Wednesday, August 25, 2004


Unser Kampf

The idea of the 'False Moral Equivalence' really got into the pedestrian world of political 'talking points' when Noam Chomsky equated the bombing of the chemical plant in Sudan to the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon. While that was indeed a perfect example of a FME, the charge (along with 'moral relativism') has since been leveled more or less reflexively; compare in any way the tactics of the Mayberry Machiavellis to any other winning-is-everything politician (including Hitler or Lenin), and you are facilely accused of one of the two things almost instantaneously - as if you were a dog getting its nose spanked. Hence, we learn caution: positing a False Moral Equivalence is repugnant and dangerous because a.) it trivializes the worse of the two things, and b.) it effectively dismisses what is, in absolute terms, a lesser evil, but an evil nontheless. But old Trotskyites/New Neocons have not stayed so attuned to the Dialectic as they flatter themselves. They offer, rather, a glittering, multi-faceted, closed-system: a sophistry.

The vulgar, reductive, 'talking points' version of the dialectic (including the 'materialist' kind) is really only an aspect, extrapolated onto the entire way of thinking, viz: a single murder and a genocide are both killing, but the genocide is killing on such a scale that it becomes something quite different qualitatively. But real dialectical thinking is not only about the transformations between quantity and quality: it's also about eternal motion, eternal mutability - in other words, context, with a capital 'C' (well, alright: 'Context').

The political techniques of Karl Rove, his Master Lee Atwater, and both George Bushes are indeed often similar to some of those used by Hitler and Lenin. Does that mean that Bush = Hitler? Of course it doesn't. But that doesn't make the qualitative similarities meaningless, nor do the differences in context disappear. A good Trotksyite Neocon might argue that a little misleading and demagoguery here and there are OK if they are in the service of a 'larger truth'. (Moral relativism, anyone?) But when does routine lying (clearly, all politicians must - strictly speaking - lie at times) become qualitatively different? The short answer is: when it becomes a value in itself. The longer answer lies in the consideration of political context.

Germany in the 20s and 30s was, politically, nothing like the USA of 2004. Germany had its very first democratic government after the first world war. The United States in the 21st century has over 200 years of a political system based frankly on rationality, openness and what you might call a kind of 'materialism' - or at least practicality. Whether you think it's viable or not (and clearly, some of our Neocon friends don't), our system is based on open debate using agreed-on facts. In a word, liberalism.

In her recent 3-hour appearance on C-SPAN, the historian and author of Paris 1919 Margaret McMillan, was asked if she thought the Second World War could be thought of as a continuation of the First. In replying that it might be thought of that way, she set part of the scene for nacent National Socialism:

Germany surrendered in November 1918 and it signed an armistice; I mean if you look at the terms of the is a surrender... But what happened between November 1918 and the end of June of 1919 when Germany signed its treaty, many Germans convinced themselves that they hadn't really lost...most Germans hadn't really seen allied occupation; the German army marched home and was greeted by the president, saying 'I greet you undefeated'...and The German high command, who had begged - absolutely begged - for an armistice in the fall of 1918, forgot that, conveniently, and began going around saying 'Well, we never lost; it was the weak-kneed civilians who had asked for an armistice, it was the traitors at home, you know the socialists, the left wingers of all sorts, the liberals...AND the Jews who stabbed us in the back..' And so you began to get the belief growing in Germany that Germany really hadn't lost....

Sound familiar? The subtext of the current Swift Boat controversy is that it was the anti-war people - like John Kerry - who were responsible for the failure of that war, rather than the realities of the war itself. Obviously, there is a big difference between Germany in 'Great' War and the US in Vietnam, but the disgusting reality is that the US finally withdrew from Vietnam in 1973 on virtually the same terms it could've done in 1968. American generals weren't pleading for a peace agreement, but five (5!) extra years of involvement didn't change much on the ground. Richard Nixon (Swiftie John O'Neill's patron) 'asked' thousands and thousands of people 'to die for a mistake'.

SO, does that mean the current Republican slime machine and the Freikorp/Hitler are the same? Again, of course not. But the pure lies, character assassination, amorality and winking hostility to empiricism of the New Right are, in a way, just as egregious in the American context: we have so much further to fall, have so many more political treasures to lose. Does that mean that a country like Germany 'deserved' Hitler because they had no liberal tradition? No. It means America deserves so much better because we do.

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