THIS LIVELY, idiosyncratic book makes many excellent points. Joan Smith argues that we are living through a period of transition in our moral thinking. Whereas "morality" once referred almost exclusively to sexual behaviour in the private domain, there has recently been a shift to a more democratic ethic, with justice, equity and human rights in the public sphere its chief concerns.
A new morality is making itself felt: a grass-roots movement, whose chief tool is the internet rather than parliamentary institutions, has been able to affect world opinion. A watershed occurred in November 1999 in "the Battle of Seattle", when protesters demonstrating against unfettered capitalism and promoting environmentalism, animal rights, and support for exploited workers, caused leaders to abandon the summit meeting of the World Trade Organisation. Smith believes that there is a link between recent sexual tolerance, which has legalised homosexuality and destigmatised single parenthood and divorce, and this new focus on issues of money and power. Instead of policing private lives, modern politicians are beginning to realise that they cannot continue to sell arms with impunity to corrupt and cruel regimes, or ignore the yawning gulf between rich and poor, without their legitimacy being called into question.
The technological revolution has empowered ordinary people to challenge democratic governments on policies that they were formerly able to keep from the public. Because our society is no longer so obsessed with sexual morality, a useful space has opened up, which allows us to think about public issues.
The first part of Smith's book reveals how the US conspired to overthrow the elected leader of Chile and thus subjected its people to 17 years of terror under General Pinochet; and how Britain and the US were both happy to sell arms to Saddam Hussein for years, despite his appalling human rights record. All this needs to be said. There is too much self- congratulatory talk about the infamy of such regimes and insufficient recognition of the role of the West in establishing dictators. …