the public pillory

In my little corner of the world, we have something breaking with the form of a scandal, if not the substance.

A Republican running for Congress, and who is engaged to his long time girlfriend, is the subject of some grainy cell phone photos that (unclearly) show him close to and maybe kissing a woman who is not his fiance. That’s followed a couple of days later by video from the same moment, in which said candidate is seen standing close to – and (unclearly) having his arms around – two women, including the one in the still pics, but again, not his fiance.

In my professional life, I have not run the story, despite the fact that everyone else has. Why?

Well, I don’t want to say it’s because politicians deserve a ‘zone of privacy,’ a notion so retrograde that just bringing it up is good for an eye roll and a dismissive laugh. So let me try a more nuanced version – politicians should be held to a standard of strict scrutiny, but the very word ‘standard’ implies there are things we should watch, and things we shouldn’t.

It’s pretty clear we should pay lots of attention to where a politician gets his money, how he votes, who he allies himself with. Equally, we should pay attention to how he does things in his private life that would have obvious consequences in the public sphere: this particular politician had two arrests a few years back for boating while intoxicated, and we reported at length on what happened. There, he did something criminal that could have endangered others.

But after that, things get murkier.

As a thought experiment, let’s assume the worst, that the pictures are exactly what they appear to be. If that’s the case, then the case against this politician goes “If he’ll cheat on his fiance, why wouldn’t he cheat on us?” That’s the popular argument, and the one just off-stage in the coverage by the N.Y. Post and other national media, coverage that manages to be both leering and censorious at the same time.

But in order to take that argument seriously, you have to believe something that flies in the face of fact, history and shared experience, that there is exactly one standard of morality for everything that should be applied blindly everywhere. It’s a notion that almost all people dismiss privately, yet some people embrace publicly.

I think of this as some kind of failure of will on our part, as if it’s become too much work for us to make moral distinctions. We are no longer willing to say something might be an offense against the relationship, but probably wouldn’t connect up to the rest of a person’s life.

But wait, you say, that’s exactly the point: what someone does in an intimate relationship predicts how they’ll act the rest of the time. Sorry, no, and the root of the problem goes back to a fundamental¬† mis-reading of human nature.

We all want to believe we’re ‘good people’ and to excuse our bad acts as aberrations. Yet when we see the same behavior in others, because we divide the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ (we have to if we’re going to declare ourselves good) and because we’re not in their heads, we conclude they’re bad. It’s the kind of belief you could drive a truck through, but it’s very, very common, even though a moment of thought pretty quickly leads to two reality-based observations: a.) everybody does good stuff and bad stuff and b.) ‘good’ is what you do, not who you are.

Bill Clinton is the canonical example: he was a dog in private life, but most folks, including a lot of Republicans, think he was a very good President.

True, there’s a special charm in watching a Republican struggle with morality issues, given that the GOP/Fox News/talk radio have been the prime movers in applying ‘all or nothing’ moral litmus tests. But if you grab that ring in this instance, you’re failing to look hard enough. The candidate in question has largely stayed away from moral issues, has concentrated on the economy.

But, but, what about Weiner? What about the guy in Buffalo who took off his shirt? Again, you have to be willing to make subtle judgments. Rep. Weiner falls on the ‘disclosure’ side of the line because of the sheer oddness of what he did. It’s common, if not always appropriate, to kiss a pretty girl. Sending cell phone pics of your junk is not, (at least not for people 30 and older). As for Rep. Lee, who posed with his shirt off while trying to attract a woman on Craig’s List, his actions were an offense against his marriage, but I have a hard time seeing them as crimes against the public trust.

Does this mean private morality and public actions are completely divorced from one another? Of course not. But it does mean you can’t assume they track each other exactly, that every private action you’re not proud of equals something you’d do in public life, and vice versa.

A final thought: we live in an odd time. We are prepared to strike down people for personal failings, but shrug at much larger and more consequential acts. At about the same time as the story of this politician broke, there were new reports about the ‘robo-signing’ scandal, in which banks have driven people from their homes even though the legal justification for doing so is based on documents signed without study, documents that are often wrong, incomplete or outright frauds.

Remember, people are losing their homes, often because they’re behind, sometimes for no good reason at all. If I lied at the level some of institutions involved in robo-signing have, I’d go to jail. These folks won’t, and making large settlements is just the cost of doing business. But God forbid one of them should kiss the wrong girl – that’s something they’ll have to pay for.

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