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Situational Ethics, Conservative-Style


Conservatives never cease to amaze me.

On the one hand, they accuse “liberals” and those of us on the left of basing our politics on emotion, while theirs, they insist, is rooted in logic. Yet they regularly stake out positions that are utterly devoid of anything resembling reason.

So, for example, hardly a day goes by that I don’t receive an e-mail castigating me for “harping” on racism or economic injustice in the U.S., since, as my detractors insist, “If you think it’s bad here, you should try living in Bosnia,” (or the Sudan, or wherever). Irrespective of the nation chosen for comparison, the idea is that folks in the U.S.–blacks for example, or poor folks–have nothing to complain about, since they’d be worse off elsewhere.

Sometimes this argument gets made in a way that barely disguises the writer’s racial animosity (not to mention their ignorance about colonialism), as in, “Blacks are better off here than they’d be in Africa.”

Other times it comes from persons who feign liberality, as with a recent writer who said the poverty he’d seen while working in the Peace Corps had convinced him that everyone had it good in the U.S., and they should remember that whenever they complained about injustice here.

That anyone could find such positions convincing speaks to the urgent need for schools to require introductory courses in logic. After all, these kinds of arguments give new meaning to the concept of a non sequitur.

To begin with, an injustice in one place cannot be dismissed or rendered unworthy of rectification just because there is another injustice of equal or even greater magnitude happening elsewhere. So, for example, one could not argue that Holocaust survivors have nothing to complain about, since after all, they could have been one of the many millions slaughtered by Stalin.

To argue that one injustice cancels out the moral claim of victims of other injustices makes no sense, and does intellectual violence to the very notion of rational thought.

Extending this logic to its ultimate conclusion would lead to some especially appalling positions: among them, one could say that even under Jim Crow segregation, African Americans probably had it better than, say, black folks in the Belgian Congo, and therefore, instead of trying to end apartheid here, black folks should have just sucked it up and thanked the Lord for their good fortune.

Indeed, following the trajectory of this mindset, one could argue that the U.S. could even reinstate segregation, and so long as the system remained somewhat less vicious than conditions in some other society, there would be no great injustice in doing so: or at least none worth protesting.

The kind of thinking in evidence here is similar to that which the right uses to excuse the actions, however depraved, of the United States abroad. So, for example, we have the attempts by many to excuse the mistreatment of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib, because at least we didn’t behead anyone, as has happened to Nick Berg and Paul Johnson; it’s the kind of thinking that excused U.S. support for dictators and death squads in Central America in the 80s because of the crimes of the Soviets and their puppet regimes; it’s the kind of thinking that we’re told excuses any level of U.S. violence in Afghanistan or Iraq because of 9/11.

It is, in short, the logic of passing-the-buck, of refusing to take personal responsibility for one’s own actions and the actions of one’s nation: ironic, given the extent to which conservatives love to pose as the prophets of personal responsibility.

Of course that conservatives are hypocrites should hardly surprise anyone. After all, the standard they would impose on others–stop your bellyaching, because things are better here than in any other country–is a logic they would never apply to their own whining.

For example, these are folks who constantly moan about high taxes. Yet, if they lived in just about any other advanced industrial “democracy,” their tax burden would be far higher than it is here, seeing as how those places have much more extensive government social services paid from general tax revenue. So next time a conservative says that people of color or poor folks ought to shut up and be thankful they don’t live in some other land, tell ‘em back at ya jackass: stop cryin’ about taxes and be thankful you don’t live in Sweden.

Or the next time some evangelical Christian complains about the so-called anti-Christian bias of American elites, schools and media, tell ‘em to stuff it, and to be glad they aren’t in the considerably less religious and less Christian-dominated nations of Europe, or Japan, or pretty much anywhere else on Earth.

Fact is, the legitimacy of a nation’s tax burden cannot be determined merely by looking at similar burdens elsewhere, nor can the degree of religious freedom or lack thereof be ascertained by simply comparing one nation to many others: in this regard, the right would be correct to reject the dismissals of their arguments above on such grounds. But so too must their own usage of similar arguments fall when applied to the persons whose complaining about injustice they seek to silence.

Like must be compared with like. African Americans are Americans, for example, and so their measure of opportunity must be viewed relative to other Americans, just as the Irish who came to this nation had every right to be treated equally with other Americans, and not constantly told to be glad they weren’t still starving back home.

If people have a right to be treated equitably once they are in a nation, the fact that they might be treated worse somewhere else becomes utterly irrelevant; and every day they are oppressed relative to others in a given place is a day they are artificially held back and others artificially advanced: a condition that cries out for reparation and recompense, if justice is to have any meaning at all.

At least for the Irish, or Italians, or Jews, or other European immigrants, we had the ability to “become white” over time and gain access to the perks of dominant group status. People of color have at no point enjoyed this option.

The measure of American goodness, let alone that much-heralded greatness we’re always told to praise can never be determined on a sliding scale, on a scale that shifts and morphs to fit a particular circumstance. For a right-wing that constantly denounces situational ethics, their tendency to brush off injustice at home by conjuring up injustices abroad surely smacks of the thing they claim to despise.

But then again, consistency was never their strong suit, and like I said, conservatives never cease to amaze me.

Tim Wise is an antiracist essayist, activist, educator and father. He can be reached at timjwise@msn.com. Hate mail and/or death threats, though neither desired nor appreciated, will be graded on the basis of form, content, grammar and originality.

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