The Strength in American Self-Improvement

Not doing so gives credibility to our enemies when they attempt to shame us.

It’s only natural that America’s enemies rejoice in her trouble, whatever it is. Even our friends can’t help a little schadenfreude. After all, the United States is the most powerful nation in the world, and has been for a very long time. Americans themselves are increasingly embarrassed, not just by the antics of their political leaders left and right, but by the very idea of America as a leading light unto the world. Still, the sheer grotesquery of certain international commentary on the death of George Floyd and the protests that have shaken the nation are a signal reminder that there are very bad governments out there who seek to bring us down; and our failure to confront our failings persuasively is a gift to them. 

Both Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif were up in arms about minority rights in the United States. 

“Some don't think #BlackLivesMatter. To those of us who do: it is long overdue for the entire world to wage war against racism. Time for a #WorldAgainstRacism,” agreed Zarif, a few days later, pausing to add some additional thoughts on June 1: “The ‘knee-on-neck’ technique is nothing new: Same cabal—who've admitted to habitually ‘lie, cheat, steal’—have been employing it on 80M Iranians for 2 yrs, calling it ‘maximum pressure’. It hasn't brought us to our knees. Nor will it abase African-Americans.”

In general, there’s nothing wrong with using the freedoms afforded by Twitter (banned in Iran) to stand up for a cause outside your own nation. But perhaps it would be wise to check Iran’s own record on racism and official abuse. A news outlet close to Khamenei once called Barack Obama a “black immigrant.” Another Iranian newspaper called our former president a “house slave.” But Iran’s Persian dictators aren’t just bigoted against blacks; they’re far more ecumenical. Those with darker skin, as well as other representatives of what is actually a very ethnically diverse country—Kurds (10 percent), Azeris (16 percent) and Baluchis (2 percent), come in for racial slurs and much worse for their “inferiority.” And then there’s religious bigotry: Sunni Muslims (5-10 percent), Jews, Baha’i and Zoroastrians (numbers from the tens to the hundreds of thousands, closely guarded by the regime) are all subject to systemic religious discrimination in Iran. (For a highbrow take on the Iran Aryan problem, see here.)

It’s also pretty darn rich for Khamenei and Zarif, whose government murdered about 1,500 of their own compatriots and arrested 7,000 others in anti-government demonstrations last November and December, to sit in judgment. The Islamic Republic also executes minors, has reportedly press-ganged foreign children to serve in their terrorist expeditionary forces, and has presided over the murder of more than 500,000 Syrians over the last decade. Oh, and Tehran is also the world’s second-most enthusiastic executioner after the People’s Republic of China. Speaking of which …

It’s no secret that the Beijing government has been on an anti-American information campaign since the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan (if not before). But the coincidence of the George Floyd murder, a new Chinese assault on Hong Kong basic freedoms, and the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre was a moment too good to miss. And Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hua Chunying raced to his keyboard. “All lives matter. We stand firmly with our African friends. We strongly oppose all forms of racial discrimination and inflammatory expressions of racism and hatred,”  he tweeted on June 1. “I can't breathe," he retweeted with a picture of State Department flack Morgan Ortagus’ tweet calling for rule of law in Hong Kong.

Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, also joined in. Its editor in chief Hu Xijin tweeted, “I highly suspect that Hong Kong rioters have infiltrated American states. Attacking police stations, smashing shops, blocking roads, breaking public facilities, these are all routine in their protests. Vicious HK rioters obviously are mastermind of violent protests across the US.” And he jumped at the Tiananmen analogy: “The US is commemorating Tiananmen incident in a unique way. US military is being dispatched to the cities and police are opening fire. The US is proving the importance for China to restore order in 1989. But back then, the destruction of China's order was much worse than US' now.”

For those who have memory-holed the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, it is estimated that 10,000 Chinese protesters were killed by Chinese security forces in demonstrations against the government. Ongoing Chinese Communist Party efforts to stifle Hong Kong are making headlines every day. There are, infamously, more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in Chinese-government run concentration camps. And, of course, political, civil, religious and racial rights in the People’s Republic do not exist at all. Racism in China is also a well-documented phenomenon, the worst recent example being the infamous sign in a Guangzhou McDonalds announcing, “black people are not allowed to enter.” 

The Russian Foreign Ministry got in on the game, too: “This incident is far from the first in a series of lawless conduct and unjustified violence from U.S. law enforcement. … American police commit such high-profile crimes all too often,” a release sermonized. “The United States has certainly accumulated systemic human rights problems: race, ethnic and religious discrimination, police brutality, bias of justice, crowded prisons, and uncontrolled use of fire arms and self-defence weapons by individuals, to name a few.” As did North Korea’s official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, with its usual hackneyed English: “Demonstrators enraged by the extreme racists throng even to the White House,” read its statement. “This is the reality in the U.S. today. American liberalism and democracy put the cap of leftist on the demonstrators and threaten to unleash even dogs for suppression.”

Needless to say, neither Russia (human rights record here), nor North Korea (record of public executions here, racism documented here) have a leg to stand on. Like Iran and China, both are serial offenders against human freedom. What’s the right answer to these spectacularly hypocritical tyrants? Shame on us.

It’s cathartic to mock America’s accusers for their own legion sins. We are, after all, not even on the same plane as Russia, Iran, North Korea or China. Still, every time we give the likes of Hu Xijin or Rodong Sinmun an opening to inveigh against U.S. failings—when we, for example, threaten to unleash “vicious dogs” even against rioters—we tarnish our coin. We like to feel better than these poseurs; we are better than they are. America remains a land of freedom and opportunity, problems notwithstanding. But it is the job, almost the destiny of the United States to improve, always. Not just to be relatively better, but factually better.

What this proposition rests on globally is, in part, moral authority (and yes, a really big and capable military, a powerhouse economy, a functioning democracy). To extrapolate from a recent and deeply resonant essay by my AEI colleague Matt Continetti, American global leadership must derive in some significant part from the government’s leadership at home. When American leaders seek to school foreign tyrants, citing our commitment to the principles of freedom and democracy, it should come as no surprise when our missteps—and crimes—are thrown back at us. And while it is not the primary reason for the American people to better their own mores, when we do so there should be little doubt it enhances our credibility in demanding foreign tyrants not kill their own people.

“Above all,” a wise American president once said, “we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have.” Without the moral courage to confront our own failings, confronting the vastly worse and dangerous failings of others will be nigh on impossible.

Photograph by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images.