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.

Similarly, a lot of white conservatives know one thing about Jeremiah Wright:  he apparently at least occasionally goes off on lengthy rants about the united states, and white people.  Since that's all they know, when they think of Obama as attending the church, they tend to think of him as embracing the rants against white people.  But just as with Bob Jones, attending a hard core church is a way of embracing a community which mostly has nothing to do with ranting about white people, and the improbable accusations against the government.  The black commenter who is angry that I brought it up understand this--but doesn't think of Bob Jones as also having a host of other values attached to it.

Of course, one can argue that the interracial dating ban should have been so outside the pale as to merit shunning; I might even agree.  On the other hand, you can say the same thing about accusing the US government of passing out drugs in the black community; I'm pretty sure I wouldn't stick around in a church where the pastor started leveling those kinds of accusations; as I say, I think the interracial dating ban is worse, but that doesn't mean that anything short of an interracial dating ban is okay.

But the point wasn't really to say that the events are exactly the same, because they are different in many ways.  The point is that no, Democrats do not always run away from their lunatic fringe, unless they are forced to by bad publicity.  Which are the same conditions under which the Republicans have cleaned house every time.  There is no party of perfect moderation in America.  I confess that the Democrats seem more moderate to me, for the nonce.  But that's possibly because they're currently in the majority, which means that moderates have been added onto the loyalist rump; and because people in my demographic tend to be Democrats.

If there's one iron law of politics, it's that no matter how crazy you are, people who agree with you always seem more reasonable than anyone else.