Earlier this year, I had an essay called “The Even-Steven Temptation: Adventures in moral equivalence.” (Go here.) The occasion for it, I think, was President Obama’s statement at the National Prayer Breakfast: Because of the Crusades and the Inquisition — plus American slavery and Jim Crow — we were not to “get on our high horse” about the Jihad.
What I call “even-steven” is a principle, or phenomenon, I grew up with: Every criticism of something abroad — a person, an action, or a dictatorship — had to be accompanied by a criticism of something at home. We were not to be too big for our britches. We were not to think of ourselves as anything special. We were not to get on our high horse.
If I spoke of the Gulag, you said, “Oh, yeah? What about Japanese internment?” If I spoke of the CCP’s subjugation of Tibet, you said, “Oh, yeah? What did we do to the Native Americans?” Even-steven, you see?
Andrew Young, who was President Carter’s ambassador to the U.N., provided an excellent example of even-steven in 1978. At the time, Soviet dissidents were undergoing show trials. Young said, “In our prisons, too, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people whom I would describe as political prisoners.”
Donald Trump has now provided an equally stark example. George Will wrote about it in a recent column. Putin praised Trump. Trump praised him back. Asked about the Putin regime’s killing of journalists, Trump answered, “I think our country does plenty of killing also.”
Even-steven, you see? Trump’s response was exactly what I would have heard back in Ann Arbor, my dear old lefty hometown. His words were identical to those that an anthro prof, let’s say, would have uttered.
Would the prof have said, “I’ve always felt fine about Putin”? Probably not. That’s not so much even-steven as approval. Trump said those words. (The anthro prof would have said them about Mao, and possibly about Brezhnev — certainly about Castro.)
I am reminded of how the Left and Right can blend — although it’s pretty much impossible to locate Trump politically. Is he Left or Right or in between? In any case, I had a lesson in this blending not long after the Cold War ended.
During the Cold War, there were varying interpretations of that war: how it had started, who was responsible for its perpetuation or escalation, etc. The hard Left in America was represented by William Appleman Williams and Gar Alperovitz. These were Marxists who faulted America and excused the Soviets at every turn. The United States was guilty of arrogance, belligerence, and empire-building, they said.
Years later, I saw Patrick J. Buchanan draw on those very people — Williams and Alperovitz — in his books. PJB had been one of my heroes. This transformation, or revelation, was a tough pill to swallow.
In that recent column, Will spoke of the possible crack-up of the GOP — a crack-up that many on the right would welcome, and effect. One of the lessons you learn when you grow up is the changeability of things. The non-fixedness of things. This can be difficult to accept, to say the least.
When I was growing up, Michigan and Ohio State were the dominant football teams in the Big Ten. In fact, we referred to the conference as “the Big Two and the Little Eight.” Teams such as Indiana, Michigan State, and Northwestern shouldn’t have even been in the league. It was embarrassing — for them and for us. As for Michigan and OSU, they were evenly matched. One team would win one year, the other team the next. The winner went to the Rose Bowl (often losing to USC or UCLA).
Today, an adolescent in Ann Arbor might well say to his parents, “Was there really a time when Michigan beat MSU? And OSU?”
A tough, bitter pill.