Malign Equivalencies

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-10-29 21:00:00 No comments

The big lie of modern politics is that somehow all political parties are equally terrible, so why bother. There's no subtle way to go about dealing with this, so we might as well just call it what it is: a Big Lie that serves corrupt power and paralyzes people. What gets me is how this idea seems to have emerged from allegedly noble origins.

First thing to get out of the way: There is no way in hell, or out of hell for that matter, that the discourse around the two major political parties in this country are remotely balanced, because the behaviors of the people involved are nothing alike. After eight years of Obama getting pilloried for the alleged mortal sins of wearing a tan suit and asking for Dijon mustard, I was done with it; after four years of Trump essentially destroying every norm of behavior suited to a public figure and not being run out of town on a rail for it, I am four times as done with it. And I have no doubt it'll continue. Trotting out malarkey (what a great word) about Biden's this or that is the weakest of tea indeed, but there are people dumb enough to fall for it, and so off we go.

What's worse are the people who aren't necessarily dumb enough to fall for it, but hear about what "both sides" have done and conclude that "both sides" are malign, and thus disempower themselves from making anything better. Nice way to surrender power to the schmucks already abusing it. It absolutely doesn't help when the stewards of public discourse litter the playing field with treatises on Flat-Eartherism with titles like "Views Differ On Shape Of Planet".

We don't talk enough about the way "they're all terrible" is a point of view supported by the most terrible of people, since they benefit from your disillusionment. Most every politician has dirty hands, but some are unquestionably dirtier than others, and if you're unwilling or unable to read those distinctions, it means the dirty ones can thrive unchecked. Indifference to distinctions is how evil thrives: evil exploits your indifference in every form, especially in the form of indifference to moral gradations. If everyone is "bad", then nobody is really that bad, and the bad guys can work in plain sight because your moral well has been poisoned.

The more I look into this concept, though, the more I find it has roots in something that seemed morally righteous when it first surfaced.

I'm not sure if most of my readers are familiar with the likes of A.J. Muste. During the WWII era, he came to prominence as one of the major figures of the pacifist-left movement, and one of his tactics was to paint all sides in the conflict as being equally morally tainted. Hitler's evil had to be taken in the context of the British Empire's oppressive behaviors, you see. The idea, as I understand it, was to present people with a higher alternative to worldly power. Since all worldly power was tainted by association with evil, all of it should be equally refused. Werner Cohn once called this the "doctrine of malign equivalence", a term I now use to describe this general idea.

To the naïve and ahistorical, the idea seems appealingly millennial. The old world of war between competing and thus equally culpable power blocs falls away, and a new world of mutual rapprochement and dignity unfolds, untainted by the nastiness of politics and all its gray areas. It all has the same humorless stamp as the modern-day antiauthoritarian left, where all engagement with power is equally suspect, all power structures are equally complicit in evil, and the only power that matters is personal, decentralized power (even if such power is hapless in the face of problems that must be solved collectively or not at all). And it succumbs to the same flaw: it leaves the individual disgruntled and powerless in the face of actual, active evil that is only too happy to accept the impotence of its opponents.

I say all this knowing full well that, say, Churchill was no prize in many ways, but that's precisely my point. Making a morality play of World War II robs you of any attempt to understand its significance and draw genuine lessons from it. Malign equivalence not only makes it impossible to draw fine-grained distinctions between people and policies, but disabuses you of any future inclination to do so. You give up. The bad guys have so much less work to do when their opponents drown themselves for them.

Tags: politics