Redefining “Moral Clarity”

Sara Robinson

They keep using those words. It turns out that they don’t mean what we think they mean.

On Thursday night, for the first time since 9/11, I actually sat down and watched George Bush speak. (At this late date, I figured there was absolutely nothing the man could say that could quench the deep satisfaction of knowing that this was the last time we’d ever have to endure The Smirk.) There was one passage, in particular, that rang in my ears long after his final goodbye. It probably went over most Americans’ heads—but it went right to the heart of Our Problem With George:

As we address these challenges – and others we cannot foresee tonight – America must maintain our moral clarity. I have often spoken to you about good and evil. This has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right. This nation must continue to speak out for justice and truth. We must always be willing to act in their defense and to advance the cause of peace.

That phrase “moral clarity”—conservatives use it a lot. And it always sounds absurd to progressive ears, coming as it does from members of an administration that shredded the Constitution, deprived people of due process, committed horrific acts of torture, and lied the country into the worst military debacle in its history. It’s always bewildering to listen to such people lecture the rest of us on “moral clarity.” What in the hell are they talking about?

They keep using those words. It turns out that they don’t mean what we think they mean.

This was brought home to me over the holidays, when I devoured J. Peter Scoblic’s U.S. Vs. Them as part of my vacation reading. Scoblic’s book looks at the way the conservative penchant for “othering” (a word I coined to describe their perpetual need for someone to project their own demons onto, and then hate on) has shaped U.S. foreign policy from the beginning of the Cold War through the current administration.

Throughout the book, Scoblic traces the roots of this recurring phrase—”moral clarity”—and discusses the very specific and narrowly-defined meaning it has to conservatives. The phrase first appeared in describing the Manichean worldview of the anti-communist right in the 1950s. To William F. Buckley, Frank Meyer, Whittaker Chambers and other National Review writers, “moral clarity” meant fully understanding and accepting the essential good-versus-evil nature of foreign affairs. People with “moral clarity” recognized the ultimate existential evil of Communism, and were constantly on guard against its unceasing efforts to bring down the capitalist world by any means necessary. To these early movement conservatives, having “moral clarity” meant that you weren’t the kind of weakling who would be deceived into negotiation with the Commies, or consent to arms control, or be duped into merely containing their relentless march across the globe. It meant that you had the intestinal fortitude (or pure enough vital bodily fluids, as you wish) to do whatever had to be done to permanently exterminate America’s implacable enemies—whether it was to send in the Marines or drop the bomb.

This definition of “moral clarity” has been a major factor in U.S. foreign policy ever since. From that day unto this, the conservative movement has never been without a demonized Other to focus its vaunted “moral clarity’ on. “Moral clarity” is why conservatives hate summit meetings; why they’ve scuttled every attempt at arms control and non-proliferation; why every problem in the world can only yield to a military solution; and why defense is the only valid government expense. To people with “moral clarity,” these choices are obvious. Those who disagree (like those progressive pantywaists who refuse to acknowledge the threat, or are willing and eager to coddle Pure Evil by parleying with it) are, perforce, inherently weaker and less morally serious. If you’ve ever marveled at the depths of conservative moral self-righteousness, now you know the deep well from which it springs.

When the Soviet Union crumbled to dust, it looked for a few years there like this brand of “moral clarity” was going to fade away with it. Finding a new boogeyman became Job One for conservatives in the early 90s; and they quickly seized on the entire Muslim world (all 1.5 billion of them certifiable terrorists, they assured us) as the best possible candidate. Dick Cheney updated the old anti-communist definition for a post-9/11 world when he said:

We cannot deal with terror. [The war on terrorism] will not end in a treaty. There will be no peaceful coexistence, no negotiations, no summit, no joint communique with the terrorists. The struggle can only end with their complete and permanent destruction and in victory for the United States and the cause of freedom.

Whenever you hear a conservative go on about “moral clarity,” this is precisely what they’re saying. There is always an enemy. They are always out to get us. They will stop at nothing. You cannot coddle them or negotiate with them; you can only survive by annihilating them. And people who see the moral world clearly will not waste time or breath questioning these essential truths.

It’s pretty stunning stuff when you read it that way. It really makes you realize that conservatives live in a world of paranoia, xenophobia, and seething aggression that most progressives can’t even fathom. And their entire moral universe has been twisted to serve their externalized fears; to take that will to project their own demons onto someone else and then destroy them, and elevate it as the highest possible moral good. It’s a definition of “morality” that renders the rule of law meaningless, but readily justifies genocide and torture as moral acts of self-preservation.

Once we understand what they’re really saying, it becomes pretty obvious that one of the first things we’re going to need to do in this new era is challenge this horrific definition of “moral clarity” and overwrite it with one of our own. Fortunately, on the same day Bush gave his final speech, Attorney General candidate Eric Holder appeared before Congress, and gave the country a cooling blast of what real progressive moral clarity might look like. According to Holder:

1. The President is not exempt from FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
2. Guantanamo will be closed, and its prisoners remanded to appropriate courts for due process.
3. Waterboarding is, unequivocally, torture.

That’s what moral clarity looks like when progressives run the show. We believe moral clarity is defined by the Constitution, embodied in the rule of law, and on display wherever the dignity of other people—including those whose interests oppose ours—is upheld. And, in case there’s any question about where the real moral clarity lies here: Ours is the morality America was founded on. Theirs is one that almost put that light out forever.

The next time a conservative starts talking about “moral clarity,” let’s not just stand there scratching our fuzzy liberal heads. It’s not a joke, and not a piece of idle cant. Their use of the phrase to is a fundamental challenge to our entire view of society and government, and to everything we value. We need to call them out on this murderous and hateful “morality,” and challenge them to reconcile it with the values of Enlightenment humanism. The conservatives have cherished this belief for nearly 60 years, but it has no place in the 21st century. It should have died when the Berlin Wall fell. Now that we understand what they’re really saying, let’s show some true “moral clarity” and bury this toxic idea for good.

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