Moral equivalence is a gas

A chap who came to inspect our gas pipes this morning noticed that my shelves are full of books on Russia.

That sight inspired him to share his innermost thoughts on the subject. His audience was Penelope – I was busy chasing fuzzy yellow balls at the time.

“I quite like Putin,” said the gas man. “Why?” asked my inquisitive wife. “He is a strong leader,” explained the chap, who must be a Mail on Sunday reader and a fan of a certain columnist.

“But he kills a lot of people,” offered Penelope, trying to keep the argument at a level accessible to gas repairmen. “So do the Americans,” replied the proletarian.

“Not the same way,” insisted Penelope. “They don’t kill their journalists, they don’t poison people in foreign countries…” The chap shrugged in an eloquent manner meaning “six of one, half a dozen of the other.” Moral equivalence had the last word, or rather shrug.

Some years ago I encountered a similar attitude in a supposedly more enlightened audience. I was delivering a lecture on Russia to the faculty of a London university. My listeners took exception to my description of the Soviet Union as evil. After all, quite apart from everything else, the communists murdered 60 million of their own citizens.

“Americans have killed a lot of innocent people too,” countered the academics. “How many?” I asked. “Thousands.” “Even assuming that’s true,” I said, “it’s still a far cry from sixty million.”

“There’s no difference,” sneered the scholars. “And if you think there is, you are a moral relativist.” It’s refreshing to know that our university professors are of one mind with manual workers on the subject of Russia.

Actually, my guess is that a broader canvassing sample of the two groups would probably reveal that, on average, the workmen hold more sound ideas. They may even be more knowledgeable or, if you want to be pedantic about it, less ignorant.

In the spirit of the moral absolutism my academic listeners believed I lack, let me reiterate the seminal difference between America and Russia, under either the communists or Putin’s kleptofascists.

America has done a lot of things wrong, and continues to do them. America is often rash, misguided, ill-advised, culturally primitive, not sufficiently connected with the historical continuum, too materialistic for my taste. But one thing she definitely isn’t is evil.

Russia is, and has been since at least 1917. America is a careless driver who may accidentally hit a pedestrian. Russia is an evildoer who will deliberately drive his car into a crowd and then reverse over the bodies to make sure they are all dead. I could offer an endless litany of such metaphors, but you get the picture.

The two drivers aren’t much of a muchness. They inhabit different moral universes, one created by fallible human beings, the other by monstrous ogres.

You may think I’m trying too hard to prove I’m not the moral relativist those academic nonentities accused me of being. But that’s not the case. It’s just that some issues don’t call for a nuanced judgement of various shades of grey. They are black or white or, in the case of Putin’s Russia, all pitch black.

The war Putin is waging on the Ukraine is different from most other wars in that there isn’t even a smidgen of moral ambivalence about it. The same can’t be said, for example, about either World War.

In the first one, both sides claimed moral ascendancy nothing short of sacral righteousness. “Guerre sainte!” screamed French newspapers. “Gott mit uns!” disagreed the Germans. And Britain, explained the Bishop of Hereford, was fighting for “the realisation of the Christianity of Christ.”

In fact, all the parties succumbed to the suicidal death wish and joined forces to kill Europe in every other than the purely geographic sense. It’s possible to argue which side was more culpable, but in any case the issue lacks the chromatic contrast between black and white.

In the Second World war, the moral lines were clearer, but only marginally so. The war was started by an alliance of the two most evil regimes in history, Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, that both attacked Poland 17 days apart.

Britain and France immediately declared war on one evil power, Germany, but, illogically, not on the other, the Soviet Union. When two years later the two evil regimes quarrelled, the Western alliance sided with Stalin against Hitler. The subsequent defeat of Hitler was unequivocally moral, but the attendant victory of Stalin wasn’t.

Ask the Poles or the Czechs how happy they were during the ensuing decades of bolshevism, they’ll tell you. All things considered, that war wasn’t free of moral ambiguities: one evil regime was crushed, but the other thrived for another 46 years.

Moreover, when it died, it bequeathed to us all its evil progeny, Putin’s Russia. After consolidating its hold on domestic power, it started pouncing on its neighbours – eventually plunging Europe into by far the biggest war it has seen since 1945.

No ambivalence. No ambiguity. No argument: this war can and must be judged in black vs. white terms, as a clash between good and evil. If that’s not nuanced enough for you, fine. Here are a couple of shades, just a touch or two.

The Ukraine is good only on balance. It has good sides and bad ones, as do all countries inhabited by free men, and especially countries that communists were systematically corrupting for generations. The Ukraine is a work in progress, but she is definitely moving in the right direction, which is away from her miserable past under Putin’s predecessors and idols.

“Good on balance” is a morally relativist statement. So here’s a counterbalance of moral absolutism: Putin’s Russia is unequivocally, unambiguously and irredeemably evil. She is a fire-breathing Chimera, equally monstrous and equally mythological.

Her evil is unalloyed and unvarnished. Every end she pursues is evil, and so is every means she employs. No balance is anywhere in sight, no silver lining on the cloud and no light at the end of the tunnel (if you can forgive the lazy clichés). Everything else is myths spun out by either ignoramuses or people who are themselves evil.

It’s not just that Russia kills a lot of people, although God knows that’s bad enough. But that she has also created a moral climate in which killing a lot of people for evil reasons creates no public outrage. The evil regime has infected huge swathes of the population with its moral syphilis, with no antibiotics anywhere in sight. And now the whole world is quaking in its boots, wondering if that evil will unleash a nuclear apocalypse.

Strong words indeed, aren’t they? They are, advisedly and deservedly so. That’s to emphasise that no one in his right mind will use the same words to describe America. Love her or hate her or anything in between, she isn’t evil.

Anyone who detects moral equivalence between her and Russia should apply for a job with the Gas Board. They seem to hire such people, and I’m sure there must be vacancies. (I hear The Mail on Sunday is reducing its staff, so no luck there. And the job of the Putinversteher in residence is already taken.)   

3 thoughts on “Moral equivalence is a gas”

  1. I think the vast majority of people are arrogant in their opinions and confuse them with sound judgements. Few are the people who would be swayed by a good argument, for, as you have documented here, many think “I disagree” actually is an argument.

    Strong leaders abound. Gangs have strong leaders. Should we elevate the leaders of MS13, the Aryan Brotherhood, or the Latin Kings to President of the United States?

    The workmen may be ignorant of certain facts, as their choice for a news outlet may be shielding them. The scholars are willfully ignorant (stupid?) and do not let the facts get in the way of their ideology. Given a guarantee of employment, how any of our university professors would leave the U.S. or the U.K. for a job in Russia?

    But I do agree with the picture. My own Declaration of Interdependence states unequivocally, “All numbers are created equal”, which truth I hold to be self-evident.

  2. I live alone, so I don’t know what workmen who visit my house would say if there were a Penelope to draw their opinions out. What they mostly say to me in a tone of contemptuous incredulity is, “Have you read all those books?” I reply with a deferential mumble, and thank them when (oh blessed relief!) they leave.

    I wonder what would happen if one day a workman looked at my bookshelves and said, “I see you’ve been reading Aeschylus. The mainstream media can say what they like about that Eteocles geezer, but he stood up for Thebes against Polynices and them asylum seekers what he wanted to bring in, didn’t he?”

    Meanwhile, the Ukrainian war seems to me to be a battle not between Black and White but between Black and Dark Grey. I prefer the Dark Greys, but I’d prefer a Cadmus to either Polynices or Etiocles.

    1. I wish it were possible to edit my posts when I think of something to add!

      What I’ve just thought of is that Dante’s faction in Florence ought to be called the Dark Grey Guelfs, not the White. In this fallen world, Dark Grey is the best that’s usually on offer.

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