Magazine | May 4, 2015, Issue

The Even-Steven Temptation

Xi Jinping, then the Chinese vice president, with the U.S. vice president, Joe Biden, in 2012 (AP/Los Angeles Times/Jay L. Clendenin)
Adventures in moral equivalence

When I was growing up, the worst thing you could be was a racist. (And racism was often defined with grotesque, malicious looseness.) The second-worst thing you could be, probably, was a jingoist. An “ethnocentrist.” A flag-waver. Even simple patriotism was suspect, a sign of naivety and boobishness.

You were not to think yourself anything special as an American. You were not to be too big for your britches. Everything had to be equal, balanced, even-steven. The Soviet Union tossed poets into prisons? Yeah, well what about the Hollywood Ten?

At the time, there was a best-selling book called “I’m OK — You’re OK.” It was by Thomas A. Harris, M.D. One of the original self-help books, it sold more than 15 million copies. Its title expresses the principle I’m talking about: “I’m okay, you’re okay,” or, maybe more accurately, “I’m not okay, you’re not okay.”

If I raised concerns about what the Chinese Communists were doing to the Tibetans, it would fall to you to say, “Well, what did we do to the Indians?” That wouldn’t help the Tibetans at all. But it would obey “even-steven.” If I said it wasn’t nice to shoot people as they scaled the Berlin Wall, you would say, “It wasn’t nice to lynch blacks in the South, was it?”

“GULAG,” said one guy. “Japanese internment,” said another (meaning the internment of Japanese Americans). “Nazi war machine,” said one guy. “Dresden,” said another (referring to the American and British bombing of that city). “Imperial Japan.” “Hiroshima and Nagasaki!” Etc.

We were afraid of committing the sin of national pride, a pride that might suggest a sense of national superiority. No one wanted to come off as an Archie Bunker. (He was the main character, bigoted though somewhat lovable, in All in the Family, the popular sitcom.) We kind of policed ourselves. If you criticized something relating to a foreign land, you had to criticize something relating to home in the next breath.

The Communist East and the democratic West? They both had their strengths and weaknesses. We Westerners were keen on “political rights,” such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. In the East, they were keen on “social rights,” especially the rights to food, shelter, and health care. (It was a lie, but it was widely taught and believed.)

Interestingly, the even-steven principle applied only if you were talking about governments hostile to the United States. You could criticize apartheid South Africa, or Pinochet’s Chile, or Marcos’s Philippines, without a complementary criticism of America or the West. No one said, “Who are we to knock Pretoria? Reagan just reduced food stamps.” But when it came to hostiles, equivalence was the name of the game.

I must say, I smiled a bit when I read about President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast in February. He said we were not to “get on our high horse” about violent jihad. “Remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often were justified in the name of Christ.” That is a clear example of even-steven at work.

In 1978, the Soviet Union was putting dissidents through show trials. Our ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, gave an interview to a French newspaper, saying, “In our prisons, too, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people whom I would describe as political prisoners.” He was obeying even-steven. He was not on his high horse. He probably thought he was being polite as well.

At a press conference, President Carter said, “I know that Andy regrets having made that statement, which was embarrassing to me.” He kept him on in his job (for a while).

Some years later, I was in college and starting to read National Review and other subversive literature. In a social-theory class, we were studying Marx, and I dared approach the professor after class: What should we think of the terrible human-rights violations by Marxist governments all over the world? He was irked at me and said that Marx should not be held responsible for what others might do in his name. “Should we blame Thomas Jefferson for the sins of Richard Nixon?” (Say what you will about Nixon, but he didn’t own slaves.)

Back to the Obama administration — which in 2010 participated in a “human-rights dialogue” with the Chinese government. Afterward, our representative, Assistant Secretary of State Michael H. Posner, held a press conference at Foggy Bottom. A reporter asked, “Did the recently passed Arizona immigration law come up? And, if so, did they bring it up or did you bring it up?” This law was an attempt to curb illegal immigration, and a mild one at that — but some portrayed it as onerous.

Our man said, “We brought it up early and often. It was mentioned in the first session, and as a troubling trend in our society and an indication that we have to deal with issues of discrimination or potential discrimination, and that these are issues very much being debated in our own society.”

The reporter had a follow-up question: “Did they,” meaning the Chinese officials, “discuss anything about their concerns about Chinese visiting in Arizona?” Posner said no.

Bear in mind that China is a one-party dictatorship with a gulag (laogai). Bear in mind that this is a government that imprisons a Nobel peace laureate (Liu Xiaobo), among thousands of other democrats and dissidents. Bear in mind that this is a government all too credibly accused of organ harvesting (the murder of human beings, such as Falun Gong practitioners, for the extraction of organs).

What must Liu and other political prisoners think — what must Falun Gong practitioners and other hunted people think — that we Americans would talk this way? That we would wonder whether Chinese are afraid to visit Arizona? Do they think we are mad?

In 2011 and 2012, our vice president, Joe Biden, spent time with Xi Jinping, who was then his counterpart in China. Now Xi is boss of the Communist party (and therefore of the country). Recently, Biden told Evan Osnos of The New Yorker that Xi had asked him why the United States put “so much emphasis on human rights.” (I haven’t noticed this in the last six years, but be that as it may.) Biden told Xi, “No president of the United States could represent the United States were he not committed to human rights. If you don’t understand this, you can’t deal with us. President Barack Obama would not be able to stay in power if he did not speak of it. So look at it as a political imperative. It doesn’t make us better or worse.”

No? I doubt that Joe Biden learned the even-steven principle when he was growing up in the 1940s and ’50s in Pennsylvania and Delaware. But he learned it later.

Move with me now to the concert hall — to Avery Fisher Hall at New York’s Lincoln Center, in the last week of March. A new piece was being premiered by the New York Philharmonic. It was Scheherazade.2, by John Adams. A markedly different man from our second president, this John Adams is probably America’s most famous and important (classical) composer. Before the downbeat, Adams talked to the audience about how his piece came about. He said he wanted to respond, musically, to brutality toward women. He had been reading about such brutality in Egypt, Afghanistan, Iran, and elsewhere.

But we were not to be too big for our britches. We were not to get on our high horse. Because we have brutality toward women right here at home, Adams said. You can “find it on Rush Limbaugh.”

At this, the audience responded with robust and sustained applause. I thought it was like the “Two Minutes Hate” found in Orwell’s 1984. My guess is, Adams did not want to be seen as picking on the “Other” — the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, the theocrats in Iran. So did he pick on himself, or his friends? No, no, they never do. He decided to defame Rush Limbaugh. And he must have known that the audience would delight in this defamation.

Let me say a couple of kind words for even-steven (believe it or not). The impulse behind it may be admirable. It’s good to avoid judgmentalism. It’s good to be self-aware, self-critical — on guard against hypocrisy. It’s good to consider the beams in our own eyes while, or before, considering the motes in others’ eyes. It is also good to keep history in mind.

When despairing of barbarism in the Arab world, I sometimes think, “You know, two seconds ago, Germans and their allies, on European soil, were carrying out a holocaust.”

Furthermore, a mindless patriotism is unattractive. But then, so is a mindless national self-flagellation. Bernard Lewis, the great Middle East historian, recently observed that Americans once said, “My country, right or wrong.” Now we’re apt to say, “My country, wrong.”

The even-steven principle — or moral equivalence or not getting on your high horse — can be taken to absurd extremes. It can be logically and morally perverse. It does no one any good to pretend that America has political prisoners or that Arizona is a police state. And what I heard in Avery Fisher Hall the other week was one of the most disgusting things I have ever heard in my life. (I’m not talking about the music, which was pretty good.)

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