A Lesson in Morality From the Military

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There were clearly counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va., who came to bang heads, just as there were at least some protesters at the “Unite the Right” rally that Saturday who did not support the hateful messages of white nationalists and neo-Nazis. But pointing out these facts does nothing to undercut a fundamental truth: Brandishing swastikas, chanting against Jews and blacks, and marching through the streets of a college town with torches as a reincarnation of old-style Ku Klux Klan gatherings are all inherently evil acts. Saying that black lives matter or otherwise opposing the hate messages of Nazism, anti-Semitism and white supremacism is not.

That is why attempts by President Donald Trump and an ever diminishing group of apologists in the Republican Party to create a false equivalence between the Charlottesville marchers and those who stood in opposition to them is so wrong. But is every attempt to assert moral equivalency between opposing camps an unpardonable political sin? Absolutely not.

While we are confident that the positions taken by hooded Klansmen and Nazi sympathizers are evil, we should not be mustering the same moral outrage at everything anyone who disagrees with us says or does. Thus, despite ongoing serious disagreements between elements of our society, between members of our own Jewish community and between political parties, it is not a given that one side is more moral than the other side is right. But, unfortunately, that’s how many of us make our arguments.

We live in an age of political correctness that began with the culture wars of the ’70s and ’80s. In that construct, there is confusion between simple opinions on any number of social and political issues, and profound moral declarations — with the result that assertions of moral truth are sometimes demeaned as nothing more than “political correctness,” an argument that is then used as an excuse to abandon that which is actually true.

The result is a troubling loss of morality and compassion in many exchanges of views. That certainly appears to have happened in the aftermath of Charlottesville.

Perhaps we should learn from the U.S. military — the unlikeliest of heroes in what has amounted to a domestic political war. Typically, the leaders of our armed forces eschew political speech. Rather, as members of a chain of command, they unquestionably carry out the orders of their commander-in-chief. As such, we never see a statement from the military that could be seen as directly contravening a position taken by the president.

And yet, while the president was delivering his ever-shifting series of statements in the wake of the Charlottesville violence, all of the generals and admirals holding the top commands in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps issued clear, unequivocal statements that the racism espoused by the white nationalists and anti-Semites who set off the violence was not reflective of the values underpinning the service of those in uniform.

Good for them.