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IT IS A CHEAP thrill, but a thrill nonetheless, to watch conservatives flail about on the issue of U.S.-South African relations. Had the Republican set learned low to lose gracefully, we would not have had the distinct joy of reading some of the most tortured prose to dribble forth from right-wing pens since the supply-siders tried to convince us that tax cuts plus military buildup would equal balanced budget.
The Wall Street Journal set the outer limits last summer by blaming the current South African unrest on the American protest movement. Hyperbolic flame-thrower Dinesh D'Souza followed in The New York Times by implying that those who support divestment from South Africa are in fact condoning mass extinction and, by obvious implication, persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union. That charge, in addition to being utterly absurd, lent a new, odious twist to anti-Semitic-baiting by the right.
Now comes the movement to divest from the Soviet Union, led on campus by the conservative bellwethers over at The Salient, where the gradual onset of Reaganite ennui has provided a healthy indicator of the stagnation and anti-intellectualization of conservative and neo-conservative thought.
Now urging divestment from the Soviet Union is fair play, you may say, placing South, Africa and la belle Russe on your ethical scale and coming up with something known in the international pundit biz as "moral equivalence."
Salient prexy Tom Firestone '86, with what can only be feigned indignation, huffs on at length about Harvard's massive investments not just in Russia, but the "EVIL EMPIRE" (excessive capitalization for rhetorical effect is the author's). "Failure to divest will prove that the Corporation is as hypocritical as the protesters to whose pressure it has already succumbed," Firestone concludes, as yet another thunderbolt of moral indignation cracks over the heads of the keepers of Harvard's billions.
Firestone and others are in effect arguing moral equivalence. You think South Africa is evil, well get a load of Soviet atrocities, where, as Firestone quotes George Will, more poeple have died in two average days of Soviet history than did in the past year in South Africa.
MORAL EQUIVALENCE IS a neat rhetorical ploy, especially when one is not able to argue the issue at hand on its own merits. But playing these games' can turn one's head to mush. F'rinstance: the United States has more than 10,000 warheads pointed at the Soviet Union, ready to end the world as we know it to prevent the spread of Communism (not surprisingly, few conservatives include the armaggedon factor when playing moral equivalence games with South Africa). To be consistent, should we also turn our nuclear arsenal and our massive military might against P.W. Botha, Johannesburg, and Sun City? Let's ask Derek Bok.
This is fun; let's play again. The United States spends millions funding terrorist activities in Nicaragua (though only about half as much as it spends funding anti-terrorist activities everywhere, which means we're good guys after all) in an attempt to counter what we believe is a serious threat to Democracy and self-determination. Nicaragua is not as bad as either South Africa or the Soviet Union. Thus, we should finance terrorist activity or possibly wage all-out covert war against both countries.
Unless you believe syllogism is gospel, you should be wondering whether the Soviet Union divestment movement is really anything more than a neat rhetorical ploy, a way of saying, "We're not going to play in your sandbox anymore, we'll make up our own game."
To be fair to conservatives, they are keeping the real nature of the Soviet Union in perspective, quelling a tendency on the left to idealize the country as a way of blocking out the real threat the Soviets pose to world peace. But the Soviet divestment movement is as superfluous as it is insincere.
I suppose it is no credit to the South Africa divestment movement to say that questions of investment policy are truly peripheral to the real moral and social questions at stake in that country. But, lacking any real effort on the part of the United States to ameliorate conditions in South Africa, divestment is sadly the least we can do. Threatening mass extinction to protect us from the Soviet threat is probably the most we can do.
Now, say uncle, already.
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