CAMPAIGN 08 & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Dignity promotion

The Obama Doctrine

[An] ability to see the world from different perspectives informs what the Obama [foreign policy] team hopes will replace the Iraq War mind-set: something they call dignity promotion. “I don’t think anyone in the foreign-policy community has as much an appreciation of the value of dignity as Obama does,” says Samantha Power, a former key aide and author of the groundbreaking study of U.S. foreign policy and genocide, A Problem From Hell. “Dignity is a way to unite a lot of different strands [of foreign-policy thinking],” she says. “If you start with that, it explains why it’s not enough to spend $3 billion on refugee camps in Darfur, because the way those people are living is not the way they want to live. It’s not a human way to live. It’s graceless — an affront to your sense of dignity.” [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — Replacing democracy promotion with dignity promotion sounds good, but I would hope that an Obama administration would have the wisdom to get out the promotion business altogether — though in saying that, I’m not advocating isolationism.

America’s evangelical fervor is invariably a source of trouble. Among the most common explanation for why Americans spend extended periods overseas is either as soldiers or as missionaries. Americans have a habit of venturing into the rest of the world in order to change it.

But what many people from wealthy societies discover if they have the opportunity to delve into a Third World culture is that there is no correlation between wealth and dignity. Far from it: many of the most dignified people who grace this planet also happen to be the poorest. Their dignity invariably resides in pride in their own culture. Conversely, nothing more reliably strips people of their dignity than to feed the notion that their heritage is inferior to another.

If we want to consider dignity promotion, maybe we should focus on how to do it in our own society.

What is the impact of mass entertainment that creates a spectacle out of humiliation — the crux of so much reality TV? Does the promotion of product brands have a corrosive effect on self esteem? Who do you become when it matters so much what you wear or what you drive? Has social respect become inextricable from wealth acquisition? Have we demeaned ourselves by becoming a nation of material consumers while forgetting what it means to be a cultural producer?

A significant dimension of Obama’s appeal is that he carries himself with dignity — something sadly lacking in much of public life. While it will undoubtedly be a good thing if an appreciation of the importance of human dignity underpins American foreign policy, we would do well to consider what it takes to restore dignity to the American way of life.

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2 thoughts on “CAMPAIGN 08 & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Dignity promotion

  1. Bernard Chazelle

    Paul: you’ve touched on something crucial: self-dignity.

    Americans don’t seem to understand how Katrina is regarded abroad as a defining moment. Iraq only reinforced the widely shared view abroad that the US doesn’t care much about the dignity of others (Abu Ghraib, Gitmo etc).

    But Katrina showed that they don’t care much about their own dignity either. There you’ve had the most shaming national event in decades, broadcast live worldwide, and Americans have already moved on. I’ve traveled a lot since, and I can assure you, the world hasn’t. People are still asking: has this country lost all sense of self-respect? A superpower that can’t rescue its own people from the superdome? What’s the explanation? And everyone answers: no self-dignity.

  2. carol Elkins

    Dignity is a word that one rarely hears. The adjective, “dignified”, connotes a serious and aloof gentleman of authority. Many have had unpleasant experiences from such gentlemen, and do not consider them to be viable role models.
    If “dignity” is a quality which comes into existence as a means to endure pain, then perhaps it is closer to playfulness than seriousness. I am thinking of the film, “Life is Beautiful”, where even life in the concentration camp is endured by a child as his father creates an all encompassing game.
    Then, too, a child who does not know how to play is sucked into adulthood by sexuality and violence.
    But as adults, we belittle the activities of little people, children, and have been brainwashed by a hierarchical model which holds that growing up means getting smarter.
    Even though this is a major cultural problem, it is still possible for any one of us to avoid its personal consequences, to some degree, by playing with children.

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