The neoconservative intellectuals

Jeane and Midge and Norman and Irving and Melvin and the rest -- gathered in Washington this week to stomp on the notion of "moral equivalence," which is the idea that there is no real moral difference between the Soviet Union and the United States: the two are both great powers and they act the value-free part.

An example of a "moral equivalence" argument: both countries are nuclear powers ("two scorpions in a bottle") and therefore both equally threaten the nuclear peace. This is, the neocons believe, a glib assertion ignoring the more fundamental truth that the American strategic purpose is to defend the realm of freedom and the Soviet purpose is to extend a realm that denies freedom.

Another example: both great powers sometimes use force in dealing with other countries. Again, this formulation keeps many people from distinguishing between, say, American intervention in Grenada to serve the people's democratic choice and Soviet aggression in Afghanistan to impose a narrow pro-Moscow regime.

The speakers I heard were convinced that the idea of moral equivalence is widespread, deeply rooted in our political culture -- not least in our media -- and is darkly subversive. It lowers us in our own and many others' eyes to the Soviet level, and it puts us at a disadvantage in the struggle to hold up our end of things in the world. Sitting there, I found myself nodding regularly in agreement as one luminary of the right after another skewered the plain frailties of the left.

At the same time, the tone of it all was curious. Underneath the sometimes gleeful lib-bashing lay a nervousness and anxiety that would have seemed more suitable if George McGovern, not Ronald Reagan, had just been elected to a second term. It was as though the demonstrable conservative gains in Western political and intellectual life in recent years hadn't happened. But the conservatives did win. They are insecure and ungracious in victory. I felt it, anyway.

There was another nagging and unsatisfactory element at this "trans-Atlantic seminar for intellectual leaders, policy-makers and concerned citizens." The conference was put on by the Shavano Institute of Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Mich. -- so far so good -- "in cooperation" -- watch it -- "with the U.S. Department of State." The State Department quietly kicked in about $45,000 to help pay for the conference. Radio Free Europe chairman Frank Shakespeare introduced public-relations man Gilbert Robinson as the person who'd hatched the idea for the seminar while Robinson was Secretary of State George Shultz's adviser for "public relations" (a slip: Shakespeare meant to say public diplomacy).

In short, a group of otherwise fiercely independent-minded intellectuals gave the appearance this week of lending themselves to a government-inspired dog-and-pony show. Imagine how these close students of values in politics would rate a conference of Soviet intellectuals conducted by a Moscow institute "in cooperation with the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs."

I can hear some of the speakers, reading this, declaring that they have been furnished an example of precisely the nefarious phenomenon the conference was convened to nail. There he goes, they may say: setting up a false and invidious equivalence between an American event and an (imaginary) Soviet event, as though, whatever the technical facts of conference sponsorship, American intellectuals were not the masters of their minds and the American government was not basically respectful of them.

Which brings me to what is wrong substantively with the whole current neoconservtive focus on the evils of the "moral equivalence" doctrine. In the hands of enthusiasts, the assault on "moral equivalence" leaves too little room for fair and necessary criticism of one's own government and society.

If the shortcomings in Western life and policy are going to be played down on the basis that, yes, we have our faults but we are an open, democratic society and we are working on them and meanwhile we have to fight for freedom in a dangerous world, then those shortcomings are not going to be identified and attacked with anything like the necessary vigor.

The campaign against "moral equivalence" and "superpower symmetry" has something useful to teach -- the priority of the survival of freedom. But it also has something useful to learn -- the requirement of intellectuals that they remain in a position to speak truth to power.