The Power of Moral Clarity

Moral clarity — and the willingness to speak it — brought the Berlin Wall down back in 1989.

That’s the point made by two fantastic pieces in the Wall Street Journal from last month on Nov 9 (the day the Berlin Wall fell). I highly recommend them. I’m mentioning them now because they are relevant beyond simply the anniversary of that date. For woven throughout them are some of the core principles that are at the center of any sound theory of government. The pieces are:

Here are a few key excerpts from the articles, which I’ve categorized underneath headings that state some of these core principles:

1. The biggest threat to freedom is not military aggression, but moral ambiguity and sophistry.

The reason for this is that moral ambiguity serves as a mechanism to cloak the practices and principles that oppress people. In the twentieth century, this resulted in the enslavement and death of millions. Without moral clarity, you will not have action and people will not organize together.

(That’s not a quote from the articles, but that’s the underlying theme, and that’s how I would say it.)

2. You do not follow the principles of “how to win friends and influence people” with criminal regimes. They are different.

Reagan had the carefully arrived at view that criminal regimes were different, that their whole way of looking at the world was inverted, that they saw acts of conciliation as weakness, and that rather than making nice in return they felt an inner compulsion to exploit this perceived weakness by engaging in more acts of aggression. All this confirmed the criminal mind’s abiding conviction in its own omniscience and sovereignty, and its right to rule and victimize others.

3. The most powerful weapon against criminal regimes is publicly spoken moral clarity.

Accordingly, Reagan spoke formally and repeatedly of deploying against criminal regimes the one weapon they fear more than military or economic sanction: the publicly-spoken truth about their moral absurdity, their ontological weakness.

This was the sort of moral confrontation, as countless dissidents and resisters have noted, that makes these regimes conciliatory, precisely because it heartens those whom they fear most—their own oppressed people. Reagan’s understanding that rhetorical confrontation causes geopolitical conciliation led in no small part to the wall’s collapse 20 years ago today.

4. There are often opponents to moral clarity from within our own walls — including people with a narrowly pragmatic view of the world and people who simply should know better.

Yet it bears recalling that even these obvious political facts were obscure to many people who lived in freedom and should have known better. “Despite what many Americans think, most Soviets do not yearn for capitalism or Western-style democracy,” said CBS’s Dan Rather just two years before the Wall fell. And when Reagan delivered his historic speech in Berlin calling on Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” he did so after being warned by some of his senior advisers that the language was “unpresidential,” and after thousands of protesters had marched through West Berlin in opposition. [Which, of course, takes us back to point 1.]