Posted by: Kevin | November 15, 2007

Sometimes We are Just Better

I’ve never been a big proponent of American Exceptionalism.  We’re a nation like any other, we’ve got our good points and our bad.  Then I read something like this:

A court in the ultra-conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia is punishing a female victim of gang rape with 200 lashes and six months in jail, a newspaper reported on Thursday.

The 19-year-old woman — whose six armed attackers have been sentenced to jail terms — was initially ordered to undergo 90 lashes for “being in the car of an unrelated male at the time of the rape,” the Arab News reported.

But in a new verdict issued after Saudi Arabia’s Higher Judicial Council ordered a retrial, the court in the eastern town of Al-Qatif more than doubled the number of lashes to 200.

A court source told the English-language Arab News that the judges had decided to punish the woman further for “her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media.”

At some point it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that our values, however imperfectly we adhere to them, are better.  That exceptionalism isn’t something we necessarily won at the barrel of a gun, either.  It’s an ideal we’ve been struggling towards for more than 200 years.

 This is why issues of personal liberty are near to my heart.  It’s why I would willingly trade an increase in danger in order to keep those liberties.  Our values aren’t better by virtue of our race or religion.  The aren’t better because they’re easier to follow (they aren’t and we fuck up all the time).  They’re better because they represent turning away from a barbarous past, an attempt to grow up.  We may backslide a lot but at least we’re trying.

Hat tip to Shakesville



  1. Absolutely, we’re better. As you say, we do not perfectly adhere to our ideals, but we do have the Judeo-Christian ideals of equality, freedom, justice, human rights. It’s a lot to live up to, but at least we’re trying to live up to ideals that are moving us away from barbarity.

  2. I have to admit, I have a problem with calling our ideals Judeo-Christian. I’m much more comfortable with viewing them as an outgrowth of the enlightenment which itself was in some ways a product of Christianity and in more ways a reaction to it.

    Also, I hate to jump on your word choice but in this case I have to. WE aren’t better, we’re the product of societies that aspired to better things. That aspiration is by no means unanimous either, as demonstrated by the Bush admin here in the States.

  3. Actually, even if you don’t like all that the Judeo-Christian ideal offers, we get a massive amount of what we believe directly and verbatim from that tradition. The Old Testament/Jewish law outlines in detail trial by jury, right to a public trial, no one can be convicted by the testimony of one witness, malice aforethought, self-defense plea, involuntary manslaughter, the rights of women to inherit property, and even standing up when someone older walks into the room. The Enlightenment added a few tweaks, but most of it was anchored in the older tradition. And you can’t believe how many of our sayings come from that tradition.

    However, I agree that WE as individuals are not better. All humans start in the same place, and it is the ideas and ideals that make the difference. I was simply, as I felt you were, speaking of WE as the culture and ideals.

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