began seizing white farmland in the early part of this decade, Matthew Sweet of London's Independent offered the view that the Zimbabwean dictator could hardly be blamed for the looming disaster. "It was [Cecil] Rhodes who originated the racist 'land grabs' to which Zimbabwe's current miseries can ultimately be traced," wrote Mr. Sweet.

Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia, died in 1902. Invoking his name as the source of Zimbabwe's woes a century later has the quality of invoking original sin, albeit one from which Mr. Mugabe is somehow exempt.

There's no doubting that Rhodes was a racist, and that Zimbabwe's whites were long the beneficiaries of the order he established. But simply because a complaint is not without merit does not justify a campaign that is without merit, and one that guarantees ruin for its ostensible beneficiaries. This is obvious. So why were people like Mr. Sweet so quick to excuse, if not quite to advocate, Mr. Mugabe's politics of ruin?

Maybe the question is better put this way: Why is it that "progressivism" seems so prone to nihilism? Friedrich Nietzsche, who knew something about nihilism, had an answer: "Man," as he famously concluded in his Genealogy of Morals, "would rather will nothingness than not will." Ultimate freedom, complete liberation, demands that man overthrow every constraint, or what Nietzsche called "a revolt against the most fundamental preconditions of life itself" – including life itself. In this scheme, nature and the natural order of things become subordinate to the mere act of willing. This is the essence of totalitarianism, a political order that recognizes no higher authority, no limits and no decencies.

[Martin Luther King Jr.]Which brings us back to Martin Luther King Jr. In his 1958 essay "My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence," King described his encounter with, and rejection of, Marxism. "Since for the Communist there is no divine government," he wrote, "no absolute moral order, there are no fixed, immutable principles; consequently almost anything – force, violence, murder, lying – is a justifiable means to the 'millennial' end. . . . I am convinced now, as I was then, that man is an end because he is a child of God."

Unlike some of his counterparts in the civil rights movement, King not only accepted the American political system, he demanded it. He did not seek racial retribution: "Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding," he said in 1965. "We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself." His political genius, like that of the Founders, was to lead a revolution in the name of restoration – the restoration of God's given order for all men, irrespective of race.

There is a final ironic contrast here between King and Mr. Mugabe. Though a political nihilist, Mr. Mugabe, at 84, clings almost impressively to what remains of his power, and his life. On the day before his murder at age 39, King was a man at peace. "I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man," he said. He was liberated. Mugabe, the "liberator," is not.

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