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Greg Price: Taking moral equivalence to an extreme

THIS week Kim Beazley rejected Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali's comments that unveiled women were like uncovered meat and that rape victims were somehow responsible for their own assault. Good for him. But then the Labor leader tempered his condemnation with the apologetic comment that in Australia, 30 years ago, views similar to the sheik's were widespread.

Former ABC journalist Peter Manning made a similar point on this page on Tuesday, although he put the era of depravity a bit earlier. He suggests that in the 1950s Catholic leaders told women they had to dress modestly because men could be expected to attack them like wild animals. Really?

We know that our cultural commentators love to write their black armband view of history, but surely they're rushing in a bit too eagerly with this one.

I'm old enough to remember the '60s, unfortunately, and can reveal that a Catholic secondary education did not consist of exhortations to become a natural seducer. In fact, it involved constant hectoring on the moral imperative of avoiding sex outside marriage. It was a pretty one-note message.

I can't recall rape even being mentioned, possibly because it was so far beyond the pale that it didn't merit discussion. If God would damn you even for consensual sex, what would he do to rapists?

There are no easy parallels between hardline Islamic beliefs and Australian values. For example, consider a BBC report that 40 per cent of Turks support the practice of honour killing, by which Muslim women can be killed for transgressions as minor as going out on a date. Thirty seven per cent favour having an adulterous woman killed, with 21 per cent believing that her nose or ears could be cut off.

In what decade did Australians subscribe to those ideas?

It's no doubt true that many Australian rape victims have failed to come forward, as Beazley noted. But Hilali indicated that rape victims should be imprisoned for life. That suggests that when a woman is most wounded and in need of support, her friends, family and society should turn on her in some inhuman act of betrayal. Memo to the Labor leader: in which parallel universe has that ever been an Australian value? Was it the one in which prime minister Gough Whitlam exhorted women to spend more time alone in their room wearing headscarves?

The interesting thing about the Beazley and Manning comments is that the distortions are so obvious. You can see a history war skirmish developing right before your eyes.

The Left loves to find historical periods to patronise and perhaps even to apologise on behalf of.

For example, the stolen generations report accuses generations of Australians of moral failure in removing Aboriginal children from their parents. There have been righteous campaigns to get politicians to make public apologies for the practice.

You can see the political attractiveness of apologising for other peoples' shortcomings. You wear none of the blame normally associated with making an apology and you look generous and morally superior by appearing to take responsibility for something for which you couldn't possibly be held accountable.

Patronising the past also neatly shifts the spotlight. Perhaps the Australians of the '40s or '50s should not have removed children from their communities. But is the present hands-off approach any better? Where's the moral advantage in leaving Aboriginal children in communities degraded by alcoholism, petrol sniffing, domestic violence and sexual abuse? It's much easier to apologise for something that happened 50 years ago than come up with a policy solution to an existing problem.

Try to get the Left to apologise for something they may actually be held accountable for. Witness a journalist's attempts this week to get Paul Keating to explain his role in preventing Hilali's deportation. Keating's unapologetic response? "Nick off!"

Beazley and Manning delivered offhand slurs on the Australia of the '50s, '60s and '70s; the slurs serve a rhetorical purpose. They suggest that we somehow share a moral level with Hilali's statements. This moral equivalency argument underpins multiculturalism, suggesting that all cultural views are equally acceptable.

Moral relativism goes with a kind of world-weary cynicism. There are no moral high points that measure us, oblige us to take a stand or require us to take action. Moral relativism can sanction moral cowardice.

Take our engagement with the Middle East, for example. We're in Iraq for the same cultural reasons that we feel obliged to help rather than shun a rape victim. The sheik linked the politics of sexual ethics with the war on terror when he said he'd resign as mufti after the world was cleaned of the White House. Also note his recent comments in praise of jihadists and you can see that his social attitudes are closely knitted to his political attitudes.

Broader Australian social ethics are also linked to foreign policy. Whatever other geopolitical issues were in play, Saddam Hussein's treatment of his own people created a moral obligation to intervene, just as we now have a moral obligation to do something about the genocide in Darfur.

The only way to deny the ethical component of our Iraq commitment is to use smear tactics to blur the moral issues. Recall, for example, Mark Latham's accusation that John Howard is merely an "arselicker" doing George W. Bush's bidding.

But Hilali's comments have cast this approach sharply into question. Criticising ourselves and our past is just some form of ritual self-abasement before fundamentally hostile ideas. No amount of sophisticated rationalisation will allow us to escape the fact that we face a real conflict of community values and a real challenge.

Greg Price is a Sydney writer.

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