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No time for moral equivalence

Liberty ship SS Rowan explodes after being hit by a German bomb, near Gela, Sicily on July 11, 1943.

Liberty ship SS Rowan explodes after being hit by a German bomb, near Gela, Sicily on July 11, 1943.

Some have argued that Malta had no business taking part in World War II, almost suggesting it would not have mattered who emerged victorious

Seventy-five years ago, in September 1943, the Italian Fleet surrendered in Malta. Footage from British Pathe helps us relive those events.

The fleet leaves La Spezia and Taranto and is escorted by British warships to Malta. On its arrival, Admiral Alberto Da Zara inspects a guard of honour. Magnanimity triumphed even in defeat. He is then taken to meet Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham. Earlier, Cunningham wired the news that “the Italian battle fleet is now anchored under the guns of Malta.”

After the instruments of surrender are signed, the Italian fleet sets sail for Alexandria. The newsreel tells us that Malta wore “a proud but dignified expression”. As the very proud grandson of decorated servicemen, the events of that day still fill me with a certain pride.

Since then, some have argued that Malta had no business taking part in World War II – that it was only an “accident of history” that it took part in a war which was “not its own”. These arguments almost suggest that it would not have mattered who emerged victorious. Some may suggest that there is no difference between what the British Empire stood for and what genocidal Fascism and Nazism stood for.

There were similar rumblings during the Cold War. Some argued that there was no difference between what the US and the West stood for and what the Soviet Union and its satellite governments stood for. Alas, in the zero-sum game of the Cold War, to be non-aligned was often a glaring euphemism.

This is not to say that the British Empire and the US were perfect polities. Nor does it excuse the mistakes they made in the periods mentioned above. However, their failings cannot be equated to those of Fascism, Nazism and Communism. It was right to stand against these evils.

The latter ideologies have bequeathed the world concentration camps, gulags, economic hardships and the worse forms of tyranny. Their morally corrupt regimes were mercifully condemned to the ash heap of history though not before leaving millions of victims in their wake. However, they still have their apologists or, at least, those who are willing to close both eyes to their failings. Moral equivalence – or the idea that all political regimes and political beliefs are as bad (or as good) as each other – is perhaps the most dangerous idea to enter the contemporary political fray. It is more dangerous than populism since it doesn’t recognise any issues which stand out from the rest. 

Instability is the product of a weak rule of law, weak institutions and an apparatus of a government beholden to special interests

It raises the white flag in the battle of ideas and, thus, fails to engage with the issues at stake. It is an attitude which leads to complacency or the adoption of muddled positions in the spirit of neutrality, objectivity and detachment.

The values of human dignity, justice, the rule of law and fundamental freedom cannot survive if democracies succumb to the fallacy of moral equivalence. There are elements in our democracies which show that we are moving in this direction.

Anti-Semitism is, once again, on the political agenda. This idea – once believed to be found only on the fringes of the political spectrum – has made an unwelcome return in mainstream political parties.

Segments of the left and the right have made an idol of Vladimir Putin. His attempts to influence elections around the globe demonstrate his lack of disregard for the democratic process. The boldness he shows in his military posturing is worrying.

View of the tote board arrangement in the RAF Sector Operations Room used to plan the defence of Malta and invasion of Sicily during World War II headquarters Lascaris War Rooms, Valletta. Photo: Shutterstock.comView of the tote board arrangement in the RAF Sector Operations Room used to plan the defence of Malta and invasion of Sicily during World War II headquarters Lascaris War Rooms, Valletta. Photo: Shutterstock.com

In many democracies, economic freedom and affluence are equated with political liberty and well-being. While the two aspects are related, they remain distinct. One freedom does not imply the presence of the other.

Some segments of civil society object to some aspects of the Trump presidency. Nonetheless, they fail to show similar disdain for the excesses of other regimes in Saudi Arabia, China, Qatar and Turkey. Despite the low opinion individuals may have of President Trump, his tenure will still be kept in check by institutions whose job it is to hold the president accountable. Other regimes do not have such institutions.

Democracies undoubtedly face numerous challenges on many fronts. Economic sustainability, migration, terrorism and security have all challenged the way we look at the international system. They have also led to the adoption of a foreign policy which is rooted in realism and pragmatism.

Nonetheless, this is no excuse for democracies to abandon their advocacy for what they have long believed in and enjoyed; namely liberty and justice. If we fail to raise such issues – and these are issues of a moral nature – then we are directly contributing to instability.

Instability is the product of a weak rule of law, weak institutions and an apparatus of a government beholden to special interests. In other words, instability happens because arbitrary decision-making is not restrained.

Moral equivalence makes us believe that we should be comfortable in accepting to live alongside such ideas. We shouldn’t. Democratic governments must raise issues concerning human rights on an international platform while securing such freedoms on the domestic front. They themselves must live up to the standard they hold.

As citizens, we are entitled to demand that such issues are raised as a manner of concern on an international level. After all, if the spirit of the appeaser and the draft-dodger had triumphed, Fascism would not have been dealt one of its decisive blows on that day in 1943.

André DeBattista is an independent researcher in politics and international relations.

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