The Moral Bankruptcy of the Moral Equivalency Arguments about the Russian Invasion of Ukraine
This is an unplugged, lightly edited, oral talk, by Dr. Marc Gafni one in a series of talks doing sense making on the Ukraine and our larger world context, inviting us to a way forward, to a memory of the future.
At stake is the very future of humanity
This is all about Ukraine, and it is not about Ukraine at all. That’s critical. It is very important to understand both what’s unique about this situation, and what is absolutely not unique about this situation.
At stake here is everything. At stake here is the very future of humanity. But not only because there is a horrific war in Ukraine, which requires all of our attention, and all of our support, and all of our love, as does every conflict.
We are in mad joy and mad honor, and we are in mad pain. We live in a world of outrageous pain, and the only response to outrageous pain is Outrageous Love. Outrageous Love at this moment means to do everything we can to help, in every possible way, to articulate the new source code of consciousness and culture, to tell the New Story of value. Because it is only a New Story of value that’s going to actually allow us to move through this Ukraine and all the future Ukraines, and all of the suffering around the world. The Archimedean lever with which we can change the world is only a New Story of what story is, a new understanding of story, and a New Story of value. We have to be radically and wildly energized by that in a huge way.
We are in this moment. We live in a world of outrageous beauty, and the only response to outrageous beauty is outrageous pain. It is the outrageous beauty of human beings and of nature, and of the Universe: A Love Story, it is this outrageous beauty that tells us that outrageous pain is a violation, and that it is not supposed to be that way. That we are actually wired for pleasure; we are wired for goodness, we are wired for truth, we’re wired for beauty. That outrageous pain is a violation of the value structures of the universe.
The unique distinction of this conflict should not be that it involves White Europeans, as opposed to brown or yellow or black (and there is some of that, which is tragic, and needs to be overcome in every possible way). We judge people by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. That is our dream, and that is the Reality we have to make real. Child soldiers in Congo have to be infinitely valuable, 10,000–11,000 people that die every day from starvation or hunger-related malnutrition have to be in front of our eyes.
We cannot let our attention focus on Ukraine in a way where we become so Ukraine-focused that we forget the massive suffering that exists in Reality.
The calculus of risk is very painful
Yet, Ukraine is also unique. It is unique in that there is an actual impending confrontation between superpowers. There have been regional conflicts and proxy wars over the past six to seven decades, but there has been no direct conflict. It takes place in the shadow of nuclear context; there’s talk of tactical nuclear strikes.
So, we’re in this very strange situation. Let’s follow it step by step.
We are refusing to intervene and impose a no-fly zone over the Ukraine, or to put troops on the ground, because we feel like we are going to push Putin over the edge and create a direct conflict, which will then result in a tactical nuclear strike. Obviously, we want to avoid that with all of our beings. Yet there is a strange and slippery slope here. It is not clear. For example, let’s say that Russia would succeed in Ukraine, God forbid, let’s say Russia then attacks Estonia and Latvia. Let’s say that there actually is an attack by Putin on a NATO ally. Biden has said, and NATO has said, we don’t give one inch. So, at that point, do we give up the NATO ally? Or do we actually confront Putin, even at the risk of a tactical nuclear response? At what point do you actually stop the bully? The calculus of risk here is very painful.
Let’s just really understand what this means. We won’t take the risk for Ukraine. Because even though Ukraine was in the movement towards becoming part of NATO, it hadn’t yet gone through that process. Therefore, we don’t take the risk for Ukraine. But we do take the risk for a NATO ally, and what does that mean? That’s complex. Is the issue the expansion of NATO eastward? I don’t think so. I am deeply aware of all those arguments, but I don’t think that’s the issue.
We are at a moment which is incredibly complex, and which requires enormous wisdom, and there are wild contradictions in the space. We have to find our way. At this moment, let’s actually step in and see if we can find our way.
There is no moral equivalence between the Western worldview and Russia’s worldview today
The issue at stake, as we said, is story and value. The issue at stake is not realpolitik.
Yes, there is, obviously, realpolitik. I am deeply familiar with all the issues of oil, and gas, and population, and borders. I’ve tracked all those issues for the last decade, and those are all critical issues. But actually, something deeper is driving it. We can’t ignore realpolitik. We can’t ignore economics. We can’t ignore the various moves made by the United States and Russia over the years. Moreover, I don’t think that Putin is Hitler and I do think that both Russia and the United States are propagandizing their own populations in different ways.
Nonetheless, there is something underneath that, and that’s a critical issue.
I want to say this clearly: I don’t, in any way, hold the United States or the NATO alliance as some kind of sacred cow that never makes a mistake, and that should be supported no matter what in all circumstances, just because. That’s obviously not the case. At the same time — and this is a very big at the same time — there is no moral equivalence between the Western worldview and Russia’s worldview today.
To try and reduce this conflict to a value-neutral power play between superpowers is to miss the point of what is happening here.
I know there is an enormous amount of conversation, even in liberal circles in America, and woke circles particularly, which are arguing in various ways that the United States has pressed Russia into this.
There is this analogy which has been drawn in dozens and dozens of articles: America went to the brink of nuclear war when there were missiles in Cuba. Obviously, when NATO was pushed all the way eastward, Putin is going to be aroused and enraged. Now, whether or not NATO should have gone all the way eastward is a more complex issue than we can discuss here. That’s an open question, and you can understand it in a number of ways.
I think NATO should not have pushed all the way east, and that there may have been several ways of brokering a deal with Russia and the Ukraine. I think Putin may have had no other move available, because of his world view–one that is based on a series of values, or the collapse of values. That is precisely what is at stake here. Really China’s world view, too–because on many levels this is China’s play, with Putin in some sense being played by China. China’s world view, like Putin’s, is about the dominance of closed societies and those values that stand against open societies with their value structures.
Nonetheless, there is zero question that NATO — and we all know this to be true — has no intention whatsoever of invading Russia. That’s just not true. That’s not the value structure that guides NATO. That’s not the value structure that guides the United States.
Now, am I aware that the United States has entered into countries and toppled dictators in Latin America, and invaded Iraq? Am I aware of Afghanistan, Libya, Gaddafi, etcetera, the whole list? Of course I am! Do I think the United States was precisely right in each of those cases? No, I think each one is complex, and each one deserves analysis. Was America correct in Vietnam? No and yes, it’s complicated. 1963–1964 was something, 1965–1966 was something else, 1967–1968 was something else, 1969 was something else. You actually have to enter into these issues in a complex and deep way.
But here is what’s true:
The overarching motivation, the spark of the sacred at the root of the American Vision, is a vision of value.
It is a vision of universal human rights.
It is a vision that moves beyond all of the racisms and all of the ethnocentrisms.
But more importantly, it is a vision that stands for the correct gathering of information, for the right to do real sense-making.
It stands for the personal. It stands for the irreducible dignity of the individual.
It stands for an entire set of values that actually are explicitly defaced and rejected by what Russia is standing for today.
That’s a very big deal!
Value is real and evolving
Has the United States honored some of those values in the breach? Yes, there was a Vietnam War protest movement that ripped America apart, and occasionally things went bad, like at Kent State where four people were killed, and that became a massive American tragedy.
But there is no legitimate comparison between that and the utter suppression of protest, brutality, and murder that is actually par for the course in a closed society, whether it’s China or Putin’s Russia, which is run as a top-down oligarchy, in which people are disempowered, information is suppressed, and there is a fundamental arbitrariness to human life, in which the masses of the people are actually ignored in multiple ways, groups are singled out and put in concentration camps… The list goes on.
So, to suggest that there is a moral equivalence between the West and the positions evinced by Russia and China is to fundamentally misunderstand value. It is a postmodern move which basically says:
There is no value that’s real, this is just a question of realpolitik. America has done the same thing, there is no difference between America and Russia.
That’s just not true.
It is not true if you think value is real.
- First, you have to think value is real.
- Secondly, you have to understand that there’s an evolution of value: it’s not eternal and absolute values; they are evolving values.
For example, democracy is an evolving value. A thousand years ago, the value of democracy didn’t exist in the world. Today, we have a value of democracy, and it is an evolving value. Although democracy is imperfect, but of all the forms of government available today, it is the one that is most supportive of value, which is most supportive of goodness, which is most supportive of God-ness.
We have to challenge democracy when it becomes corrupt and degraded. And we do, fiercely! In One Mountain, part of our mission is to challenge the collapse of value structures when they happen in democracy, whether that’s in the United States where there are millions and millions of people without healthcare, whether that’s in the global technocracy which is devaluing the personal and the individual, it needs to be challenged and dismantled in a fundamental way. Just like we challenged the Vietnam War, just like during the Paris spring.
But at the same time, we need to recognize that there is no moral equivalence, and we need to reject moral equivalence because that’s what this is about today.
Killing is not killing
I want to read with you some specific examples of moral-equivalence arguments from a recent widely circulated article, so we can learn to make these distinctions. I don’t want to identify the source because the point is not to critique a writer, the point is to look at the content.
Each side believes that it is right.
The author writes:
I read this morning of an upcoming parlay between Vladimir Putin and Zelensky … In the case of Zelensky, the righteousness is obvious.
He lists Zelensky’s claim, and then in the very next paragraph:
In the case of Putin, the righteousness comes, I suppose, from an historical narrative of NATO expansionism, missiles on Russia’s borders, oppression, and mass killing of ethnic Russians in the Ukraine, and so forth.
A complete moral equivalence. Then the writer ducks around it, and says: The point is not here that each side is equally right. That’s the most the writer is willing to give to non-moral equivalence, they’ve got to slip that in. But, they says, the more important thing is that each side believes that it is right, and that is where their emphasis goes.
But that’s just the very beginning. I want to just give you an example of moral equivalence, and how, particularly and even in the woke world, value gets lost.
Let’s go to the next step. The writer says, let’s talk about Putin:
Of course, we can’t pin our hopes on Putin’s compassion, although judging from his interviews I don’t think he’s a heartless man. Hardened, yes, and shrewd, but not the soulless monster war propaganda portrays. That’s a heavy accusation to make against another human being, but we tend to make it lightly in the heat of conflict.
Well, that’s complicated, my friend. Yes, America has engaged in acts in which there was tragic collateral, and civilians being killed. The British bombed Dresden, in which 40,000 people were killed in one night, and the British were wrong to bomb Dresden in that way, so we need to hold them fully and absolutely accountable. Nonetheless, the way the British and the United States have held value and held individual human life is fundamentally different from the way Putin does. Putin carpet bombs in Aleppo, carpet bombs in Chechnya. For Putin, the entire notion of the individual human life is simply not a value, in the way that it is in the West. There isn’t the same sense of the value of the individual and the value of the personal.
It’s intentional, for the sake of essentially oligarchy and power, not for the sake of a vision of value. There is no vision of value in Russia today that’s arousing people around the world; that’s not happening. There is an oligarchical power move that’s based on authoritarian control. A completely repressive, closed society, for the benefit of the very few on top, and the willingness to carpet bomb in Aleppo and anyplace else in the world, to directly target civilians as the object of war, for the sake of no value other than pure naked power.
That’s completely different than the Allies fighting the Nazi war machine. The Allies made significant mistakes fighting the Nazi war machine (The Nazi war machine killed most of my family, so for me to say the Allies made significant mistakes is a big deal). They shouldn’t have bombed Dresden in the way they did. That was a horrific tragedy.
This was the corruption of the circle around Churchill, who actually falsified data on how Britain itself responded to the London Blitz in order to persuade Churchill to repeat the London Blitz 10 times over in Dresden, which Britain should never have done. So yes, of course we challenge the huge mistakes made.
Nonetheless, the Allies fighting Hitler and the Nazi war machine, and fascism at its absolute worst, is in no sense comparable to Putin or China. We need to understand the difference.
We must also look with shame at the wars instigated by our own country.
The writer keeps going and says:
If we are to be consistent, we must also look with shame at the wars instigated by our own country as we lived obliviously to them, shielded from their horrible reality by our own justifications just as Putin is shielded by his.
That is classical moral equivalence. Again, we should critique America in every possible way. But the analogy between America’s wars and Putin wars, between the worldview of the United States, of universal human rights, and the worldview of Putin is wrong. For example, the amount of money the United States pours into education and aid around the world is unparalleled by any country in world history, there is nothing even vaguely close. It goes on and on and on.
So, to make a moral equivalence between the United States and Russia is wrong. To portray the United States as a knight in shining armor that’s without significant corruption and significant degradation of value, and not to challenge this degradation, is a tragedy. The United States and the western world is a dream in the making. It’s a work in progress. It’s a dream that’s not fulfilled. But we’ve got to hold the dream, and we’ve got to make the dream true, because the value structure and the worldview to hold the dream is there. That’s absolutely critical.
I’m going to go over another example:
We are rightly appalled at the invasion of Ukraine. But where were these sensibilities when our own countries and alliances invaded Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen?
I can go through each one of those cases, which I know quite well, and the moral equivalence here is absolutely not true, based on the vision of value which guided those invasions, together with the realpolitik. The nature of the desire for American hegemony (realpolitik) is not a purely base power play. It is actually a desire for Western values: that the Western values, the values of an open society, should stand against the values of a closed society. Because we are at a moment in the world in which we may be able to transform the world into a multipolar world of open societies. We don’t want a unipolar American world. We want a multipolar world. We want a symphony of Unique Self nations. We want a Unique Self Symphony which is based on a shared vision of value.
So, to make a moral equivalence by the writer between the United States and Russia is beyond absurd, it’s wrong. It is based on a postmodern subjectification of value, on the refusal to actually do the hard work of analyzing and sense-making in the complexities of each case, and to draw crucial distinctions. It is based on these broad arguments of we invaded, you invaded, and those are the same.
That’s not true, killing is not killing.
I sat with the Dalai Lama in his bedroom, in Dharamsala, where we were talking in 2005. We both talked about this notion that this moral equivalence in all forms of killing is actually a violation of the sacred. Not all forms of killing are equal. When I kill to defend my family against a murder, it’s not the same as the murder. Yes, of course, there are complex issues of realpolitik, but even realpolitik and the power move are animated by a vision of value.
Exercised by hypocrites, sanctions have little effect.
The writer goes on to say that, as things stand now, the sanctions are being exercised by hypocrites, and instead, we should say:
We will no longer stand for war. We will dismantle our global military bases. We will disband NATO. We will stop placing missiles on your borders. We will rejoin the ABM treaty. We will reduce our nuclear arsenal. We will shrink our military. We will stop invading other countries. We will cease supporting coups, juntas, and torture regimes.
Now, that sounds perfect, but four phrases there are very important, and what the moral equations are, and who we support, needs to be very carefully examined.
There’s no question the Western world has made mistakes. Nonetheless, the notion that the United States should unilaterally dismantle its 850 bases is a victory for Putin. A victory for closed societies that debase the fundamental notion of universal human rights, the fundamental notion of individual dignity, the fundamental notion of information-gathering and sense-making, the fundamental notion of governance for the people and by the people. So, these kinds of moral analogies are completely out of place.
Another moral equivalence in this article says War is OK as long as it is justified. But guess what! Everyone thinks their own war is justified. Most ordinary Russians right now fervently believe this war is justified. This is a huge problem.
The article goes on with more examples of shocking moral equivalences, and we can’t ignore that.
The question of whether Putin and Russia are actually evil misses the point.
The article goes on to say that we actually generated Putin–Putin is directly generated by the United States projecting its shadow:
After the Cold War, the United States was desperate for an Enemy by which to define itself as good.
I understand that, and I’ve written that many times. Yes, when we don’t have genuine Eros, we create pseudo-eros by placing someone else outside the circle to give ourselves the illusion that we’re inside the circle. The United States was in a certain sense, I wouldn’t say desperate for an enemy, but the United States lost its internal cohesion because there wasn’t an interior Eros of a shared vision of value. That’s absolutely true.
I have tried to make this same point many times because it is super important.
When we are not in Eros (which means in the Eros of value–in the field of value) it means that we do not experience ourselves as being within the circle of Eros, so we place someone else outside the circle in order to give ourselves the illusion of being inside the circle. That is precisely pseudo-Eros.
In the US we might call it a national intimacy disorder. Value is the animating fabric of Eros and we do not know how to locate ourselves in the circle of Eros (the field of value) because we have deconstructed intrinsic value. So, I agree with our writer in terms of his first excellent point.
Having said that, here’s the next line:
The arrogant, violent bully generates enemies in the image of his paranoid fear that others are as he is (he’s talking about the United States creating Putin — MG). The question of whether Putin and Russia are actually evil misses the point.
He couldn’t be more dead wrong. One, it’s not Putin and Russia. Russia is not evil; the Russian people are gorgeous. Putin may well be evil, and that question does not miss the point. The question of value does not miss the point. Essentially what he’s saying is no, the question of value misses the point. No, wrong, wrong, and wrong again! This itself, however, is a shocking violation of value.
The moral equivalence continues throughout the article. For example, a few lines further:
Everyone has a reason why bombing and shooting and killing by their own side is regrettably necessary.
What this sentence fails to do is to create a hierarchy of values. It fails to create moral distinctions of any kind. Everyone, including Hitler, including Putin, has a reason.
Again, let’s be clear, we’re not taking a naive position which suggests that the West doesn’t propagandize; the West does propagandize. Indeed, next week in One Mountain, we’re going to be doing a deep analysis of how propaganda works in the West. Of course, the West propagandizes, and of course the West has disseminated, at different moments, falsehoods in propaganda. Often it was a noble lie for the sake of a larger truth, and sometimes it was narrow self-interest. Nonetheless, there’s a clear moral distinction which can’t be effaced. Because actually, there are wars that are justified, that are necessary, even though they’re utterly tragic beyond imagination.
The writer kind of drops their mask towards the end of the article, where they say:
Until this happens, something like Ukraine will recur again and again, whether instigated (as is usual) by the US imperial hegemon or by the adversaries it generates from its us-versus-them worldview.
I just want everyone to get that sentence: whether instigated as is usual by the US Imperial hegemon. Meaning, what’s usually instigating this? It is the US Imperialism, the US raw drive for power.
This is where the mask drops, and the writers true position emerges. It turns out to be a United States bashing position, which is classical in the leftist woke community, and is sadly confused, distorting, and doing damage on myriad levels, even though in many areas makes crucial contributions.
In this position there’s no value, there’s no worldview, there’s no hierarchy of values. This has been between the lines, kind of carefully hidden, then the mask drops. This is a straight moral equivalence; this is a straight equation of US imperialism with Putin’s imperialism, which is a completely false equation on so many fact levels.
If we cannot make moral distinctions, we are lost
We need to be able to make moral statements, and that’s critically important.
Unless value is real, we cannot make moral statements criticizing our own policies, and we cannot hold our own leaders in the West to standards of value. We cannot hold our own leaders to standards of value if we are not willing to hold the world to a standard of value, and if we engage in a postmodern moral equivalence, where we don’t make distinctions between Western values and Putin’s values.
Garry Kasparov, who was the Russian chess champion and became one of the most important advocates for democracy in Russia, talked really beautifully, in a recent interview, about the utter absurdity of suggesting that Putin is being driven or created by the United States. He said that this classical Western woke thinking is the single most damaging thing to the actual need for regime change to take place in Russia.
I am not saying that all of NATO’s decisions in moving eastward were necessarily correct. But what I am saying is: we cannot engage in moral equivalence. We need to be able to distinguish between structure stages of consciousness. Structure stages of consciousness are real — and the structure stage of consciousness that Putin is emerging from denies the evolution of value. Putin is in a premodern imperialist regressive mode of the kind the world hasn’t seen since World War Two, or since maybe the Korean War. It’s a disaster.
I have great hope for possibility here. I have great hope for Russia joining the community of nations with the greatness of the Russian heart and soul, and for China joining the community of nations with the greatness of the Chinese heart and soul. But that will only happen in the larger context of a universal grammar of value, and a recognition that not all stories are the same, and that, there are stories of value that reflect the evolving intrinsic values of Kosmos.
This is where we have to critique Yuval Harari’s collapse of value. Yuval says, time and again parroting post modernity, stories aren’t real. They are, rather, pure fictions…social constructions of our reality and figments of our imagination. But that is wrong. Because stories are real. And the real stories that moves us are stories of value, intrinsic value, and rooted in First Principles and First Values, and evolving First Principles and First Values. In a few weeks my colleague Zachary Stein and I will put out a short book unpacking this notion of value.
Yuval Harari clearly implies that there is no distinction between Libya’s Gaddafi and universal human rights. This was essentially the intent and sense of chapter two in his book Sapiens. In his book Homo Deus, it is the story between two young men from the same areas in England; one who is a blood-soaked crusader, and the other a young man who goes to work for amnesty international– both in the same area of the middle east.
Both English young men are guided by different stories but both stories are pure fictions writes Yuval. Neither reflects any intrinsic value structure of Cosmos, because for Yuval, again parroting post modernity, inherent cosmic value does not exist He is actually citing (with some version of moral nihilism) the more tragic views of the value that are probably held by Putin himself. Because whatever Putin’s public stance is (which is Mother Russia and Christian values), he is not actually embracing these values in any sense, shape, or form. Putin is actually standing for pure realpolitik, for raw power, and value is just a convenient tool.
But structurally, postmodernism is Putin’s best friend. It is the postmodern view that Yuval is echoing, which says there is no distinction between Gaddafi’s Libya and universal human rights. That is what Putin has read very deeply in the West. Although he cloaks his positions with Mother Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church, at the core, he is holding a postmodern position. There is actually a complete alliance between Putin and the postmodern position. If you don’t declare value to be real, then you cannot challenge violations of value.
This is why, as my friend the Dalai Lama said, moral equivalences stand against value, and they stand against the future of the world. If we cannot make moral distinctions, we’re lost.
Of course, as the author I quoted above goes on to say, we need to do everything we can to interrupt the ancient pattern of justifiable, necessary wars. Yes!! Of course we do! But it is not going to be interrupted by moral equivalence, by an utter blurring of any kind of hierarchy of value.
There is a subtle but devastating breakdown in value, which, in the end, reduces all conflicts to some version of Everybody’s got it wrong; therefore, no one’s wrong. No, actually, there are distinctions. Sometimes, something is more wrong than something else. For example, the Allies fighting Nazism: there are mistakes on both sides, but there’s a clear moral distinction there. In the same way, the coherence of the West, or what we might call open societies, against closed societies — societies that are based on the valuation of the individual against societies that are based on the devaluation of the individual — is actually a big deal.
In other words, there is a moral distinction between Libya’s Gaddafi and universal human rights. There is an evolution of love. There is an evolution of consciousness. It’s not linear, and it’s not always clear, and there’s many shades of gray. But the many shades of gray don’t mean the black and white disappear absolutely. There still is right and wrong; there still is good and evil.
Holistic hierarchy of value
So let me try and describe this in terms of levels of consciousness:
■Level one would be absolute moral distinctions: us against them. We are the good guys, those are the bad guys, and there’s nothing that ultimately rises above that split between us and them. It’s us and them; we’re right, they’re wrong. Yay, America! Russians are all evil! It’s an us vs. them realpolitik. We can call this level pre-tragic. That’s the level that postmodernist people, like this writer is correctly–absolutely correctly–critiquing.
■Then they go to level two: we recognize that there’s evil in the good, and good in the evil. There are value collapses on both sides. All sides have moral deficiencies, all sides have impaired value, all sides have some good dimensions and some sparks of the sacred–sacred dimensions, and all sides have some dimension of value that actually seems to make a difference. We are all in this together, there’s no need to make distinctions; distinctions are all about level one. Everyone is some strange combination between the holy and the unholy, between value and anti-value. That’s level two, tragic: And for many writers, not the one I am citing, this level two tragic position is animated by a second axiom; since value is not real anyway, value is not a real structure, the entire enterprise of making distinctions, like at level one, is absurd.
Since value is not real anyways (value is not a real structure) so the entire enterprise of making the distinction at level one is absurd. There’s a two-part move made in level two.
Part one is structural (there are value collapses on both sides-it’s not just us and them). Part two, since value is not real anyways and it’s all just story, the notion of having just us against them (our story against theirs) doesn’t make sense.
■ Level three: value comes back online as intrinsic value. Once value is back online as intrinsic value, the second thing that happens is, we also make distinctions. I do not fall into a moral equivalence between different positions. I am able to recreate hierarchy. We transcend and include level two, we are not at a naive pre-tragic level one, we are at a post-tragic level.
Level two denies hierarchy. Level two views all hierarchies as dominator hierarchies. But as my friend, Riane Eisler, correctly pointed out in her book, The Chalice and the Blade, there is actually a difference between a holistic hierarchy and a dominator hierarchy. There is a hierarchy of values, and to not live in a hierarchy of values is a very big deal. Not to be able to make those distinctions will bring massive suffering to the planet, massive death and massive oppression of an unimaginable kind. It is a huge mistake to link all hierarchies and make all hierarchies dominator hierarchies, including hierarchies of values, and not to recognize that there is a holistic hierarchy.
By the way, there was an entire world in the United States in 1936 which actually refused to make a hierarchical distinction between Hitler in 1936 and the Western powers. There were dozens of articles in the early to mid-30s until late 30s, which basically said: you can’t make up a hierarchy of values. America is imperialist, and Nazi Germany is imperialist. Hitler on the cover of Time Magazine, touted by American writers in a thousand different ways. They even refused to read Mein Kampf, which Hitler published in 1923, which made it very clear that his values were fundamentally distinct from those of the United States. Although the United States had many sins to atone for, it has a fundamentally different value structure at its very core. Even people like Jung, the great psychologist who did broadcasts for the Nazi Party in 1933, swept away by the great woke of Germany that he felt arising, got lost in a world of myth. A world in which hierarchies disappeared, particularly value hierarchies.
Love collapses when distinctions cannot be made
This is our affirmation in love: yes, at level three we transcend and include the best of level one and the best of level two.
In other words, there is us-them. There are distinctions.
And there is not us-them. We are all flawed in different ways, and we need to look carefully and resolutely and powerfully at our own shadow, in a powerful and beautiful way.
That’s really important, and to be able to do that is the evolution of love. Love collapses when distinctions cannot be made, and we fall into a kind of therapeutic culture which defaces all distinctions. This notion of these three levels is critical — She comes in threes. Of course, the levels keep going, but when you see those three levels, you understand very clearly where different writers are coming from.
Obviously, when I say a particular writer fits into level two, it doesn’t mean they don’t make any distinctions at all. It means that the fundamental ability to coherently make a hierarchy of values, and not to fall into moral equivalence, has been significantly downgraded and lost at that structure stage of consciousness. You cannot actually see it. You cannot feel it.
It is only at level three where I am able to actually see my own flaws, self-critique, protest against my own wars, fight against my own government. But also, at the same time, to make distinctions between different positions, to create a hierarchy of values.
I am going to say something now wildly unpopular with a bunch of people. I am going to give you just a good example. I’m going to take Israel.
Is the Israeli government perfect? No. Has the Israeli Government made mistakes? Yes. Is there a moral equivalence between Israel and the Arab world in that war? No, of course not!
Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. In Israel, you walk into Hadassah Hospital, which was nominated for a Nobel Prize — it does not matter whether you’re a Jew or Arab, what your religion is, what the color of your skin is, you’ll get the best medical treatment and humane treatment in the world. Give me a Hadassah Hospital in any Arab totalitarian capital, and we’ll start to have a conversation. There is no moral equivalence. I am a person who lived in Israel for many years, who protested vociferously against what I thought were mistakes and moral shortfalls of the Israeli government. Because that’s what we do in a democracy, we are actually able to do that. That’s the quality of a democracy.
But most postmodernists writers actually would not survive Putin’s Russia, they would be completely shut down. It is only in democracy that this level of consciousness can thrive. So, the ability to make distinctions is critical.
Love is discernment. Love cultivates discernment. Love is not just an emotion, where we blindly love everyone. Infatuation is blind. But love is a magnifying glass, and love discerns; self-love discerns. Self-love is not a blind embrace of self. It is an embrace of one’s intrinsic value, and then self-love leads to self-discernment, and to self-transformation. Love at its core is not merely an emotion, it’s a perception. When I love you, I see you. When I love a situation, I am discerning in this situation.
Love is a perception. To love is to see, to be able to create distinctions. To efface fundamental distinctions is not loving in any sense, shape, or form. You cannot have love without perception. You cannot have love without distinctions.
Post-tragic re-embraces the evolution of value
I did not even want to identify the writer whose arguments for moral equivalence I am critiquing, because the point is not to name a writer, the point is to look at the content; we are not in high school. What I am arguing against is their position, their affirmation of a straight moral equivalence, a straight equation of US imperialism with Putin’s imperialism, which is a completely false equation on so many fact levels.
Just as an aside, but a sacred aside–
I have never met this particularly writer, though we have at least a few mutual colleagues and even mutual close friends, I assume this writer is a wonderful human and I look forward to having dinner and learning from each other when the opportunity arise.
We must be able to disagree vociferously (and even affirm that I believe this writer’s position is dead wrong and damaging to public culture and the fabric of value with these positions) and love each other, honor each other, impact each other and be transformed in an authentic encounter. That is what peace– real peace, to be peace-is all about. With a flaming, open heart I welcome that.
I am extremely well-read in history and US Aid policies, and I am deeply familiar with David Graeber’s voluminous work and the critique of the World Bank, etc. I’m not coming from a naive level one position. But, when you take all the information into account, to not recognize that there is a huge distinction, to make every hierarchy of values a dominator hierarchy, and not to have a holistic hierarchy of value which takes into account an enormous amount of data and information in a non-naive way, is absurd! It’s just wrong.
That is something that needs to be said clearly. If we look at the three levels, here’s another way to say this:
Pre-tragic is level one, and pre-tragic is us versus them. That is what this writer is correctly and wisely crying against, and I applaud this writer and all the writers in the woke communities, or in the conservative communities, who make that point and say no to the pre-tragic naïveté.
Then we enter the tragic, and tragic is level two. Tragic is when we realize: the good and the evil, power motives and value motives, are much more insidiously confused with each other. The good guys got some real bad, and the bad guys maybe have streaks of good. That these distinctions aren’t as clear as we thought they were. That’s level two. That’s the tragic, and that’s tragic because you cannot find your way. It’s a deep sense of the tragic.
As I said earlier, at this level two, there is also this collapse of value, this postmodern notion that none of the values are intrinsic anyways. Then you’ve got these two forces of confusion happening:
- One is the confusion between the evil and the good, and the good and the evil; the shadow and the light, and the light and the shadow.
- Then the second level of confusion is: because value is not intrinsic anyway, it’s all just a made-up story. That’s the level of the tragic.
The post-tragic is level three, and the post-tragic includes the pre-tragic and the tragic, the best intuitions of the pre-tragic and the best intuitions of what I call the post-tragic. Then it is able to recreate a set of orienting values and ordinating values that actually locate us and move us beyond the postmodern disqualification of the universe. It re-embraces an enchanted universe, a universe that’s enchanted with value. It re-embraces the evolution of value. It re-embraces our capacity to discern. That’s what love is: love is a perception; love is a discernment. It reintroduces love at an entirely different level of Reality. That’s post-tragic.
That is what we need for blessing. It is the ability to say:
No, actually, there is a hierarchy of values here. Putin’s oligarchical rape of Russia, which is actually a shadow of nationalism, and which completely abuses the people, is not morally equivalent to the American vision of universal human rights.
Now, as all of you know, I have much to critique the United States. I am completing a book now with my colleague, Dr. Zachary Stein, and the title of the book is Techno-Feudalism (and it has a long subtitle), where we are critiquing, in very great detail, the structures of technocracy that devalue the individual. But the only reason we are able to make that critique is because we are affirming a group of First Principles and First Values, what we call Evolving First Principles and First Values, what we are calling an evolving perennialism. Without that framework, we would have been unable to critique the Tech Plex, because there would be no ground for critique.
I have tried to say in a thousand ways in the last years that we must to reclaim a quality of post tragic moral clarity even in the larger context of epistemic humility and even some degree of genuine ontological uncertainty!
Paradoxically, the tragic view, as articulated by this and many other writers in what we might call the woke community, actually is very aligned with Putin’s view. In other words, Putin uses Christianity, obviously as a fig leaf cover, and he uses Mother Russia as a fig leaf cover. His heart is not actually bleeding for the Russian on the street. He is not actually embracing a genuine Christ consciousness of any kind. So he is using (as has often happened in the tragic history of religion), but he is using both religion and nationalism as a fig leaf — a distressing disguise for a kind of rapacious raping power drive.
But underneath, Putin is postmodern, meaning there is no real structure of value, all there is power and wealth. He will borrow nostalgic mythic structures, or fantasized mythic structures, which support his power drive. Mother Russia is one of those, and the way he deploys Russian Orthodox Christianity is another one. But the bottom line is pure power, no real value. No real structure of value, which is the good, the true, and the beautiful. No sense of the evolution of the good, the true, and the beautiful. In that particular way, Putin is aligned with those dimensions of the woke community that deny the evolution of value, that deny any kind of hierarchy of value, that deny right intrinsic value.
We need to non-naively embrace the post-tragic and our capacity to make distinctions. Yeats said it beautifully:
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.
The casting out of remorse, with which Yeats begins, is the casting out of the remorse of the tragic, when I cannot make distinctions, in the sense of just enormous pain and remorse in me, and tragedy. We’ve got to cast out remorse. We’ve got to reclaim our moral clarity. We’ve got to reclaim not a triumphalist level one moral clarity, not a naive level one moral clarity, but a post-triumphalist, post-naive, level three (post-tragic) moral clarity.
Glory to Ukraine
This is a moment where hope is wildly important.
I want to just spend a couple of minutes, in a different way, and talk just a little bit about hope. I saw a short, beautiful clip of Zelensky on Friday morning. He has been just completely and totally gorgeous, and we’ll talk about what he stood for and what that means. We have huge prayer that he’s going to be with us next week, because his life is on the line. He has been an embodiment of hope and embodiment of appropriate nationalism (it’s not that we are against ethnocentric. Ukraine is ethnocentric in many ways. Ukraine is a model of a new kind of ethnocentricity, which is actually important). But here is what Zelensky said:
This morning I was asked a question at a daily conference call, a logical question. Given the spring, what about sowing? How to start it, especially in those areas that are temporarily occupied? My answer is very simple. All over our land, no matter what, we have to organize a full-fledged sowing campaign this spring. Of course, as much as possible. It all depends on the people and the situation. Because it’s about life, and life is more important. It’s about our life, about our dreams, about our future, and therefore, about our victory. I repeat again and again: when we defend freedom, everyone must be like a full-fledged army, and do everything we can in our place to get the result we all deserve, that is fair. To win, necessarily, be sure to hold on. Be sure to fight. Be sure to give all of your strength. It will not be easy with such a neighbor. But with us, it will not be easy either, as it has already turned out. Glory to Ukraine!
May this week bring blessing, and may this week bring an end to death. May this week bring a ceasefire that is holy and sacred. May this week bring victory to Ukraine. Glory to Ukraine, and glory to the heroes! I want to say that clearly: Glory to Ukraine, and glory to the heroes. That is a distinction I’m making, and I am not making an equivalence between Russia and the way it is acting today.
At the same time, I understand fully and clearly the utter tragedy in Russia. 12,000 Russian troops have been killed. There are tragic letters from Russian troops home to their mothers, right before they are killed. There are massive protests in Russia, and when I say massive, I’m saying 40,000–50,000 people have protested in Russia, which is unimaginable when there is a complete information clampdown of the most absolute nature. We will talk about that also next week and the week after. You can go to prison for actually calling it a war, instead of what Putin is calling it, which is a special operation. By saying anything that critiques Russia and the war, you can go for 15 years to the Gulag, meaning your life is utterly destroyed. So, it’s a big deal.
But Russians are rising up in gorgeous ways, and at least in 30 different Russian cities, people are risking their lives to stand for value. So of course, we are not making a distinction between good Ukrainians and bad Russians; we are making a distinction between value. Let’s try and track this clearly. We do end with Zelensky, and we do say Glory to heroes! We have to talk about what it means to be a hero, and we have to talk about what it means to make moral distinctions. But we do want to say Glory to Ukraine, absolutely!
We are engaged here in a kind of radical peace, and that radical peace is a radical war for peace.
One of the things that Barbara Marx Hubbard, my beloved evolutionary partner used to say (we disagreed about many things even as we held deep common ground–and I miss her dearly), is that we need a peace room that’s as powerful as a war room. Glory to Ukraine, and glory to the heroes! What we are here in One Mountain, with our friends all over the world, is we are a peace room. But we are a peace room that has to be activated with the transformed energy of a war room. I have said to our friends for the last decade, when people say to me, Why do you work 20 hours a day? — because we are at war in a peace room. The creation of a new vision of value, of a shared language for humanity — at a moment in which we are being ripped apart by existential risk and catastrophic risk, of which Ukraine is a relatively minor part — this is what animates us.
We have to pour the same energy into creating the future that Zelensky is gorgeously pouring into trying to save Ukraine from the violation of its soul and its freedom. Ukraine is of course not part of Russia. Kyiv was a major metropolis before there was a Moscow, if you know the history, and we will talk about that also next week and the week after.
But we are engaged in a war for peace. This is not a career. This is why I didn’t mention the person that I was critiquing, because this is not an egoic jousting. It’s not about that. I am passionate about truth and goodness and beauty, and I know in the very fiber of my being, I’m 100% clear that the only way to alleviate suffering and to actually transform Reality is through one Archimedean lever.
That Archimedean lever is: First Principles and First Values, articulated in a Story of Value, which becomes the New Story and a shared story. Not as a totalitarian imposition, not as a unipolar domination, but as a context for our diversity. The New Story of Value rooted in First Principles and First Values is our context for diversity.
I work on it twenty hours a day because we are under siege. Every single person that is working on One Mountain, and contributing, and resourcing, and making their time insane, being over-pressed and overworked, and not doing it for any sense of funding at all, quite the opposite: losing funds, so it is a pure labor of transformative love. I say to all those people, to all of you: Glory to the heroes, Glory to the revolution, Glory to Ukraine!
To be a hero today means that I look up from myopic involvement in my own particular life, even my own particular career. How am I going to manifest my particular career?
No, the world is burning! It is burning with beauty, and it is burning with a potential collapse, with existential risk in which there will be literally no future. We have to burn; we have to burn with love, we have to burn with a love which is discerning. We have to be allured to create these new possibilities. We have to be allured to work harder than we ever could, and to run faster than we ever could, and to be more clear than we ever could, and be filled with passion. But passion that’s loving, not denigrating.
I have said many times in the past years: Hope is a memory of the future
We are not commodifying value and selling it as some sort of career move or organization-building move. That’s the old world. That’s the rivalrous conflict based on win-lose metrics, that’s not our game. We cannot afford to get lost in a kind of a-perspectival madness, where we are willing to affirm moral equivalence, and the collapse of value, as legitimate. The reason I am not willing to affirm it is not because I’m stuck and I want to make my intellectual point, but because it will actually cause massive suffering.
Here is what we are affirming:
- One, it is only First Principles and First Values.
- Two, the recognition that value is real and intrinsic.
- Three, that value is evolving.
- Four, that value then expresses itself in a Story of Value, because human beings think in stories.
- Five, that that Story of Value is not an imposed dominator hierarchy, but that Story of Value is a context for our diversity; a context for our Unique Self Symphony.
- Six, that we understand that one of the First Values and First Principles itself is hope.
That’s what Zelensky was saying, and I want to come back to that Zelensky clip and end with this:
Hope is a memory of the future.
What does hope mean? Hope is based on a vision of who the human being is. I often distinguish between three selves and will share this in a larger book in the next weeks, but for now super briefly:
Am I a separate self who’s a psychological self? The psychological self says I am determined by yesterday, only antecedent prior causes determine me. I’ve got to rework my past and my trauma, the best I can. I have a kind of identity politics I’ve got to actually right the terrible wrongs and traumas of yesterday (Putin is an ultimate example of identity politics. It is identity politics writ large on the international stage). That’s the psychological self. Part of that psychological self is the denial of free will: if I’m purely determined by the past- by antecedent causes then there is no reason for hope. Hope is an emergent. Hope is grounded in the possibility of the emergence of the radically new, of the new good and the new human, of what I want to call the possibility of possibility. God herself is the possibility of possibility.
I can do the best therapy I can, but ultimately, I have no free will, and my past is my past, I cannot really change it. I can do my best to come to terms with my trauma, and that is as far as I can get in the therapeutic culture. Freedom creates hope. Free will frees us from the greatest slave master in the world– the wrong belief that yesterday determines today.
Then there’s the mystical self, or the enlightened self, which is the kind of be here and now, represented by people like Eckhart Tolle, who is beautiful. It is not about the past; it is about the present. There is no past, there is no future. It is beyond value. It is about the fullness of the present moment and the presence in which all lives, the eternity that resides in a moment. But that’s an eternity that actually ignores past and future, and ignores history in a very fundamental way. It says, move beyond story. But story matters.
And then there’s a third possibility. That third possibility we call Homo Amor. We call it Evolutionary Self or Evolutionary Unique Self. Evolutionary Self is filled with hope, because it understands that evolution is an intrinsic process of the unfolding of value; evolution is the evolution of value. It is actually a kind of value gravity, if you will, the alluring structure of Reality. Evolutionary Self is called by the memory of the future.
It is the evolution of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and the evolution of love, that is the storyline of Kosmos. There is a developmental hierarchy, and there is more and less love. There is a deep sense that Reality is animated by Eros, which is Evolutionary Love. That the plotline, or the movement that is caused by Evolutionary Love, is the evolution of love, and we participate in that. That we are called by the future. There is a future self that is actually calling us. The future actually lives in the present.
The name of God in Hebrew mysticism is the Yod, which is the future, and the Hey-Vav-Hey, which is HVH: the present. It is the impossible conjugation of the future that lives in the present that calls us forward, and we are filled with hope.
Yes, Zelensky, you’re gorgeous! Yes, we have to sow in the spring. Yes, the spring represents renewal, it represents new possibility. But it is not just cyclical. It is not just a cyclical movement, a circle of seasons. It is a spiral of the evolution of love. This is a moment where there is a crack in the facade, there is a possibility to actually evolve love, to reclaim intrinsic but evolving value, to envision a New Story of value.
We need to seize this moment, seize the possibility
As we said last week, Putin has called the West back to its own sense of value. The West has remembered that it stood for value. There are still lots of voices who do not want to accept that. But the reason the West has been able to cohere and to create a new coherence is because that new coherence is based on a realization that we have a shared vision of value. Not only did we forget our vision of value– we forgot that we had forgotten. But this remembering is going to be a passing moment in the West, it is going to be gone soon. We need to seize this moment, seize the possibility. We need to step in and not redouble our efforts, but triple and quadruple and quintuple our efforts, to actually stand for something new and something possible.
Glory to the heroes. Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes who are here in One Mountain, because we are heroes together. You are heroes. Every single person here who shows up, who resources, who steps into a project. No one is doing this for any sense of funding at all, quite the opposite as I said. For many of us, it is a huge depletion of funding. But it is not about funding. It is not about ego. It is about taking responsibility, as a band of Outrageous Lovers, for the future. Our hope is not naive. Our hope is not just realistic in the sense that it is validated by realpolitik. Reality does change, Reality does emerge; democracy has emerged, human rights have emerged. We have moved from dirt to Shakespeare, from quarks to culture, from Bach to bacteria. We have moved in the direction of the evolution of love. All of the energy and hope of the Big Bang is actually with us in this moment in evolution. Evolution lives in us. Evolutionary desire lives in us.
This entire conversation today was not a political analysis. It was not a lecture on moral philosophy. It is all perfect. But we are here as evolution. We are not here as this person or that person or that person. We are, right now in the second, evolution itself, awake and alive. We are evolutionary desire. We are Evolutionary Love, yearning to create a future.
We are filled with hope. Hope is a memory of the future. Here in One Mountain Many Paths, you are heroes, and you are a memory of the future. This Unique Self Symphony is a memory of the future. We don’t sloganeer. We did the hard work today. We just got to the first piece of eight I wanted to do. But wow, that’s who we are!
I apologize in advance if I was too fierce or if I anything I said fell into your heart in a hard way. Yet I cannot be silent, for silence at this moment is indifference. I mean all this in the gentlest way; not as a teacher, but literally as a spiritual friend. We’re each other’s spiritual friend. I’m so crazy proud of everyone here. I’m so crazy proud of who you are and what you are and what we are together.
 a system of politics or principles based on practical rather than moral or ideological considerations.
This article is taken from a spontaneous live talk given on the weekly broadcast of One Mountain, Many Paths, which Dr. Marc Gafni co-founded together with his evolutionary partner Barbara Marx Hubbard. These are unedited and unplugged excerpts of Dr. Gafni’s talk created by his students. Thus, the style of this story is the spoken word and not a formal essay.
Watch this Feature Clip below to discover the moral bankruptcy of the moral equivalency arguments about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.