Home Afghanistan recent Our Mistaken Ideas About Human Rights Failed Us in Afghanistan
Home Afghanistan recent Our Mistaken Ideas About Human Rights Failed Us in Afghanistan

Our Mistaken Ideas About Human Rights Failed Us in Afghanistan

Human rights are not a government, they’re a culture.

America was founded on that simple premise. The Declaration of Independence’s conviction in the equality of men, individual rights, and governments gaining their authority from the consent of the governed was based on “self-evident” truths.

These truths are “self-evident” to Americans in the way that they’re not self-evident to the average Afghan, Pakistani, Iraqi, Russian, South African or Chinese citizen. They have their own truths that are equally “self-evident” to them based on their own worldview and culture.

The Taliban, like the vast majority of Muslims, assert that believers in Allah are superior to infidels, that men must have supreme authority over women, and leaders over people.

This hierarchical model governs a lot more of the world than anything we’ve come up with.

And even in America there are voices that favor tearing up the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and reverting to a hierarchical model. From the Marxists on the Left to the Neo-Reactionaries on the Right, there are those who would turn back the clock to feudalism with enlightened philosopher-kings imposing an “ideal society” on the inferior class of men.

When we say that something is self-evident, it flows naturally from our values and our beliefs.

Consider the two radically different worldviews inherent in Benjamin Franklin writing that, “the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards" is "a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy” and the Ayatollah Khomeini proclaiming “Allah did not create man so that he could have fun" and thus there "is no fun in Islam.”

Both Franklin and Khomeini were expressing a worldview that was self-evident to them.

“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” came from people who believed that God loves us and wants us to enjoy life. Beheadings, butchery, and the burka came from Islamists who believe that Allah does not like us very much and that we deserve to be miserable.

The respective governments of America and the Muslim world just play out that theology.

America’s approach to individual freedom and meritocratic government came out of broader English and European intellectual trends. Western nations mostly came around to the approach, at least after two world wars, finding that happy people made for a good economy and stability.

Asian First World nations also came around to their own modified versions of a free society while still emphasizing hierarchy and collective morality. And those were the success stories.

Most of the rest of the world is littered with failures.

The American idea was exported successfully by contact with our culture which contained its individualistic, moral, and aspirational DNA. That’s much less true than it used to be. But what is still true is that our efforts to directly export our ideals have failed miserably. Whether it’s trying to explain the Founding Fathers to the Iraqis or funding Women’s Studies in Afghanistan, few were influenced, and many were confused, irritated, or moderately amused by our efforts.

Constructing “governments-in-a-box” in Iraq and Afghanistan was never going to fit their culture. Exporting human rights by explaining our self-evident belief in individual rights didn’t work in cultures that don’t think that people are primarily individuals with agency, but members of a group whose rights come from their role in a rigid hierarchy of ethnicity, gender or race.

Our own political and cultural elites have adopted that worldview making them particularly unfit to spread human rights or individual freedom abroad even as they eliminate them at home.

How can Biden, who decided to pick a black woman as his vice president, before deciding which individual was going to fill that role, credibly tell the Afghans or Iraqis that they shouldn’t pick their leaders based on their gender, tribe, ethnicity, or Sunni and Shiite status?

Before we explain freedom and rights to the Afghans and Iraqs, we need a refresher course.

Our democracy export business is based on a series of intellectual errors dating back to the two world wars which we had defined as fighting for democracy and against tyranny in Europe.

Ever since then our intellectual and cultural elites have stuck to the conviction that the entire world works much like Europe. Every country, whether it’s in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East, is in the midst of a struggle between liberal democrats and reactionary authoritarians. All we have to do is overthrow their Hitler or Mussolini, and a liberal democracy will emerge from the ashes.

This fallacy may have hit its peak with the insistence that the Arab Spring was Europe in 1848.

The rest of the world isn’t Europe of the past three centuries. Its intellectual trends, worldviews, and culture have little in common. While western lefties managed to export socialism to most of the world, it takes on very different forms in places like North Korea or Iraq. The “self-evident” assumptions of political ideas are lost in the translation and transition to very different cultures.

The problem with exporting our “self-evident” ideas is that they’re based on the belief in a loving and merciful God, on the value of individual life, and the genius of individual innovation. Most of the world’s cultures are not only not individualistic, many, like the People’s Republic of China or the Muslim world, are actively anti-individualistic and believe morality comes from hierarchy.

Is morality individual or is it collective? Is the role of government to free people to make moral choices or to force them to make the right choice? Where you come down on the answer to that issue is going to determine the sort of society and government you want and will fight for.

If you’re a member of the Taliban, of the Chinese Communist Party, a believer in critical race theory or the neo-reactionary ideology, odds are you will come down on the collective side.

And on the side of tyranny.

Is life basically good or bad? Are most people bad or good? Does God love us or hate us?

You can’t just casually export our underlying assumptions behind human rights to cultures that answer these questions in very different ways.

All of us, in a more tribal America, have experienced the frustration of mutually incomprehensible conversations with our fellow Americans that appear to be about issues, mask mandates, Black Lives Matter, or abortion, but that are actually about culture and values.

If it’s all but impossible to establish common ground on what rights and freedoms are with other Americans, what were the odds that we were going to do it with Afghans or Iraqis?

America can and should export human rights. But the best way to do it is by example.

Whether it’s parents influencing children, teachers acting as role models, or any other mentor relationship, the most vital lessons are not didactic, but personal. From our earliest years, we learn by imitation and we become like the people we want to be. Indeed, in both Judaism and Christianity, goodness comes from striving to learn from and imitate the ways of God.

Tellingly, the concept plays out very differently in Islam where Muslims imitiate Mohammed.

When nations and peoples around the world strived to be like America, it’s because they admired what we had, what we achieved, and how we lived. Most people assume that success is the result of values and behaviors. How people see a successful group, whether it’s Americans, Jews, or Asians comes down to the question of whether they achieved their success fairly through discipline and hard work, or unfairly by abuse and thievery. The answer to that question will determine whether someone is anti-American, anti-Semitic, or anti-whatever group.

These days the loudest voices stating that America is evil, and that everything we had was gained through colonialism and slavery, are coming from our own political and cultural elites.

Why would anyone admire or imitate us when we loudly announce that we’re liars and thieves?

Exporting human rights is not a matter of finding dictators to overthrow. The Muslim world isn’t Europe. It’s not in a state of conflict between tyranny and freedom, but between different flavors of tyranny which all share underlying assumptions about hierarchy over individualism.

Regime change won’t fix the culture.

There are times when America may need to intervene in other countries, when it’s to counter a threat or to prevent an extreme wrong such as genocide, but we cannot and will not fix the world. The vast majority of the planet will go on living under authoritarian regimes. Women in Muslim countries will suffer. And so will various ethnic and religious minorities under their rule.

We should condemn evil where we see it without assuming that we can make it go away and that should drive us to build alliances with nations that share our culture, heritage and values. Instead of spending billions reconstructing enemies, we’re better off strengthening our friends.

Above all else, we should show that our values lead to a good life. The example that we set for the rest of the world will do more to spread human rights than any military interventions.

That’s how it always was.

After a century of ideological cold wars, countering Communism and then Islamism, we have a lot of military interventions under our belt, but have gotten no better at making arguments for our way of life to our own people. While we were trying to convince Africans that Marxism wasn’t for them, our Ivy League institutions adopted it. And while we tried to talk the Afghans and Iraqis out of Islamic theocracy, our own cities, institutions, and governments filled up with Islamists.

If we want to defeat Islamism and protect human rights and freedom, we should start at home.

It’s not just Afghanistan where young girls are being enslaved or sexually abused by Islamists.

In 2019, I reported that there had been over 2,000 visas approved for underage 'brides' from Muslim countries. Two years before that I reported on a female genital mutilation network in Michigan. There have been multiple cases of slavery involving Muslim families in America.

The massive influx of Afghans into America will make those numbers worse, not better.

The fundamental lesson of our founding is that we can’t defend our rights without also defending our culture. The self-evident truths on which our freedoms were founded are no longer all that self-evident on a college campus, let alone in Islamist enclaves like Dearborn or Little Mogadishu. If we want to save our rights, we’ll have to defeat the Taliban at home.

Daniel Greenfield is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. This article previously appeared at the Center's Front Page Magazine.

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Thank you for reading.


  1. AislaPS26/8/21

    I know that it must be boring , but can I repeat how important this current series of articles are, to me here in Britain?
    It's all so obvious when it's said, but it's simply not being said anywhere else like this. So simple, profound and yet it can appear as childlike.
    But you continue to cover vast swathes of cultural mess ,sifting and prioritising in such a way that I rephrase large tracts , try to recallibrate and then tell people what is being said here.
    It's vital that you keep going, really magnificent summaries and all the better for being repurposed with just a change of angle. Brilliant. Thank you .

    1. Good, I'm glad.

      It can't be said here either. And there are increasingly few chances to say it because few seem to want to hear it anymore.

      So please keep making use of it.

  2. Alexander Scipio26/8/21

    Our failure in Afghanistan was the failure of multiculturalists to export the Western culture they pretend to hate... to a non-Western people, being then shocked that those of another culture rejected it.

  3. Anonymous26/8/21

    The Liberal Philosophy of Bacon, Locke, Franklin,
    Jefferson constitutes the Axiom of our culture.
    Not immutable Truth, which may not be attainable;
    an axiom is posited as the origin of culture and
    all subsequent conclusions.

    American Culture blossomed into the wonder of
    advanced western civilization. Americans need to
    understand and appreciate the value and positive
    results of our culture. And we should also see
    the profound negative results of other cultures.

    Specifically, we should eschew willful blindness in
    evaluating the Hatred by Islam, Suppression by
    Communism, Corruption in South America and Africa.
    Unflinching scrutiny of malignant cultures show us
    their evil and dangerous folly of their “open minded”

    Attempts to mix incompatible cultures, compromise
    between cultures seldom produce good, because each
    side sees their Axiom as “True”. It is a virtue
    to value and protect our culture. Unity promotes
    Domestic Tranquility, Co-operation, Trust, Harmony.


    1. of course the entire term western civilization has become wholly alien to your average ivy league graduating class of today

  4. While I always enjoy your articles which resonate with me and deepen my understanding of current political issues, I feel like I have to add my comment here.
    It is my understanding that we, Americans or Westerners in general, didn't stay in Afghanistan for 10 years to implement our idea of democracy. That was a good narration to appease the do-gooders and give them some moral high ground to conduct this war, bur in reality the reason was quite different.
    Like in many wars before, this one was simply a great way to channel billions of US taxpayers money through our military establishment and private contracting firms back to powerful individuals in charge. Huge amounts were completely unaccounted for and huge amounts were very difficult to trace.
    Do we really care about the tyranny, abuse of human rights and tribal warfare in that land? There are other countries with similar issues and we don't even like to talk about them. If the democracy is so precious, why did we allow the mockery of the last election? Why do we silence those who speak the truth? Why do we allow gangs of thugs to intimidate the opposition to current corrupt establishment?
    The ideology is always just a façade to make people feel good, the real reason is the power and theft on grand scale.

    1. the plan was to stabilize an unstable region by making it an inclusive democracy and thus end its terror threat

      there was obviously a lot of money to be made in all this for some people, but that's true of anything the government does

      James Biden had that very nice contract for houses in Iraq, but then moved on to hospitals

      the government's budgets aren't getting any smaller regardless of whether we're in A-stan or not

  5. One of the BEST articles I have ever read......thank you

  6. There will be no finer article I read today than this masterpiece. How can it be that you know this, all of us reading this know it, and our elected class seemingly have no comprehension of this? Are they truly so blind they cannot see, or so enamored with their importance that they will not see?

    $2 Trillion seems to be the most commonly found figure for what the US has spent in Afghanistan. We got nothing for it but the loss of our blood and treasure. That sum could have been used to literally change many corners of the world, housing, schools, hospitals and clinics, etc. Uplifting is better than destroying. But then, I expect too much from our 'rulers'.

    1. they exist in their own echo chambers, a house of cards constructed out of rationalizations and fantasies about how they've been told, by some seemingly smart people, how the world should be, than how it really is

    2. Anonymous28/8/21

      The Wisdom of Daniel Greenfield and Andrew Breitbart
      on Culture is indispensable. “Politics, law,
      science, economy and just about everything lie
      downstream of culture.” Culture is hard to define.
      Not sayings, rules, dogmas; we used to recognize
      it in another Yank when traveling. It felt
      comfortable to greet someone with whom we expected
      to share basic agreements, trust. E Pluribus Unum
      really worked because of our shared culture.

      Subversives have undermined our culture. “Of Course”
      and “Common Sense” have lost meaning. Mountains of
      arcane laws, tended by Lawyer and Politician Guilds
      claim to rule our lives. Who understands, who
      consents anymore? Who feels at home with strangers
      camped out in the living room?

      America: Love it or leave it!


  7. This is mostly so fat ugly old Muslims can get laid by tender young boys and girls.

  8. "If it’s all but impossible to establish common ground on what rights and freedoms are with other Americans, what were the odds that we were going to do it with Afghans or Iraqis?"
    Or the millions of immigrants, legal and otherwise, who come here without Western values or culture, who look to cash in in the "bennies" of Freedom, without a thought of "assimilation".

    1. Anonymous31/8/21

      Brilliant, Mike; “Bennies” over Freedom and
      attendant Responsibility. Ideal Democrat
      Lefty constituency. Jihad and Balkanization
      likelihood is an added bonus.



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