Of all the foolish and illogical themes of the international left, the “moral equivalence” argument may count as the most annoying of all.
For more than fifty years, progressives have advanced the moronic idea that because America is imperfect, we have no right to criticize evil, mass murder or grotesque tyranny anywhere else. During the Cold War, progressives objected to describing Stalinist Russia as an “evil empire” by offering constant reminders that the United States regularly broke treaties with Indian tribes and cruelly exploited the labor of African slaves. More recently, moral equivalence advocates blanch at the idea of associating Islam in any way with the worldwide brutality practiced in its name: what about the “Christian violence” of the Crusades, these apologists want to know. Any condemnation of nihilistic violence like 9/11 leads “enlightened” voices from the left to suggest that the patriots of the American Revolution, or Zionist leaders who fought to establish Israel, could also be described as employing terrorist tactics on behalf of radical goals.
These assertions have become so commonplace and tiresome that they scarcely require a substantive response, but every once in a great while some claim emerges that counts as so extreme, bizarre and outlandish that it’s impossible to ignore. That’s certainly the case when one of the nation’s most august and revered cultural institutions suggests that conservative talk radio exemplifies the same sort of “brutality” against women as the Taliban, ISIS, or Wahabi Islam.
Under the headline, “Confronting Male Brutality, a Modern ‘Scherezade’” the New York Times reported on the New York Philharmonic’s eagerly-anticipated world premiere of a new “dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra” by the acclaimed composer John Adams. Mr. Adams (who claims no connection to the famous family that produced two presidents of the United States) is no stranger to disputes regarding moral equivalence: his 1991 opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” has inspired bitter controversy by its “even handed” approach between a wheel-chair bound American tourist on a vacation cruise and the young Palestinian terrorists who murdered him.
This time, Adams led a discussion of his new work after its performance and described the museum visit that inspired it. Two years ago, the composer toured the Arab World Institute in Paris and found himself “shocked and appalled” by the “casual brutality” toward women expressed in the folk stories from “Arabian nights.” In explaining his creative process, Adams said the exhibit he experienced led to thoughts “about the continuing physical and mental brutality against women not just in enclaves of the Middle East but also in America – for example on the airwaves that carry Rush Limbaugh.”
In other words, he explicitly compared occasional rude remarks by a popular talk host to genital mutilation, honor killings, prohibitions on driving, stoning for adultery and other cruel practices of the Islamic world. It’s also worth noting that the story that directly inspired the new “dramatic symphony” tells of a Middle Eastern potentate who seized a new virgin bride every night, and then had her killed the next morning before she could even look at another man.
The first movement of his purported masterpiece is entitled “Tale of the Wise Young Woman – Pursuit by the True Believers.” Does this relate somehow to the “brutality” endured by law student Sandra Fluke and the insults she somehow survived from Rush Limbaugh because of her Congressional testimony for free contraceptives? The next movement bears the heading, “A Long Desire (Love Scene).” In an important nod to political correctness, the composer informed his audience that his “heroine’s romantic interest could possibly be another woman.” The final movement used violin and orchestra to portray “Scherezade and the Men with Beards.”
The audience and critical response to this musical contribution to our high culture appears to have been rapturous. No one seems to have registered objections—despite the fact that a major composer, speaking to an elite audience for one of the world’s leading orchestras, suggested that sexist “brutality” by talk radio properly compared to the most grotesque extremes in medieval Arab culture.
To be sure, the episode reflects the ongoing eagerness by a left-leaning cultural establishment to use any occasion to savage conservative opinions and individuals. But even more importantly, the latest foolishness displays the liberal compulsion to obliterate distinctions – between rich and poor, male and female, criminal and cop and, ultimately, right and wrong. The worst aspect of the moral equivalency argument is its erasure of the most important dividing line of them all: between good and evil. While it’s true that neither perfect goodness nor pure evil exist in our world, it hardly follows that mostly good deserves comparison with predominantly evil. That inclination leads to the breakdown of every sane standard, and to embarrassing excesses like the sour, off-key notes recently bleated on a gala occasion at the New York Philharmonic.