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Bed-wetters? Really?

Yesterday, Rick Perlstein wrote a post in which he contrasted the way America greeted Ahmadinejad this week with the way we greeted Nikita Khrushchev in 1959. Ahmadinejad, of course, was met with sharp denunciations from politicians, activists, even his host at Columbia, Lee Bollinger--whom Perlstein accused of "whin[ing] like a baby bereft of his pacifier that his guest is a big meany poopy-head." By contrast, Perlstein writes, Khrushchev--who, like Ahmadinejad today, was an enemy of our country when he visited--was treated to a white-tie state dinner, an open limo ride with President Eisenhower, and tours of Manhattan, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Perlstein's point is that 1950s America was more mature than contemporary America. "Nikita Khrushchev," he writes, "simply visited a nation that had character. ... Now when a bad guy crosses our threshhold, America becomes a pants-piddling mess." He called his post "Bed-wetter Nation."

This is, frankly, an astonishing sentiment coming from a liberal. Now, it's true that, as Perlstein points out, one reason for the difference between 1959 and today is the rise in prominence of a certain brand of conservatism that thrives on promoting fear. Moreover, clearly some of the responses to Ahmadinejad's visit have been hysterical. Whatever you think of Columbia's decision to host the Iranian leader, calls by people like Duncan Hunter to cut off federal funding to the university are obviously ridiculous, and should be treated as such.

At the same time, does it not occur to Perlstein that there are other key differences between 1950s America and contemporary America? For starters, human rights is much more central to the way we think about geopolitics today than it was back then: We simply know more, and care more, about the internal character of foreign regimes. Yes, Americans in the 1950s were aware that the Soviet Union was a repressive place. But, today, thanks to the web, thanks to the heroic efforts of journalists to infiltrate closed societies, thanks to groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the average American has access to detailed information about the ugly way regimes like Iran treat dissidents, women, gays, and religious minorities--the types of details that a typical consumer of news didn't have about the Soviet Union in the 1950s. (See, for example, this photo of gay teenagers being hanged in Iran; or this description of women being beaten in a Tehran square.) As the world has gotten smaller, empathy has become more natural; and simply looking the other way in the face of faraway injustice has gotten that much harder. Knowledge of what authoritarian regimes are busy doing to their own people makes it understandably difficult for Americans to roll out a clubby red carpet for the leaders who perpetrate such crimes. This, fundamentally, is progress.

There is another way in which America has changed since Khrushchev's visit, and it too helps explain why Ahmadinejad was greeted so critically this week: We are today a more open society than we were in the 1950s--less preoccupied with decorum, less inclined towards self-censorship for the sake of civility, less deferential towards authority. Civility, of course, is nice, but one of the casualties of civility is often truth. And I think it's fair to say that our culture's general disposition towards the tradeoff between truth and civility has changed since the 1950s--tipping further in the direction of truth and away from civility. This, too, has been a good thing. America in the 1950s was a place where it might have been considered rude for a university president to attack a visiting foreign leader for his government's cruel policies towards its own citizens. It was also a place where it was considered rude to discuss race (even though apartheid conditions still prevailed in half the country) and gender (even though women remained trapped in a de jure and de facto sexist culture that severely constricted their life choices). Obviously, one of the great achievements of the 1960s generation was to begin dismantling the barriers that prevented minorities and women from integrating fully into American life. But a related, and perhaps even larger, achievement was to start pushing our culture away from the sort of instincts--a preference for decorum over honesty, for self-censorship over confrontation--that had made too many people complicit in these injustices for too long. Perlstein seems to think this change has made our society more childish. I would argue it has made us more liberal.

Of course there are people who want the United States to go to war with Iran, and who therefore had their own set of reasons for giving Ahmadinejad a rude reception this week. I am, emphatically, not one of those people. But does opposing war with Iran really require liberals to act politely towards an illiberal monster like Ahmadinejad--to overlook his repression of dissidents, his sponsorship of terrorism, his fanatical anti-semitism? Does Perlstein really think we would be better off if we lived in a country where people declined to confront foreign leaders when they behaved badly? I'd be curious to know. Because there is a word for people who romanticize the surface comity that characterized the 1950s; who long for the days when politics was a polite game of chess conducted by a club of world leaders, before pests like human rights groups showed up to complicate great-power relations; who believe that maturity means looking the other way while the strong do terrible things to the weak; and who disparage the instinct to speak out against injustice as a childish impulse of bed-wetters. Those people are called ... conservatives. --Richard Just