Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

An Exercise in Moral Equivalence

Near the end of our trip to Europe we crossed the Channel and visited a few of the sites associated with the Normandy invasion. The American cemetery, with its thousands of simple white crosses, moved me deeply, as everyone told me would happen. Then we stopped at a museum in Caen, ostensibly devoted to World War II, but with a substantial exhibit on the Cold War as well. I was intrigued, but what I found in the accompanying museum guide was particularly interesting:

The Dark Side of the Cold War

Each bloc [i.e., the U.S. and the Soviets] had hidden sides. Both camps had their dissidents and their protesters, and so developed repressive policies.

On the American side, there was the problem of the blacks and social equality, alongside the anti-Communist hysteria that was unleashed in 1949 when news of the first nuclear explosion in the USSR was released.

The Soviet side features the Gulag: thousands of deportees worked and died in the countless Siberian work camps.

Sure, the Russkies had slave labor camps, but, hey, America didn’t have social equality!

Discussions - 21 Comments

John- I am trying to rectify the moral outrage in Joe’s posting below, regarding Timothy Shortell, and the moral nonchalance that you express in this one.

Obviously, you are two different people, but I assume that you both identify with a common ideology, and abhorence of anything "Left."

So, can we ask you to amplify your point, here? Because, so far, this strikes me as one of those messages that a student, or reader, might interpret as offensive. It reads as though you are suggesting that America’s "dark side" should not be described as such because a relatively trivial social inequality could never match the evil of the gulag. Did the original writers suggest that dark sides must be precisely equivalent in order to be mentioned together? Do you have a normative "hardship scale" that would allow us to compare, say 200 years of slavery with ten years of Cambodia’s Kiling Fields?

I find it tiresome when people claiming moral high ground look instead for the nearest deep pit with which to contrast their position. In the news today: Three cross burnings in North Carolina. But hey, it could have been ten crosses! What’s a generation or two in poverty when you could have a cross burning on your lawn? Better yet: Stop compaining about the way they dragged Daddy over to the tree.... you could be carrying rocks in a "Russkie" Gulag!

Fung, I ask you to consider how people would react if this were an exhibit about World War II, and images of the internment camps for Japanese-Americans were displayed alongside those of Jews at Auschwitz, all as part of an effort to display the "dark side" of the war. Would you have a problem with that, or not?

I don’t see the point to mentioning slavery, as the United States was not a slave society during the Cold War. If we were talking about, say, the War of 1812 or the Mexican War, then it would be relevant.

Finally, isn’t it worth mentioning that evils like lynching and cross-burning were private crimes, while the gulag was an instrument of national policy?

Well said, John. "Ego distinguo" remains the elementary mark of good thinking. (Robert Sokolowski, a wonderful professor of philosophy at Catholic University of America and former teacher of mine, has a fine article, "Making Distinctions", which appeared in the Review of Metaphysics many years ago. Worth a read. And you, no doubt, know who made the phrase famous in the 13th century.) BTW: I also appreciate - from afar - the even-keeledness of your response. One last point: I would never identify, or confuse, you and Joe. .;

John- Certainly there is a difference between a private crime and a national one, though I don’t think that means much to the victim at the time. It is not as though the families of lynching victims could march over to the Police Station and expect reasonalbe recourse. Plus, the Civil Rights Movement overlapped chronologically with the Cold War. It was not aimed primarily at individuals, but rather at the social and political structures that were responsible for national policy.

Second, I mentioned slavery because it occurred to me as an evil whose value as an evil is difficult to measure, and thus supports my point about the fallacy of equating or distinguishing evils. In addition, obviously the "social inequality" that you refer to is and was a direct descendant of that peculiar institution.

Another point about your distinction betwen individual- and institutional-level crimes. While they are different, they are often interdependent. George Bush pointed this out when he told the world that the USA will make no distinction between terror organizations and the countries that harbor them. If the KKK, for instance, is a terror organization, then we must claim some responsibility for their existence and relative freedom to conduct their cowardly business. I won’t suggest that we should attack ourselves until we give them up.

I would ask you to review the details of the U.S. Government’s Tuskegee Syphillis Study that was conducted until the mid 1970’s, and in which Black Americans with Syphillis were purposely deprived of treatment, some of them for a period of nearly 30 years, in order to observe the natural untreated course of the disease. Their doctors were asked to cooperate, and to keep their patients in the dark about their true condition. This was a government funded, designed, and conducted study that was only terminated when reporters got wind of it.

My question: Shall we compare this practice to the Nazi "medical" experiments conducted on camp inmates and claim moral high ground?

So, in answer to your first question, yes, it would make me uncomfortable to see the Japanese internment camps equated with Auschwitz. Period. I will grant you that. But, it makes me MORE uncomfortable to read your trivializing of "social equality" on the grounds that you have provided. If we want to feel good about our own individual behavior, or our national policy, can’t we find a better reference than Stalin and Hitler?

So, in answer to your first question, yes, it would make me uncomfortable to see the Japanese internment camps equated with Auschwitz. Period. I will grant you that. But, it makes me MORE uncomfortable to read your trivializing of "social equality" on the grounds that you have provided. If we want to feel good about our own individual behavior, or our national policy, can’t we find a better reference than Stalin and Hitler?

Have you forgotten that this was a post about a museum exhibit? Your accusation that I am "trivializing" anything is based on nothing more than my critique of the exhibit. And based on your answer to my question about Japanese internment and the Holocaust, it seems that this is a critique that you share.

But let me go further. I would contend that criticizing a society for having crime, poverty, and inequality (by the way, the scare quotes around "social inequality" are merely a reflection of my skepticism regarding a term that is seldom defined--certain inequalities are, I think, perfectly justifiable) is a little like critizing it for having cancer victims. Sure, we’d like to eradicate these things, but they are evils that no civilized society has managed to escape; surely the Soviet Union was arguably worse in these respects.

So, in response to your request for a "normative ’hardship scale’," how about this:

During the Cold War, American society was afflicted to some extent by crime, poverty, and social inequality. But then, so was Soviet society (and Chinese, and German, and French, and Mexican, etc.). So why bother mentioning these things in an exhibit on the Cold War?

On the other hand, the Soviet Union had slave labor camps. The United States did not. Ergo, on the hardship scale, America comes out on top.

John - I assume that you could have chosen to write about anything that you were thinking about, and that you chose the exhibit because it seemed important to you. Specifically, I assume that this line:

Sure, the Russkies had slave labor camps, but, hey, America didn’t have social equality!

was your choice, and that you put it there for readers to agree with, or to find amusing. And so, I responded to it. I still see in your writing an unpleasant tendency to look for some kind of self- or national affirmation in your contrast between gulags and an historical, systemic, and often-horrific exploitation of Black Americans and their ancestors. Now you suggest in your latest reply that (a) some inequalities are justified, and (b) inequality "happens" to societies. Americans somehow "caught" Jim Crow, and racial inequality the way a person gets cancer. Perhaps this is the amplification that I asked you for. If so, then I think that I understand your argument.

But really, you have not answered my original and central point: Given that "their" dark side is darker than "our" dark side, why in the world would you point to us as the lesser of two evils and act proud of that? Espcially when you had the choice of writing nothing at all?

Do I really need to say this again? I challenged a museum exhibit that tried to establish some kind of moral equivalence between America’s social problems and the gulag. You apparently agree with my logic, because you say that you would object to an exhibit that placed the Holocaust and the internment of Japanese-Americans on the same moral plane. If you insist on reading into that some kind of denial that there were/are ills in American society (come on, do I really need to reassure you that I think segregation was wrong?), then I suppose I can’t stop you.

But really, you have not answered my original and central point: Given that "their" dark side is darker than "our" dark side, why in the world would you point to us as the lesser of two evils and act proud of that?

Your "central point" seems to be that we cannot take pride in our country unless it lives up to some never-before-attained standard of perfection. I reject that logic. America wasn’t a perfect society in the 1940s; far from it. Nevertheless, it was on the side of right in the fight against the Axis. America wasn’t a perfect society in the 1950s and 1960s, but it was on the side of right in the struggle against Soviet communism. None of this is to say that we should not seek to correct genuine social ills; merely that they be kept in perspective. What is so difficult to understand about that?

Just to run a bit w/ something that John Moser suggests, I think it can be persuasively argued that America’s core decency, which disposed us to throw ourselves into the battle against fascism abroad in the early 1940s, also led many additional Americans, precisely in light of that struggle and its meaning, to move toward greater support for civil rights extended without prejudice of race, ethnicity, or skin color. The notorious postwar incident of the black U.S. soldier, in uniform, who was savagely beaten and blinded for taking a seat in the "whites only" section of a Southern interstate bus, touched consciences in a nation that had just come out of a war to crush several particularly odious and aggressively racist regimes overseas.

In other words, the truth asserted itself that if fascism is un-American, so is lynching--lynchings have certainly happened, to our shame as a nation, but they have always been out of synch with the principles of justice, liberty, equality, and the rule of law upon which America is based. In this sense, lynching and Jim Crow more generally may truly be called un-American.

By contrast, I don’t think one can in all honesty say there’s anything in principle "un-Russian" or "un-German" about slave-labor or even death camps. Inhuman and evil, yes, but out of synch with some principled basis of this or that Russian or German regime-founding "proposition"? I’m afraid the answer is no.

This doesn’t make America or Americans perfect, nor does it mean that any given American is more virtuous than any given German or Russian. But it does suggest a source of self-criticism and self-correction in the American regime that has been lacking in German or Russian history, at least until quite recently (if then).

Pseudo-evenhanded sounding talk about "dark sides" elides over this (to my mind highly salient) difference, and thus misses the forest for the trees. This is why I have a problem with it.

But I don’t think that need imply any kind of denial about American misdeeds and failings.

Excellent points, PJC. America’s social ills represent an all-too-human failure to live up to the country’s founding principles. Another way of looking at is to consider how many people risked everything in order to flee the Soviet Union and its client states. In contrast, how many people--even admittedly oppressed African-Americans in the Jim Crow South--left America to seek greener pastures elsewhere?

Dear PJC, what are the German principles that dictate "slave-labor or even death camps"? What are the Russian ones?

Some things for Fung to ponder.

Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically, as in England and America in the nineteenth century under laissez-faire. To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed, as in Russia after 1917. Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom, and in the end superior ability has its way.
- Will Durant

and consider this....

Equality, in a social sense, may be divided into that of condition, and that of rights. Equality of condition is incompatible with civilization, and is found only to exist in those communities that are but slightly removed from the savage state. In practice, it can only mean a common misery.
- James Fenimore Cooper

What does Fung have to say about individualality?


These European lunatics are digging their own graves.

May I recommend James Burnham’s book "Suicide of the West." Big among conservatives 40 years ago, and deserves to be now.

PJC- One of the reasons that I spend more time arguing on this blog, as opposed to agreeing with my left-wing friends, is the rewarding feeling when a transcendent perspective is achieved, such as the one that you have approached. Really, I like very much what you have to say about American values, and about our characteristic ideals and failures. The only point that I would push against is the notion that there are Russian or German national characteristics that are reflected by their fascist or totalitarian regimes. I hate to lump the many people of Germany or the Soviet Union with their leaders, especially when those leaders proved ultimately to be the enemy of their people.

And John- Thank you for hanging in there! Your last statement in comment 7 is, I think, your first explicit recognition that we need some improvement. Before that, crime, and equality were explained away.

Jesse- Spoken like a true right-wing authoritarian! One of the characteristics of the high RWA is the embracing of freedom, and the relative devaluation of equality. I reject that, as well as I reject most of what you have said. Individuality can be expressed in many ways, and competition and rivalry are two very tired and overused ways. Cooperation and relatedness are not antithetical to individuality. There are plenty of values that benefit both the individual and society: wisdom, peace, cooperation, consideration, industriousness. Whoever fed you the idea that people and societies are inevitably opposed did you no favors.

The only point that I would push against is the notion that there are Russian or German national characteristics that are reflected by their fascist or totalitarian regimes. I hate to lump the many people of Germany or the Soviet Union with their leaders, especially when those leaders proved ultimately to be the enemy of their people.

Here we agree, but I don’t think that was what PJC was trying to suggest. The fact is that while there are American principles, there are not German or Russian principles. As has been said many times before, one is American by virtue of adherence to a set of values, not by virtue of blood, or race, or language. The story that Peter Schramm likes to tell, in which his Hungarian father said that they were "American, but born in the wrong place," sums it up quite nicely.

Thus it would be wrong to say that Soviet communism or Nazism was in line with Russian or German principles, because there are no such things. There are, however, communist and Nazi principles, and I believe that the slave labor camp and the gas chamber follow quite naturally from them.

Fung and Paul Seaton:

I’m afraid you guys are reading assertions into my post that aren’t there.

I’m not making an argument about putatively inherent national characteristics, nor claiming that there are intrinsically German or Russian principles that point to totalitarianism.

To put it in as concisely as I can, America is founded on a proposition, which can be used to correct practice. Other countries that aren’t founded on this proposition may do ill or well, but if the former the cure will be (and has been) more likely found in some locally adapted version of the American [i.e., liberal-democratic] proposition than in anything purely interior and autochtonic to those lands.

I don’t believe that Germans or Russians are somehow uniquely predisposed to totalitarianism: Peoples other than the Germans have embraced fascism, and there’s certainly nothing especially Russian about Marxism (indeed, Marx disdained Russia as site for the revolution he had in mind).

okay. I have no argument with these last two postings. Thank you for the clarification.

Dear PJC, What’s your understanding of Germany? Of Russia? I’m prompted to ask by your phrase "purely interior and autochtonic to those lands". You seem to think that neither country/nationpeople has universal principles of any sort that could serve as the basis for legitimate national self-criticism. Is that your belief? (John clearly stated, yes.)

The fact is that while there are American principles, there are not German or Russian principles.


I find this statement a bit problematic; I would suggest that these countries do have principles, but our own knowledge of their culture is limited and thus we aren’t able to identify them. In addition, the histories of Russia and Germany read much longer than that of America, so it is easier to pick out those "American principles" as you call them.

Paul:

They do have those principles now (the Germans pretty firmly so, the Russians not so firmly), but to no small degree because of the role that the American proposition (whether by force, by example or by a mixture of the two across time) has played in influencing how they understand themselves.

The American Revolution is a world-historical event. It’s hard or even impossible to understand the growth and progress of modern liberal democracy without it. At the core of the Revolution stands the Declaration of Independence--a document which is darn near sui generis. There’s simply no German or Russian equivalent. The Russians in particular also experienced their founding democratic moment not as a time of unity (as America did), but rather as a moment of imperial decay and fragmentation. I speculate, BTW, that this may be one of the reasons why so many Russians seem so complacent about Putin (he projects an air of being all about restoring respect for Russian greatness) and not as worried as they should be about his antidemocratic tendencies.

PJC, Thanks. Enjoy the rest of the holiday weekend. Great Indy 500 yesterday; not so good with the Yankees.

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