There’s a pattern emerging in parts of the right. It goes something like this. “Yes, Russia is wrong to invade Ukraine, but …” And what follows the “but” is invariably an avalanche of excuse-making and false moral equivalence. NATO provoked Russia, Ukraine provoked Russia, or—and this is my favorite—Western wokeism provoked Russia.
Earlier this week the extraordinarily popular Canadian professor Jordan Peterson released a lengthy (and immediately viral) video that represented the virtual platonic form of the argument that “Russia is wrong, but …” If you have a spare hour, I’d urge you to watch his entire lecture, if only to understand a view you may not hear much in your daily life.
I want to focus on a specific claim by Peterson—that Russia has not only gone to war to protect itself from what he describes as Western degeneracy, but that our alleged degeneracy robs the West of the moral high ground in the conflict. Here’s a key quote:
And are we degenerate in a profoundly threatening manner? I think the answer to that may well be yes. The idea that we are ensconced in a culture war has become a rhetorical commonplace. How serious is that war? Is it serious enough to increase the probability that Russia, say, will be motivated to invade and potentially incapacitate Ukraine merely to keep the pathological West out of that country, which is a key part of the historically Russian sphere of influence?
And what is this degeneracy? Peterson talks about radical gender ideology, the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson (yes, really), and her reluctance to define a “woman” during her confirmation hearings. Here’s more Peterson:
The culture war in the West is real, and culture is losing. And Russia is part of the West. And the culture war is now truly part of why we have a war, and it’s a real war. And it is certainly the case that we do not therefore have all the moral high ground, for some part of the reasons that [political scientist John] Mearsheimer details, and for these reasons of insanity. In fact, how much of it we have at all is something rightly subject to the most serious debate.
Peterson’s moral equivalence does not (yet) hold majority Republican support. While Republicans are less likely to support Ukraine in the conflict than Democrats—and less likely to support strict economic sanctions against Russia and sending military support to Ukraine—strong majorities still oppose Vladimir Putin.
Peterson’s beliefs, however, are still worth addressing, and not just because they undermine American support for an ally that is directly confronting one of our nation’s chief geopolitical foes. His beliefs also lead to a sense of unjustified existential despair about the state of our own civilization and culture.
In short, while the West has problems, it is not “degenerate” by any reasonable historical measure, and there is no reasonable comparison between the virtue of NATO and Russia. To argue otherwise is to be ignorant or to engage in gravely deficient moral reasoning.
The right’s disproportionate commitment to moral equivalence in the Russia-Ukraine war is explained partly by pure contrarianism (opposing anything the “elite” supports) and partly by a profoundly negative view of modern Western cultural life, and a prewar view of Putin as a muscular representative of specifically anti-woke Christian nationalism.
There’s no question that Putin has forged a close relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church, but that is an indictment of the Russian Church, not an endorsement of Putin. He’s a brutal war criminal who employed his military in indiscriminate attacks against civilians in the wars in Chechnya and Syria well before the wholesale slaughter in Ukraine.
Moreover, it’s hardly the case that Russia itself is a hotbed of religious fervor. It’s far more secular than the United States (53 percent of Americans say religion is very important in their lives, versus only 16 percent of Russians). Russia has a substantially higher murder rate than every member of NATO, including the United States. It suppresses religious freedom, and it has one of the highest measured abortion rates in the world.
Is Russia defending itself against Western degeneracy and protecting the Christian faith? No, it’s distorting and appropriating Christianity to inflict its own “pathological” criminality on a peaceful nation and its innocent people.
Peterson’s critique of the West as degenerate or “insane” rests largely on the existence of radical gender ideology and illiberal “wokeness” that does have profound influence in a number of key Western cultural institutions, including the academy, large corporations, and much of the mainstream press.
Yet the Western-protected regime of individual liberty and the rule of law not only protects its citizens from the worst excesses of authoritarians on the left and the right; it protects the mechanisms of internal critique that can and do lead to reform. Moreover, even with wokeness abroad in the land, NATO countries remain among the best places in the history of the world to build a life and raise a family.
Neither America nor its Western allies have ever been perfect. We’ve always been profoundly flawed. Indeed, the United States that fought World War II was far more “degenerate” or “pathological” than it is today. We liberated Europe from Nazi tyranny and Asia from Japanese despotism at the same time that we maintained an apartheid-like Jim Crow regime in the South.
But that did not render the “moral high ground” in the Second World War up for the “most serious debate.”
I’ve long been a participant in the American culture war. I was a pro-life and religious-liberty litigator for more than 20 years before I became a journalist. I also know that it’s easy to lose perspective when you spend too much time immersed in domestic disputes. Most of us, however, get jolted back to reality when we see the true face of aggressive, authoritarian evil. A clash over whether to use the word woman or a person with the capacity for pregnancy is a moral and philosophical dispute that can be mediated through the instruments of liberal democracy.
A Russian cruise missile launched into an apartment building, by contrast, represents a truly different order of depravity. A nation or culture does not have to be perfect to be right, and make no mistake—in the clash between the war criminal in the Kremlin and Ukraine and its NATO allies, the true moral high ground could not be more clear.