In recent months, there have been growing and legitimate concerns that in the patriotic fervor inspired by Sept. 11, differences of opinion on the proper response to terrorism may be branded as anti-American.
While I generally agree with the conservatives when it comes to the war on terror, there is a worrisome tendency on the right today to impugn the patriotism of political opponents. (Vietnam War no-show Rush Limbaugh's calling Air Force veteran Senator Tom Daschle "Hanoi Tom" and "Tokyo Tom" for his criticism of the Bush Administration's war policies comes to mind.) But there is an equally real and disturbing tendency on the left to blame America first and to promote the notion of moral equivalency between Western democracies and their enemies.
The other day, for instance, I came across an article about a just-published book called Snowball's Chance by American novelist John Reed, a satirical sequel/rejoinder to George Orwell's famous Animal Farm.
In Animal Farm, an allegory of the Russian revolution, a group of farm animals rebel and drive away their human masters but end up under the brutal dictatorship of a Stalinesque pig. In Snowball's Chance, the farm embraces capitalism; the animals' living standards improve, but environmental degradation follows. Not content to leave it at that, Reed ends his anticapitalist fable with a transparent reference to Sept. 11: Forest animals angered by the destruction of their habitat, led by a group of beavers, attack the twin windmills (get it?) that supply power to the farm. The book ends with the irate farm animals planning their revenge and chanting, "Kill the beavers!"
There are certain flaws in this charming allegory. The twin towers, for instance, were not just machines but buildings full of people, and protection of the environment does not rank high on Al Qaeda's agenda. But these are apparently minor details to Reed, a New Yorker who described his reaction to the attack on America as follows: "I thought, 'Why would they do this to us?' … The twin towers attack showed us that something is wrong with our system, too."
In other words: What did the victim do to deserve it?
There is also the widely acclaimed new book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by former war correspondent Chris Hedges. Hedges argues that war is hell, and that when we must wage war, we must do so with humility and awareness of its dehumanizing potential.
So far, so good. But Hedges also scoffs at the notion that America was an innocent victim of the Sept. 11 attack, cataloguing our sins from backing the Nicaraguan contras to supporting Israel. "By accepting the facile cliché that the battle under way against terrorism is a battle against evil, by easily branding those who fight us as the barbarians, we, like them, refuse to acknowledge our own culpability," he asserts. "We ignore real injustices that have led many of those arrayed against us to their rage and despair."
You'd think that feminists, at least, would not hesitate to see a battle against a radical fundamentalist movement driven in part by hatred of women's liberation as a battle against evil. Yet one of the most obscene recent examples of moral equivalency comes from Jill Nelson, an outspoken feminist commentator for MSNBC.com.
Nelson writes about the tragic events in Nigeria—where anger over the country's scheduled hosting of the Miss World contest on Dec. 7, and over a newspaper columnist's remark that Muhammad would have probably chosen a wife among the contestants, led to deadly riots by Islamic radicals. Her verdict? "It's impossible to see a side in any of this where the rights of women are truly of any concern." Western men, she asserts, are using women's rights to cloak the real issues of power and control over global resources—"and who asked for these defenders anyway?" (The Afghan women who are finally allowed to work and go to school might have a different view.)
Then comes the clincher: "As far as I'm concerned it's equally disrespectful and abusive to have women prancing around a stage in bathing suits for cash or walking the streets shrouded in burkas in order to survive." Never mind that beauty pageant contestants do have other choices and options for survival.
Some so-called progressives, it seems, would rather whitewash theocratic fascism than acknowledge that the West holds the moral high ground in any conflict. Ironically, this repugnant attitude only helps those conservatives who would demonize all dissent on war-related issues. It certainly makes their job easier.