When in my misspent Moscow youth I freelanced as interpreter-guide, mainly to American student groups, I was instructed how to parry critical comments about the Soviet Union.
The instruction period was short: the title above emerged as the main mandated reply to any criticism.
“Your shop shelves are empty.” “And you lynch blacks.”
“You have no real elections.” “And you lynch blacks.”
“No foreign newspapers are sold.” “And you lynch blacks.”
“You keep millions in concentration camps.” “And you lynch blacks.”
“You sent tanks into Hungary and Czechoslovakia.” “And you lynch blacks.”
“Russia is much poorer than any Western country.” “And you lynch blacks.”
And so on, ad infinitum. Not wishing to come across as more stupid than God originally made me, I couldn’t bring myself to mouth such obvious inanities. And anyway, I already knew the expression “two wrongs don’t make a right”.
Even assuming that every tree in America was indeed decorated with dangling blacks, that didn’t make Lenin’s and Stalin’s crimes any less objectionable. Hence the requisite reply was a non sequitur, a rhetorical fallacy.
A few years later my toxic presence could no longer be tolerated in the Soviet Union, and the investigating KGB officer magnanimously gave me the choice of going either West or East, meaning a Siberian prison camp. A tough one, that.
When I found myself in the US, I didn’t see any dangling blacks. However, I did see, read and hear countless journalists, academics and casual acquaintances who responded to criticism of the Soviet Union with more sophisticated versions of the same argument I had been loath to use as a 20-year-old.
By then I had already started reading National Review and so knew that such shoddy reasoning was called ‘moral equivalence’. This is how it worked:
“The Soviets have concentration camps.” “We kept Nisei Americans in internment camps. What’s the difference?”
“They have the KGB.” “We have the CIA.”
“The KGB spies on its own citizens.” “So does our FBI.”
“The Soviets killed millions.” “We killed four at Kent State.” “Four million?” “No, just four. But numbers don’t affect morality.”
“The Soviet population is thoroughly pauperised.” “We have poor people too.”
“Soviet medicine is antediluvian.” “But it’s free.”
“They are taught nothing but lies about the West.” “We tell lies about the Soviet Union.”
The preponderance of ‘moral equivalence’ was so universal and uniform that I wondered if the wielders of that argument were beneficiaries of the same instruction I had received way back then, and from the same source.
Most, I’m sure, weren’t. But some, I’m equally sure, were. Otherwise it’s hard to explain why they were all singing the same tune from the same hymn sheet, in unison.
This brings me to Peter Hitchens, who unfailingly provides topics for me on “any given Sunday”, to borrow the title of the American film. Yesterday he was appalled by what he tends to call our hysteria about Putin’s beastliness, which is hypocritical and Russophobic. After all, we continue to trade with the ghastly Saudi Arabia.
And didn’t we invade Iraq in 2003 exactly the same way Putin invaded the Ukraine in 2022? Thus we have no moral right to protest against indiscriminate bombings of civilians, something of which, Hitchens hastens to disclaim, he wholeheartedly disapproves.
This coincides, almost verbatim, with the line peddled in Putin’s speeches (including the two most recent ones) and those of his mouthpieces. Except that they tend to go further back, all the way to the Second World War, the mainstay of Putin’s militarist ideology.
Suddenly echoes of my unlamented youth begin to reverberate through both RT and, courtesy of Hitchens, The Mail on Sunday:
We bombed Dresden, they bomb Mariupol, what’s the moral difference?
We invaded Iraq, they invaded the Ukraine. Same thing.
We trade with Saudi Arabia and China, so how come we refuse to trade with Russia?
One such exchange is doubtless being kept for future use: We nuclear-bombed Hiroshima, they nuclear-bombed [whatever the target will be]. Where’s the moral distinction?
Variations differ, but the theme never changes, and neither does the implicit upshot. Let’s abandon the Ukraine to her fate, stop this hysteria and go back to treating Putin as if nothing happened.
That’s where the non sequiturs come in. We can discuss the West’s immorality to our hearts’ content, inevitably agreeing in the end that Western countries have been known to sin both individually and collectively.
Yet there are degrees and nuances. A boy telling his mother to shut up is a sinner, and so is a boy who cuts his mother’s throat. I don’t know whether God will judge both equally, but anyone insisting on such parity in this world is either dishonest or certifiably mad.
Now, I detested the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and I agree it was immoral. Even worse, it was geopolitically illiterate.
And yes, the rulers of Saudi Arabia and China both run abhorrent regimes, with the latter capable of presenting an existential threat to us in the future.
And yes, I’d be happier if we didn’t allow evil regimes to hold our economies to ransom, something that both Saudi Arabia and, many times over, China are doing.
By all means, we should discuss this in a different context. But in this context, tying that to Putin’s mass murder is simply regurgitating enemy propaganda.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor China is waging vicious war in the middle of Europe, and they aren’t threatening us with nuclear annihilation. Neither Saudi Arabia nor China is trying to blow collective security sky high, not yet at any rate. Russia is, and Putin’s fascist regime is a factor of what Oliver Wendell Holmes called “a clear and present danger”.
Hence Putin’s and Hitchens’s pathetic attempts to invoke equally black pots and kettles must be dismissed with contempt. China definitely and Saudi Arabia probably are the bridges we’ll have to cross sooner or later. But the bridge separating us from a nuclear exchange with Putin’s Russia has already been mined, and his finger is already on the button.
One has to admire the steadfast consistency with which Hitchens peddles Putin’s lies and lines. Vlad rages about Ukrainian Nazis; Peter refers to the Ukraine gaining independence as a “putsch”. Vlad explains the war is necessary to stop Nato’s eastward expansion; Peter repeats the lie with canine fidelity. Vlad talks moral equivalence; so does Peter.
One could be forgiven for thinking there exists an osmotic link between the two. At least I hope the link is merely osmotic.