When Morality and Politics Collide

Walking the minefield between the quest for the greater good and what you believe is right.

By Crawford Kilian 15 Dec 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

I’m stumped. In the twenty-first century we have seen the face of distant Pluto, but we still don’t know how to deal with our neighbours right here at home.

We like to think of ourselves as good people living by a clear moral code, but when we start doing business with others, their moral codes may conflict with ours. It’s hard to tell the difference between tolerance, compromise, and selling out.

Justin Trudeau, like many prime ministers before him, has gone to China in search of stronger economic ties while simultaneously chiding the Chinese government for its abuses of human rights. Failure to raise the human-rights issue has been a mark against him.

Given the relative size of the countries and their economies, this is like a job applicant telling a possible employer, “I’d love to work here, but could you please do something about your bad breath?”

Harping on human rights is also directly opposed to China’s own overseas policy. Chinese corporations invest all over the world on a simple premise: You run your country as you see fit, we’ll run our enterprises the same way, and we’ll both make money. Thanks to this policy, China is now a major pillar of Africa’s economy, and a welcome partner in much of the rest of the world.

Suppose the Chinese offered us some mouth-watering projects, but only if we adopted a one-party system with strict controls on the press and social media, plus an educational system inspired by the Confucius Institute. We’d be furious if Trudeau gave them anything but a quick trip to the departure gate for their flight back home.

In other words, we don’t like to be dictated to, but we still think we can dictate to other countries and cultures — especially those we used to bully when we were the imperialist overlords.

Even on the local level, dictating our morality to others can cause a lot of trouble. Suppose you and your same-sex spouse are about to get married, and you ask a local baker to prepare the wedding cake. But the baker hates the idea of same-sex marriage, refuses your order, and takes you to the United States Supreme Court. Whose morality should prevail?

Help! Do you beat your wife?

Or make it even more personal, and urgent. Your toilet’s plugged, it’s Christmas Eve, there’s a mess on the bathroom floor, and the plumber you’ve always relied on has just been charged with beating his wife. Do you call him, or do you call another plumber? And do you ask that plumber: “Before I tell you what the problem is, do you beat your wife? And can you give me three character witnesses to confirm that you don’t?”

And suppose that potential saviour asks you, “I don’t take morally dubious customers. Can you give me three character witnesses to confirm you don’t beat your wife and sexually abuse your kids?”

In other words, it’s really dangerous to assume you have the moral high ground in any transaction, personal or international. Xi Jinping could have reminded Trudeau about the dismal state of First Nations reserves, which endure arguably worse conditions than those that Tibetans and Uighurs must deal with under Beijing’s rule.

It’s even more dangerous when Trudeau has already dallied with the Saudis, selling the House of Saud billions of dollars’ worth of armoured vehicles. When the Saudis are inflicting a million cholera casualties and scores of thousands of children’s deaths in a pointless war in Yemen, Trudeau is just as compromised as any other gunrunner.

Moralizing about our trading partners can make us feel good, but it has its limits. If we traded only with countries with spotless moral and human-rights records, we’d trade only with Heaven — assuming Heaven would agree to trade with us.

I still recall the shock I felt in 1970, as a new immigrant to Canada, to find a can of string beans on a local grocery shelf with the words “Product of China.” If I bought it, I’d be Trading With the Enemy. Twenty years later, it was tough to find anything that wasn’t a product of China.

By then I’d lived in China and talked with countless Western entrepreneurs who hated the country — but only because they couldn’t figure out yet how to get into the Chinese market and make a fortune. We all have our price. It’s usually very low, and someone will always meet it.

Another moral issue has recently arisen: the immoral artists we’ve made rich because we love the way they entertain us. It’s easy to hate Harvey Weinstein, a middle-aged slob in dire need of a shave and a diet; besides, he never appeared in the movies he produced. Woody Allen did appear in his own movies, and was often hilarious, and his fetish about very young women got as creepy as Judge Roy Moore’s.

But how about Pablo Picasso, who brutally exploited his wives, lovers, and children? Should we burn his paintings and pretend he never existed?

A kind word for the devil

In June 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Winston Churchill rose in the House of Commons, where he had been opposing Soviet communism from the first shots of the October Revolution in 1917. He might have called for a plague on both Nazis and communists, as countless Western politicians did.

Instead, he observed that “If Hitler invaded hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” And before long he and the Allies were shipping untold billions in war materiel to Josef Stalin, a dictator who despised their dearest values — because without his survival and victory, the Nazis would conquer Europe. Meanwhile Stalin had cast aside his own Marxist morality to side with his erstwhile enemies and welcome their help.

Without such decisions 75 years ago, we wouldn’t be here at all. Not just Jesus, but hundreds of millions, have died, willingly or not, for our sake. Descended from the survivors of that terrible century, we have little room to moralize about those decisions, whatever the principles betrayed and the lives lost. We may be compromised, but we’re here.

I’m stumped about finding a tolerable overlap between personal morality and politics. Perhaps the best we can do is a case-by-case assessment, judging whether to tolerate or condemn this or that regime’s behaviour given the benefits and grief caused by that behaviour.

But the cases are coming thick and fast these days: how many more refugees can we take, how many more deals can we make? Who will benefit, and who will suffer? If your own boss is a sexual harasser, do you call him out if all his employees might lose their jobs when he goes to jail?

We are going to have to think fast, and wisely, or we ourselves will be called out by our grandchildren as stupid, immoral old bigots who — given the choice between being part of the problem or part of solution — always chose to be the problem.  [Tyee]

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