Moral Equivalency

There is, as expected, a lot of discussion in the comments to my previous post about whether you can compare Jeremiah Wright to Bush's visit to Bob Jones university.  In terms of saying "Which is worse", I'm not sure this is useful.  Bush went somewhere reprehensible to campaign, once.  Obama developed a close relationship with someone saying somewhat less reprehensible (but also, crazier) things, and apparently never called him out.  Which is worse is bound to be about 100% correlated with your political persuasion.  But I'm not interested in the moral equivalency; I'm interested in whether it is true that one party keeps its fringe at arm's length, while the other party embraces it.  I think that for either party to say this requires some pretty energetic airbrushing of its own less salutary moments, and also, of course, a fairly hefty amount of bias as to what ideas you consider actually crazy, as opposed to merely a tad radical.

But a commenter raises an interesting point:

Regarding the equivalency between Bush's visit to Bob Jones and Obama's presence at J. Wright's church, the different contexts describe the differences between the Left and the Right, and the place of the extreme in both. Bush went to Bob Jones to campaign. In contrast, when Obama was campaigning in the primaries, he ran away from Wright. This does not make one morally better, but it demonstrates how acceptable the extreme is within the Right, as opposed to the Left.

On the other hand, the right basically forced Bob Jones to end its ban ten years ago.  How good a metric is this for the current party?  Plus Obama ran away when he had to--when it became a media stink.  As did Bush, when Bob Jones became a publicity problem.  A lot of the "My opposition is obviously worse" arguments seem to me to rely on fairly selective memory.

I think the problem on both sides is what decision scientists call "egotistical bias"--a concept I use a lot, because I see it a lot.  That is, we tend to assume that other people are evaluating issues using the same metrics we are.

I assume most liberals don't much care about evangelical colleges, or the many, many facets of evangelical culture that they don't interact with.  Probably the only thing they know about Bob Jones University is that it had an interracial dating ban.  So when George Bush went to Bob Jones, they think of Bush as having embraced the interracial dating ban.  Yet Bush may not even have known about it, and if he did, he certainly wasn't going there to send a covert signal that he was embracing bans on interracial dating. 

Bob Jones is one of the most hard core religious colleges in the US.  It has very strict rules for its students, 99.9% of which never had anything to do with race.  It's not clear how many people in the community even knew about the interracial dating ban, since there weren't a lot of black students to begin with.  By going there, George Bush was probably trying to signal support for a whole host of evangelical values, including going to church and relying on a fairly literal interpretation of the bible.  Liberals probably disagree with most of these as well, (as do I) but it's not the kind of automatic disqualifier from office that "supports interracial dating bans" would be.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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