Anti Fascism

Moral equivalence: now and then

“Moral equivalence” has become something of a cliche among supporters of the Iraq invasion, and I try to use the term sparingly. After all not every opponent of the invasion seriously believes that George W. Bush and Tony Blair are as bad as Saddam Hussein and that, in the end, there is nothing to choose between them.

But when I read something like this, by John Berger in The Observer, I cannot think of a more accurate phrase:

Fanaticism comes from any form of chosen blindness accompanying the pursuit of a single dogma. The G8’s dogma is that the making of profit has to be mankind’s guiding principle before which everything else from the traditional past or aspiring future must be sacrificed as illusion.

The so-called war against terrorism is, in fact, a war between two fanaticisms. To bracket the two together seems outrageous. One is theocratic, the other positivist and secular. One is the fervent belief of a defensive minority, the other the unquestioned assumption of an amorphous, confident elite. One sets out to kill, the other plunders, leaves and lets die. One is strict, the other lax. One brooks no argument, the other ‘communicates’ and tries to ‘spin’ into every corner of the world. One claims the right to spill innocent blood, the other the right to sell the entire earth’s water. Outrageous to compare them!

Yet the outrage of what happened in London on the Piccadilly Line, the Circle Line and the No 30 bus was the misadventure of many thousands of vulnerable people, struggling to survive and make some sense of their lives, being inadvertently caught in the global crossfire of those two fanaticisms.

I was reminded of some of the sordid history of “moral equivalence” by this Max Boot column in The Los Angeles Times. Boot cites a 1942 article by George Orwell asserting that “the greater part of the very young intelligentsia are anti-war … don’t believe in any ‘defense of democracy,’ are inclined to prefer Germany to Britain, and don’t feel the horror of Fascism that we who are somewhat older feel.”

This drew responses from three British pacifists: D.S. Savage, George Woodcock (later a friend of Orwell) and Alex Comfort (who went on to fame and fortune by writing “The Joy of Sex”). The whole colloquy can be found in Volume 2 of Orwell’s “Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters.”

Savage’s response is worth quoting from at length:

Fascism is not a force confined to any one nation. We can just as soon get it here as anywhere else. The characteristic markings of Fascism are: curtailment of individual and minority liberties; abolition of private life and private values and substitution of State life and public values (patriotism); external imposition of discipline (militarism); prevalence of mass-values and mass-mentality; falsification of intellectual activity under State pressure. These are all tendencies of present-day Britain…
Don’t let us be misled by names. Fascism is quite capable of calling itself democracy or even Socialism. It’s the reality under the name that matters. War demands totalitarian organisation of society. Germany organised herself on that basis prior to embarking on war. Britain now finds herself compelled to take the same measures after involvement in war. Germans call it National Socialism. We call it democracy. The result is the same.

…Who is to say that a British victory will be less disastrous than a German one? The last British victory was pretty meaningless.

…The corruption and hollowness revealed in the prosecution of this war are too contemptible for words. Certainly I will accept my share of responsibility for them, but I wont fight in a war to extend that corruption and hollowness.

…Orwell dislikes French intellectuals licking up Hitler’s crumbs, but what’s the difference between them and our intellectuals who are licking up Churchill’s?…

I am not greatly taken in by Britain’s “democracy”, particularly as it is gradually vanishing under the pressure of the war. Certainly I would never fight and kill for such a phantasm. I do not greatly admire the part “my country” has played in world events. I consider that spiritually Britain has lost all meaning… I feel identified with my country in a deep sense, and want her to regain her meaning, her soul, if that is possible: but the unloading of a billion tons of bombs on Germany won’t help this forward an inch… Whereas the rest of the nation is content with calling down obloquy on Hitler’s head, we [pacifists] regard this as superficial. Hitler requires, not condemnation, but understanding. This does not mean that we like, or defend him. Personally I do not care for Hitler. He is, however, “realler” than Chamberlain, Churchill, Cripps, etc, in that he is the vehicle of raw historical forces, whereas they are stuffed dummies, waxwork figures, living in unreality. We do not desire a German “victory”; we would not lift a finger to help either Britain or Germany to “win”; but there would be a profound justice, I feel, however terrible, in a German victory…

Any resemblance to the more recent equating of the US and the UK with Baathist Iraq and al-Qaeda is, I am sure, purely coincidental.