10/16/2007 04:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

War Criminals and Liberals: How the Right Stole the Right to Moral Language

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with my old friend Fred. Fred was a campus radical back in the '60s. I'd only seen him a few times since.

He made good money working in Silicon Valley, but insisted on living in San Francisco, doing the reverse commute. "Southern California begins at Daly City," he always said, and he was not having any of it.

We talked about the Iraq war. I said society was more careful than in Vietnam to not blame the soldiers for the Administration's folly.

"Well, I blame them now," said Fred. "I think our soldiers are guilty of war crimes."

"What!!?" I sputtered? "How can you possibly blame these poor kids--"

"How can I blame them? I can blame them because unlike you, I take them seriously. They are consenting adults; old enough to drink, drive, vote, and kill. They chose to kill for their beliefs, and to put themselves in harm's way of being killed for the same beliefs. They deserve the respect of being taken seriously.

"And I do give them that respect. I believe this is an immoral and illegal war, and they willingly joined it. And so I hold them as accountable for it as I do Bush."

"You, on the other hand," he continued, "are full of reasons why they don't know what they're doing, it's not their fault, they're not that educated or lucky. You disrespect them by not taking them seriously. You're a liberal snob."

I realized I hadn't heard that kind of voice since about 1969. And that silence says something:

Somewhere between the '60s and now, the RRC (right, Republicans, conservatives) hijacked the claim to moral high ground. And not only did the LDL (left, Democrats, liberals) let them do it, they replaced it with a form of amoralism -- a watered down social determinism.

What we've gotten is the worst of both worlds: an RRC that moralizes on narrow issues, and an LDL unwilling to assign or take responsibility for really big moral issues.

We now have, for example:

A Democratic party leading the charge against genocide -- in Turkey, 80 years after the event.

In Florida, boot camp guards and a nurse found not guilty of beating a 14-year old boy to death -- because they were only following procedures.

An Attorney General who lied, and a leading newspaper (the New York Times) that won't use that word to describe his behavior, lest it be perceived as biased.

A minority party capable of impeaching a popular President for lying about extramarital sex -- and a majority party incapable of impeaching an unpopular President for political and military incompetence leading to the deaths of tens of thousands.

When the RRC confronts an issue, it goes immediately to the Nth moral degree. Swift-boating is a good example -- the willingness to immediately attack a decorated soldier as being a coward and a traitor. (Not to mention a consumer of french fries).

When the LDL confronts an issue, it can't quite connect passion to action. Take racism, an issue tailor made for moral outrage. The LDLs still preach social tolerance and alleviation of conditions which contribute to racism. An LDL who dares suggest that the fight against racism should also include blacks taking personal responsibility is labelled regressive, right-wing, or hopelessly out of touch. And that's just what they say about Bill Cosby.

The RRC knows how to use the language of obfuscation well when it suits its goals: see Reagan's comment on Iran-Contra--"mistakes were made." But the LDL can't seem to handle a moral concept as fundamental as individual responsibility.

After decades of feeding on deconstruction and political correctness, the LDL has trained itself to cringe at the sound of "responsibility," thus ceding the ground to the likes of Ayn Rand and Ann Coulter.

Another aspect of the moral high ground is idealism. 1993 saw the political farce movie Dave. Kevin Kline played a dead ringer for an ailing president. He took over the Presidency, and restored the nation to common sense and idealism.

Be careful what you wish for. A president with idealism? We elected one in 2000. (Well, maybe not exactly elected...)

We got idealism, all right. Turns out it matters what you're idealistic about. In any case, the LDL isn't talking much now about idealism -- even while Republican candidates moralize about tax cuts while standing in economically-devastated Detroit.

On this point, I think my friend Fred is right. The majority LDL's can't even frame a legitimate congressional debate on funding the Iraq war -- Congress's constitutional role -- without getting morally trumped by the RRC equating it with disloyalty to the troops. Barack Obama can't trumpet a simple truth about flag lapel pins -- that they've been taken hostage by the RRC for partisan purposes.

Where is the LDL outrage?

It's not for lack of issues.

Income gaps are the highest since the Depression; the dollar is in a deep swoon; a Republican White House wants to finance a war via credit cards payable by our grandchildren; social mobility is down; "outsourcing" now extends to mercenaries; and a majority of Americans don't want to be in Iraq (but the LDLs can't find a majority in congress to reflect that view). Fox News and talk radio would kill for such red meat to their cause.

No, the LDL does not lack moral issues. But it has ceded the use of that language to those who choose to apply it mainly to abortion, flag-wearing, gun ownership and "creationism."

We all suffer in a republic with such a one-sided debate on moral issues. The belief that social conditions affect lives shouldn't mean that people aren't responsible for their moral decisions. If anything, the fact that social conditions affect lives should be a primary driver of moral debate -- about, oh, I don't know, war, poverty, racism, health care and injustice, for starters.

Right on, Fred.