Monday, July 06, 2009


Paul Begala is having a grand time celebrating the infidelities of Nevada Senator John Ensign and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. Both Republicans resigned party posts after their extra-marital affairs were exposed, and both know their futures within the party are greatly diminished or nonexistent.

Fortunately for Democrats, cheating entails no comparable sanctions on their side of the aisle. Consider Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. In 2007 his relationship with a Telemundo reporter coincided with the breakup of his twenty-year marriage. This breach of fidelity was apparently one of many—the most egregious being a shades-of-John Edwards affair that occurred in 1994 while his wife was receiving treatment for thyroid cancer. That dubious fidelity resume, however, didn’t prevent “his honor” from being easily re-elected earlier this year. Further north, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s affair with his campaign manager’s wife in 2007 stunningly combined adultery and personal betrayal—all without losing his job, foiling a same-year re-election bid (73%), or derailing gubernatorial ambitions for 2010.

Returning to the Republican side, in 2006 the overtures of Mark Foley toward a 16-year-old male page not only prompted the Congressman’s resignation but also became a cause celebre for institutional change. By contrast, an actual “tryst” in 1973 between Congressman Gerry Studds (D-Mass.) and a 17-year-old male page resulted, ten years later, in a motion of censure that was scorned not only by Studds but also his New England constituents—who proudly returned the page-bopper to Congress for another fourteen years.

One can continue with these contrasts ad nauseam. GOP Speaker-to-be Bob Livingston resigned from Congress because of extra-marital affairs, whereas Barney Frank’s cozy domestic, ticket-fixing relationship with a male prostitute was flushed down the media’s memory hole. Former Senator Larry Craig’s feet-shuffling antics in an airport stall transformed him into an ongoing late-night joke and political pariah, but Ted Kennedy’s deadly dalliance at Chappaquiddick served only to postpone his race for the White House till 1980 and didn’t prevent the morally-challenged legatee from attaining his “Lion of the Senate” moniker.

Most famously, Bill Clinton was sexually serviced in the White House by a young intern-turned-employee and lied about it under oath. Yet he’s revered in MSM circles. “On the other hand” (a la Obama’s absurd Cairo comparison), the honest and articulate Bill Bennett was widely vilified for engaging in the perfectly legal activity of gambling, an arguable vice never explicitly discussed in the former Education Secretary’s popular Book of Virtues.

The justification for this selective indignation, as Begala asserts in his largely partisan rant, is that Republicans claim to have “cornered the market on morality.” Consequently, they show themselves to be hypocrites when moral imperfections are exposed. Here are Begala’s exact words:

“For decades Republicans have sanctimoniously lectured the rest of us—that they’re better husbands, better Christians, better fathers, better wives, better patriots.”

The rhetorical sleight of hand in this apologia for vice is equating the promotion of high moral standards with personal preening. Begala assumes, in other words, that “lecturing” about morality amounts to patting oneself on the back for moral superiority. Accordingly, anyone who embraces the ideal of chastity is simultaneously saying, “Look at me. I’m always chaste and faithful to my spouse.”

The other side of this semantic equation is left blank—for obvious reasons. After all, if defending virtue is the same as saying, “I am virtuous,” then silence on the topic should be a tacit admission of corruption. Not surprisingly, Begala doesn’t follow this train of thought. Instead, he suggests that his party’s reticence to “lecture” about personal morality should be interpreted as a badge of humility. (In times past such reticence would be seen as a mark of cowardice or indifference.)

The practical effect of these new ground rules is that individuals who proclaim substantive moral ideals transform themselves into targets for public abuse—for being “hypocrites.” Meanwhile, individuals who forswear “lectures” are given moral indulgences and are praised for humility. This logic—promoted vigorously by media folk who profit from peddling decadence—explains why advocates for personal responsibility (like Dr. Laura) regularly receive more public grief than the likes of Howard Stern.

For those who adopt this way of thinking, the only personal moral duty a society must promote is the minimalist obligation to do no harm. (In the not-so-original words of Sam Donaldson, “My right to swing my fist ends at your nose.”) In place of “lectures” about chastity, modesty, caring for one’s family, and marrying the mother of one’s children, Begalians substitute insufferably arrogant and theoretically dubious sermons about global warming and gay marriage. Simultaneously they vilify as “hypocritical” any non-perfect promoter of traditional virtues.

The redefinition of the word “hypocrite” has been critical to this new approach to moral discourse. Linguistically, the term refers to persons who “pretend” to be better than they really are. It doesn’t apply to individuals who admit their faults. Today, however, the term no longer denotes deception or “wearing a mask.” Instead, it’s employed whenever someone doesn’t live up to standards he or she publicly endorses.

By this linguistic legerdemain all morally serious persons—those whose ideals exceed their grasp—are happily condemned as “hypocrites” by Sex and the City aficionados who don’t fancy living in a world where high standards of personal propriety are constantly reiterated. On the other side of this newly minted rhetorical coin, even moral zeroes can be called “honest” or “true to themselves” or (in Begala-la-la-land) “humble”—just as long as they keep their mouths shut.

These rules are obviously slanted in favor of creeps who would like social standards for personal behavior to be set as low as possible. Put succinctly, in Begala’s world the higher the moral standards endorsed, the greater the hypocrisy--the less any personal standards are promoted, the greater the humility. It’s an adolescent’s dream world where non-judgmentalism and silence are prized uber alles and where the old aphorism, “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice gives to virtue,” has become a subversive thought.

That long-forgotten cliché was employed in a society where a reputation for virtue was actually an advantage—even for rogues. In our post-modern world where scandal is often the ticket to wealth and fame, what is “valued” most highly is congruence between one’s stated values and one’s actions—especially if one’s values are of the “flexible” variety. This construct (for which we can thank the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, d. 1980) was the intellectual justification for transforming hypocrisy from a “tribute to virtue” to the one and only deadly sin of an otherwise morality-free philosophy. Only in a world without objective moral standards could someone who consistently fails to clear a moral bar set at 7 feet be considered a “hypocrite” and inferior to a lout who places the moral bar flat on the ground and then steps triumphantly over it.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, “Moral education is impossible without the habitual vision of greatness.” This “vision of greatness” clearly includes “lectures” about virtues that need to be exemplified as widely as possible throughout an always imperfect society. Even Mr. Begala can relate to this principle—provided it’s linked to cases that resonate in the “left hemisphere” of his brain. It is important, for example, for individuals to exhibit and promote unprejudiced speech and deportment, regardless of latent ethnic or racial stereotypes. Similarly, an addict who’s struggling to overcome dependence on drugs isn’t a “hypocrite” for warning teenagers about the torments he’s undergoing. The same principle applies, extraordinarily enough, for people who tout personal virtues like fidelity and temperance. It’s important to trumpet these virtues precisely because all of us are imperfect and need to have an exalted moral vision habitually placed before us—by persons from both sides of the political aisles.

I suspect that Mr. Begala is as oblivious to these philosophical and linguistic points as he is to the demoralizing consequences of a “shut your mouth” approach to moral discourse. I continue to hope, however, that somewhere in the recesses of his soul, a small, barely perceptible but persistent voice will whisper this revised aphorism: “Crying hypocrisy—that’s the tribute faux virtue gives to vice.”

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