It started several weeks ago when Minnesota Democrat Rep. Ilhan Omar tweeted, “We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity. We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.”
The American political system then erupted in rage at Omar, in a notable way. She was, many said, engaging in something called “moral equivalence.” Omar soon backed down slightly, issuing a statement that she was “in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the entire Democratic House leadership responded that they welcomed “the clarification by Congresswoman Omar that there is no moral equivalency between the U.S. and Israel and Hamas and the Taliban.”
What does this phrase mean? Why are U.S. politicians constantly yammering about it?
The funny thing is that just a few days before, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., condemned Pelosi herself for engaging in “moral equivalence” for her statements on the recent conflict between Israel and Gaza. What does this phrase mean? Why are U.S. politicians constantly yammering about it?
“Moral equivalence” is a propaganda term invented in the 1980s to shield the Reagan administration from criticism over its extraordinarily brutal policies in Central America and elsewhere. The phrase’s sudden rise to ubiquity can be followed via Google’s n-gram viewer, which allows users to see the frequency with which words have appeared in books over the past several hundred years. “Moral equivalence” was barely used in the English language before Ronald Reagan was elected. It has since exploded in popularity.
The phrase’s sudden growth spurt can be dated to May 1985, when Reagan’s State Department held a conference titled “Moral Equivalence: False Images of U.S. and Soviet Values.” It featured a plethora of neoconservative speakers, including Jeane Kirkpatrick (Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations during his first term), William J. Bennett (then secretary of education), and Irving Kristol (known as the “godfather of neoconservatism,” and father of Bill). William Safire, once a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon and by then a New York Times columnist, wrote at the time that the conference signified that “the right’s language awakening is under way.”
The concern of neoconservatives then was, first, that the strength of the Soviet Union was growing by leaps and bounds. Meanwhile, liberal intellectuals in America and Europe had lost sight of the flawed-but-superior nature of the U.S., and their critiques were dangerously sapping the morale of the West. As the writer Norman Podhoretz, another conference attendee, put it: These intellectuals, with their incessant, foolish carping, were “undermining the willingness of the democratic world to resist.” (The acuity of these insights can be judged by the fact that within six years the USSR had collapsed and ceased to exist.)
In a subsequent article titled “The Myth of Moral Equivalence,” Kirkpatrick explained in more detail the fundamental distinction between the U.S. and the Soviets, and why it was inherently illegitimate to compare them:
Once you view the United States and the Soviet Union as contending for the world, you have already suggested a symmetry between their goals: to dominate the world. The fact is, of course, that we do not seek to dominate the world. We do not seek colonies. We do, in fact, seek to foster a world of independent nations. But whenever anyone suggests that the world is dominated by superpower rivalries, they imply that we have some goal other than fostering and preserving a world of independent nations.
Kirkpatrick’s piece appeared in a magazine published by Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian institution in Michigan that had co-sponsored the moral equivalence conference. This seems appropriate, given that her argument was the equivalent of a catechism — i.e., a statement of the tenets of faith presented as unquestionable truth backed with no evidence. Like a religious catechism, it is language designed to terminate thought, rather than facilitate it.
And while the USSR evaporated three decades ago, “moral equivalence” has continued to flourish. During the invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the British government said any media outlets quoting Taliban officials would be engaging in moral equivalence. Dick Cheney proclaimed that criticizing the George W. Bush administration for torture was moral equivalence. Now Rep. Ilhan Omar asking for international law to be applied impartially is moral equivalence.
Beyond the history of the term, it’s worth considering why “moral equivalence” is so useful as propaganda. When all the verbiage on this subject is boiled down to its essence, there are two possible perspectives here.
The first is that the U.S. started out as 13 colonies clinging to the Eastern Seaboard; then acquired most of North America; now has 800 military bases in 70 countries; and accomplished all this while being extra nice. Maybe we’re not perfect, but as Abraham Lincoln said, we’re the last best hope of earth.
The second perspective is that the U.S. is like former empires that have risen and fallen through time, occasionally accomplishing some great goods, but also engaging in great evil, all the while convinced of their own righteousness. The poet and monk Thomas Merton expressed this point of view, and how it felt to live amongst warring empires, in a 1962 letter to a friend:
The world is full of great criminals with enormous power, and they are in a death struggle with each other. It is a huge gang battle of supremely well-armed and well-organized gangsters, using well-meaning lawyers and policemen and clergymen as their front, controlling papers, means of communication, and enrolling everybody in their armies. … Let us avoid false optimism, and approved gestures. And seek truth.
Anyone familiar with history and human psychology will immediately grasp why the “last best hope of earth” view would be extremely appealing to U.S. elites, and almost certainly wrong. Both societies and individuals have an amazing capacity not to be aware of their negative side. As George Orwell put it, “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.” And even if nationalists somehow do become aware of their own nation’s atrocities, they fall prey to a cognitive bias known as “fundamental attribution error,” in which people conclude that their own misdeeds were forced upon them by external circumstances. Meanwhile, we see our enemies in reverse: They do terrible things not because of their circumstances but because they’re terrible people.
That’s why American politicians and pundits were honestly infuriated by Omar mentioning the U.S. (and our mini-me, Israel), in the same breath as Hamas and the Taliban. If you just go by body count, the U.S. and Israel have killed far, far more people. In fact, it’s possible that more Palestinians died in the 40 hours of 1982’s Sabra and Shatila massacre than Israelis have been killed by Hamas in its entire existence. But we have reasons, good reasons, for killing people. Hamas and the Taliban do it just for the sheer joy of being evil. So we know that if Hamas and the Taliban had America or Israel’s power, they would do much worse things than we have. On the other hand, if the U.S. were invaded and occupied for 50 years by a country 1,000 times as powerful as we are, we’d never act like Hamas, because we’re good folks.
The neoconservatives of the 1980s were also genuinely flabbergasted at the idea that America and the Soviets were anywhere in the same moral universe. They accurately pointed out at the time that life for the median person was far better in the United States than the Soviet Union.
What they did not want anyone to consider was that life for regular people in America’s satellites was then significantly worse than in those of the USSR. It was certainly awful to be a citizen of East Germany, but it was far worse in most of Central America.
This is why Reagan’s partisans used “moral equivalence” most commonly to defend his administration’s indefensible policies toward Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Reagan personally spoke up in support of the Guatemalan government, even as it committed literal genocide against the country’s poor peasants. An American forensic anthropologist who later helped exhume some of the victims said, “It’s too bad Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t come to Guatemala, ’cause he’d be a general by now.”
Next door El Salvador had become a similar abattoir. In Kirkpatrick’s article, she was especially exercised by criticism of Reagan’s policies there, and any attempt to draw a moral equivalence between the U.S. and the Salvadoran government on the one hand and the Salvadoran rebels on the other. “The government of El Salvador is continually attacked for gross violations of human rights,” she wrote, but guerrillas “are not attacked for violations of human rights.” The reason for this later become clear, when a U.N. Truth Commission found that 85 percent of killings in El Salvador were executed by the government, 5 percent by the guerrillas, and the remainder were unattributable.
To understand the extraordinary savagery enabled by the Reagan administration, it’s useful to read about the 1981 El Mozote massacre, carried out by a U.S.-trained Salvadoran army unit in a dayslong eruption of torture, rape, and murder. Or read the account by a Catholic priest about a rural woman who left three of her children at home with her mother and sister to bring lunch to her husband as he worked outside. When she came back, she found the Salvadoran National Guard had visited, leaving behind the decapitated bodies of all five relatives sitting around a table. Their hands had been placed on their heads in front of them, “as though each body was stroking its own head.” Also on the table was a large bowl full of blood.
Thus anyone who can look at the inventors and usage of “moral equivalence” and believe it has any meaning is, let us say, not thinking clearly. In Kirkpatrick’s article, she mentions Orwell’s novel “1984,” and, hilariously enough, condemns the Soviets for the type of state manipulation of language Orwell depicted even as she engaged in it herself: “The purpose of ‘Newspeak,’” she wrote, “was not only to provide a medium of expression for the worldview and mental habits proper to devotees of ‘Ingsoc,’ but to make all other modes of thought impossible. A heretical thought would literally be unthinkable so far as it is dependent on words.”
Another “1984” passage, one unmentioned by Kirkpatrick, illuminates what it’s like to be subjected to her kind of Newspeak: “It was just a noise, a quack-quack-quacking. … Winston had a curious feeling that this was not a real human being but some kind of dummy. It was not the man’s brain that was speaking, it was his larynx. The stuff that was coming out of him consisted of words, but it was not speech in the true sense: it was a noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck.”
The U.S. political class has been incessantly quacking in this particular way for almost 40 years. They’re not going to give it up because it’s propaganda, or because it gives us a dangerously misleading view of ourselves, and they’re certainly not going to give it up for Ilhan Omar. But at least we can use our brain ourselves instead of our larynx, and stop listening to them.