Moral equivalence, convention edition

I and others have remarked before on the prevalence in the media of moral equivalence, or “bothsidesism”. Often an innocent way of showing one’s even-handedness, it can all too easily become a means to excuse the inexcusable and normalise the radically abnormal.

There’s a fine example this week, in the aftermath of the Democrat and Republican national conventions in the United States. Brian Doherty in Reason magazine argues that Trumpist nationalism and urban riots both amount to dead ends, and that what America (and the world) needs is free markets and liberal individualism – to which he gives the somewhat ungainly name “bourgeois libertarianism”.

I think he’s right about that. And I’ll even concede, at least for the sake of argument, that riots, looting and arson represent a comparable evil to police brutality and vigilante killings. So far, so much symmetry.

But there’s a bait-and-switch tactic going on here – in fact there’s two of them; one that Doherty makes openly, and a second lurking in the background. The first is the running together of anti-police protests, symbolised by the slogan “no justice, no peace,” with actual violence, thereby implying that looting and arson are a natural consequence of the protests.

The second, which Doherty doesn’t make but his readers almost certainly will, is the conflation of the protest movement with the mainstream of the American centre-left, as represented by Joe Biden and the Democrats. (You can read here about Jeffrey Tucker doing much the same thing four years ago.)

The reason this is so insidious is that the corresponding conflation on the other side really is valid: Donald Trump and his circle have defended police brutality, clearly welcoming the violence that it has provoked, and the Republican Party has stood loyally behind him. But there is nothing comparable to be said of Biden, who has repeatedly condemned the riots. Moral equivalence here is a fraud.

You can see what’s going on by looking at Doherty’s historical analogy:

a disturbingly large number of people are insisting we recapitulate the stark choices that Germany seemed to offer its citizens a century ago between the world wars: a controlling, decadent left out to destroy private property, and a right that embraces a harsh, violent authoritarianism suspicious of outsiders of all stripes.

Again, for the sake of argument let’s accept that as of about 1930 the Nazis and Communists represented comparable threats to civilised values in Germany. Even so, that mischaracterises the actual problem that Germany faced. Democracy collapsed because liberal and centre-right forces, including the sort of people Doherty would probably count as his ideological allies, refused to co-operate with the centre-left, the Social Democrats.

In other words, many Germans suffered from the same delusion that seems common on the right today: the idea that centre-left and far right are roughly equivalent evils and that nothing much turns on the choice between them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Doherty is right about the direction in which the US needs to go. But his way of framing the decision risks obscuring the need to co-operate with the only available force to help get there, namely the Democratic Party. The fact that the Democrats also have a bunch of policies that from Doherty’s perspective (which I mostly share) seem misguided – as did the German Social Democrats – is, at this historical juncture, supremely unimportant.

The “both sides” framing also plays into the hands of the hard left, who want nothing more than to be seen as the only viable alternative to Trumpism. Three years ago I pointed to Jon Chait’s explanation of the way in which the term “neoliberalism” served to obscure the existence of an actual mainstream centre-left, leaving the field clear for a struggle between Trumpists and leftists.

Doherty’s “no justice, no peace” serves a similar purpose; by tarring rioters, leftists and mainstream Democrats with the same brush, it leaves libertarians as the only sane group standing between the Trumpists and the mob.

While that may be flattering to the libertarian ego, it’s a losing battle. The libertarians can’t do this on our own: we need Biden within the tent.

One thought on “Moral equivalence, convention edition

  1. > “for the sake of argument let’s accept that as of about 1930 the Nazis and Communists represented comparable threats”
    We know in hindsight that the Nazis were worse, but keep in mind that as of 1933, the Nazis had killed a few dozen Germans whereas Stalin’s regime had killed as many as 12 million people via the Ukrainian famine (not counting thousands of civilians tortured and murdered in the rest of the USSR).
    It’s the same reason why I don’t hate on Noam Chomsky in retrospect for welcoming the Khmer Rouge coming to power in 1975, or various Western leftists like Michel Foucault hailing the ayatollahs ousting the Shah of Iran in 1979, or for that matter, Al Capp (cartoonist who drew “Li’l Abner”) buddying up with Castro in 1959; from what they could see, at that time, a very bad regime had been ended by one that promised to be much better.
    Of course, one must be prepared to revise one’s priors and while a lot of Western leftists dismissed accounts by Orwell, Muggeridge, Gareth Jones, etc about the evils of Stalin’s regime (these reports came from the 1940s equivalent of News Ltd, so could safely be ignored as right-wing fake news), 1956 in Hungary did dislodge a lot of them and 1968 in Czechoslovakia also caused rethinking by another large tranche. Today most left-wingers angrily refuse any association with Stalin and his main admirers, ironically, tend to be right-wing Russian ultra-Orthodox nationalists.

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