The troubles and horrors of the current African scene do not lend themselves to simple explanation and remedy. The frequently heard approach of attributing all of that continent's problems to colonialism just won't do the job. What colonialism is takes a great deal more work to find out than most journalists are willing to exert, especially in our times when slickness and happy talk have come to dominate where integrity and precision should reign. That other explanation by means of labeling, namely, frequent and indignant reference to imperialism, is no better alternative. Africa's relationship to the rest of the world has involved a complex mixture of force and trade. That fact, coupled with the complex issue of legitimacy in national and international political and commercial representation, stands in the way of saying, simply, that imperialism explains the misery of most Africans today.
Then there is also the troublesome issue of citizenship. Who are the Africans? More precisely, who are South Africans, Rhodesians, and the various other national inhabitants? Who owns the land, the wealth, the resources, material or otherwise, in these various artificially bounded communities? There is little substance in most of the voluminous analyses being done in the pages of prominent newspapers and magazines which nominally address these issues. When the fundamental perspective on the basis of which people try to analyze and explain the world involves severe problems, the subsequent applied work will necessarily suffer. Should we analyze the various problems by reference to climatic factors? psychological laws? economic principles? sociological factors? religious dogmas? a deterministic conception of human nature? a view of human beings as morally capable and responsible beings?
Whichever (combination) of these one adopts—and everyone adopts some such (combination of) perspective—his particular explanations and analyses, focused on various problems at home and abroad, will reveal their influence. My examples of explanations which invoke colonialism and imperialism are but the most commonly heard ones when we come across discussions of Africa's present turmoils. But even the idea that there are uniquely African turmoils presupposes that Africa is unusual in some respect. One might even say that focusing on Africa already reveals a kind of racism.
It is just this alternative that suggests itself in a recent issue of The New Republic. Without attempting to take issue with that magazine's entire editorial position, it is interesting and instructive to consider how one editorial attended to at least one topical issue associated with an African country, namely South Africa.
Let me admit from the start that South Africa's situation, despite its complexity, does not hide a widespread condition of gross injustice. That the human rights of millions of that country's people have been and continue to be violated is so evident that no problem arises concerning one's pronouncement of the basic injustice permeating that nation's legal system. This matter, however, can be assessed in very different ways. One can conceive of the South African situation along different lines of analysis, without denying the basic point made above.
Recently the editors of The New Republic advanced a peculiar argument as to why South Africa's political degradation is far more serious than the violence and tyranny of such nations as Russia, China, and Ghana, for example. TNR's editors seem to have felt the need for coming to grips with many intellectuals' inconsistency about condemning injustice across the world. But beyond realizing the need to explain away the inconsistency, TNR did little better than the rest.
The editorial in question argued that since South Africa was settled initially by citizens of Western countries, namely, Great Britain and the Netherlands, its present regime must live up to the high standards of Western political culture, unlike what should be said about other dictatorships and tyrannies across the globe!
The editors of TNR have reaffirmed, in this carefully constructed piece of rationalization, the very idea that has served the government of South Africa so well in its efforts to justify apartheid, namely, that the Western European societies are culturally and morally superior to others and are thus entitled to special considerations which native Africans cannot reasonably invoke. If Western European culture is somehow inherently superior to those of other communities—that is, if Western Europeans as a part of humanity are superior (by their acceptance of superior standards) to other human groups—then apartheid is not difficult to justify. The inherently morally superior, as Plato taught in the Republic, should (ideally) rule a community. It seems that the editors of The New Republic are in considerable sympathy with that old "republican."
The editors of TNR appear to believe that inherent moral worthiness requires that one treat others as equals, not as slaves or political subservients, but this just does not follow. John Locke had to argue from the premise of every person's initial (inherent) moral equality, as did the Declaration of Independence, because if by birth some are more deserving than others, then it is a small step to the view that they carry greater authority as well. But the editors of TNR were willing to accept this result before they would accept the logical implication of their criticism of the South African regime's tyrannical behavior.
Why should we not demand the abolition of slavery from the Soviet regime? Why should we not insist that tyranny by black Africans toward other black Africans be stopped immediately? Why shouldn't China's tyrants change their ways? Well, implies The New Republic, those people really aren't capable of moral improvement, they cannot adopt the high moral standards of the West. They are inherently barbaric, unlike the fine white racists who run the government of South Africa.
If any thesis plays into the hands of South Africa's authoritarian rulers, this one surely does a superb job at it. South Africa's leaders and apologists can reason, in total accord with the editors of The New Republic, that "our predominantly white civilization has long since acknowledged that people of different colored skin are not different from white people in the essential humanity that we share." But black African civilizations do not share this view, as TNR wants to argue. Ergo, the whites must be protected from the unenlightened savages! Balderdash!
The plain fact is that any human being aware of even a modicum of the results of human thought about morality and politics should realize the evil of tyranny. South Africans have no more or less right to be tyrants than the leaders of Russia, China, or Libya. No moral relativism can excuse the leftist bias on human rights issues in our time.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Left-Wing Bias on Human Rights".