Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Heavy Lifting

Not much time this week except to pass links (Waz -- I concede the Dogshit contest to you), but this is a good one. One of my favorite public intellectuals is Leon Wieseltier, the longtime editor of The New Republic's literary back section. Yeah, the dude's got problems: an often humorless pedant, he often comes off as a bigger snob than even Harold Bloom, and he displayed an unhealthy and obsessive hatred for Edward Said through the years (a product of his hardline pro-Israel views, in line with the magazine itself). But he's also one of the few writers in the mainstream press who consistently grapples the vicissitudes of public morality, an issue that takes on particular poignancy in this polarized nation at war. By public morality, I mean: What ideas should we hold as citizens and why? How do you account for your government's actions?

One question I've been grappling with (see my Wedding attack post): is it right or wrong to feel awful about innocent Iraqi (or Palestinian victims) given the nature of war.

In discussing innocent child victims of the respective Israeli and American wars on terror and occupations, Wieseltier tries to find a middle-ground between "moral equivalence" on one end, and on the other, the risible (wingnut) idea that showing any compassion for victims of collateral damage is a sign of weakness and appeasement. Or more precisely, Wieseltier rescues the idea of "moral equivalence" from the straw men formulation offered by wingnuts while making the case that "compassion" must necessarily entail a certain moral equivalence of treating all human beings ("your" peeps or not) as human beings. Key passage:

And what is compassion, if not an exercise in moral equivalence? The care that we feel for people other than ourselves is the result of regarding us all, the subjects of our concern and ourselves, under a single and highly general description, which is the description of the human. There is no way to pursue justice without believing in the moral equivalence of all men and women.

Check it out if you have time. It's a question that every American -- nay, everyone who's serious about their own moral stance -- should ask themselves.