Sunday, February 5, 2017

Grey Isn't White, But Neither Is It Black

Trump may finally have waded into shit so deep even his toupee is going to disappear. In an interview with Bill O'Reilly set to air during the Super Bowl pregame, he's going to draw a moral equivalency between the United States and Russia
O'Reilly pressed on, declaring to the president that “Putin is a killer.”

Unfazed, Trump didn't back away, but rather compared Putin's reputation for extrajudicial killings with the United States'.

“There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers,” Trump said. “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
Some people are  seeing this as an almost Chomsky like argument--America is a corrupt country that has no business criticizing others. However, this misses a couple points.

First of all, the pure Chomskyite argument is one of moral outrage--throughout its history, the US has committed a number of atrocities (slavery, genocide and ethnic cleansing against natives, wars of imperialism, supporting dictators over democracy whenever it benefits American business interests), and we have to do better, and until we do, our criticisms of foreign governments are hypocritical. That's the exact opposite of Trump's argument here. He's shrugging off our evils and saying, "Hey, let's embrace this. If we've done bad shit, why shouldn't we pal around with dictatorships? Let's be badasses together. Fuck yeah!"

But that's the second key difference. The more nuanced argument isn't that America is evil, but rather that we're not good.

Look at WWII, the classic example where America likes to pretend we were the White Hats striding in to kick Nazi ass and make the world safe for democracy. Sure, we had to align ourselves with the Soviets, but that was an alliance of convenience that we repudiated almost immediately after the war. And yes, the British Empire wasn't the most noble enterprise in history, but we used Lend-Lease, the Atlantic Charter, Bretton Woods and the Marshall Plan to push the Brits towards dissolving the empire. So, go us.

Critics, however, point out that the truth is more complicated. The United States forced racial minorities to live in ghettos, and we put the Japanese into concentration camps. The Nazi eugenics program was an industrialized version of programs at work in the United States -- programs that lasted all the way to 1980 in some cases. There were individual US bombing raids that killed more civilians than the entire Blitz. And that's not even touching on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

 Conservatives often take umbrage at such comparisons. They tend to have a binary worldview--everything must be black or white, and if you're arguing that America wasn't wearing a white hat, you must think we were bad guys no different than Nazis. But that's ridiculous. Morality exists in shades of grey. No one is pure white or pure black (though the Nazis were about as close as you can get). Out of all the powers in WWII, the US was the lightest grey, but to deny that we were grey is to rewrite history.

But when you look at Trump's comment, he's not making an argument about shades of grey. He's adopting the conservative binary view of morality and saying, "Well, we're not white hats, so we might as well embrace villainy."

And in doing so he's papering over the major differences between the US and Russia. No, we aren't morally pure here. Some of our Eastern European allies are less than democratic. Pushing NATO right onto Russia's doorstep is provocative and we should've found a better way to secure Eastern Europe's security. But our excesses these days (at least until a couple weeks ago) are in foreign policy. Domestically, there's no comparison. No American president within living memory has ordered the murder of a domestic political opponent or critic--the fact that Daniel Ellsberg and Seymour Hersh are alive is proof of that; if Nixon didn't do it, no one did. The US hasn't locked up homosexuals in decades. Political dissent is not punished. Is America perfect? No, far from it. Our foreign policy in particular could use some serious revision. But less than perfect is a far cry from being wicked. We get things wrong, but we strive to become better; Putin embraces what he is, and now Trump wants America to do the same.

Anyone who takes pride in all that the US has accomplished, flawed though it might be, should be aghast at what Trump is suggesting about us.

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