Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.
~ Oscar Wilde
Oh my, the Weiner is out of the bag.
To be honest, this story doesn’t interest me all that much (though I anticipate Jon Stewart‘s nightly take on it).
No laws were broken, no apparent abuse of congressional power occurred (this seems more like a case of celebrity misconduct, not of power corrupting). In short, this is a matter of stupid actions (who tweets their junk?) and spousal abandonment (he is a married man cyberflirting with other women; cheating).
It’s the moral question at the heart of this whole affair that interests me.
The Morality of Politics
Congressmen Weiner was a very outspoken Leftist politician, and so, once it becomes clear that there is no legal recourse against him for his actions, the Right Political Machine will turn on the Moral Indignator. This is the same mechanism that impeached Clinton for his sexual affair (focusing on the perjury, but really pissed about the hummers).
Let’s get something clear: Rep. Weiner messed up. He should probably step down, if for no other reason than that he will likely lose reelection anyway. But, let me also be clear about something: His crime was his infidelity to his wife, not the fact that he sent crotchshots to women online. If he were a single Congressman, this wouldn’t be a story. Or at least, it wouldn’t deserve to be.
Each individual case warrants its own reaction, not just blanket moral outrage (which always reeks of hypocrisy). Comparing such acts is a cheap and meaningless act, but I’m going to do it briefly (so suck it):
Weiner is an idiot, but John Edwards is a raging asshole. In both cases, moral outrage belongs to the wronged parties: Their wives. Since Edwards broke the law, he deserves punishment for that, through legal channels, not pious grandstanding.
If Moral Strength was a prerequisite for political office, we wouldn’t have any politicians.
The one time I make exception to this general rule is when politicians claim moral authority in some manner, and then fail in that very area. Specifically, I mean the Anti-Homosexual politicians (and preachers) who speak about family values and support anti-homosexual laws and then are found to be, in fact, homosexual (cheating on their wives with men). There are no shortage of such examples of douchebaggery.
The common theme to all of this is Moral Umbrage. There is no more satisfying plateau than the moral high-ground. A hefty dose of hypocrisy only makes it all the more sweet, but all we (the royal we) really need to relish a person’s comeuppance is a sense of moral superiority.
The Politics of Morality
The truth is, politics is largely a morality game nowadays. Maybe it always was, I can’t claim to know how it was in the 1910s, or the 1810s for that matter. But, I can speak for this moment I live in, and what I witness is a whole lot of political stances reduced to the morality at their foundation.
The term ‘Pro-Life’ was strategically picked because it implicitly deems the opposition ‘Pro-Death’ (not ‘Pro-Choice’, which in turn makes the opposition ‘Anti-Choice’; less inflammatory but still loaded). The debate invariably turns to a question of morality, and when this is done, it’s pretty easy for the Right to paint the Left as amoral by taking a pretty easy moral stance: Don’t kill babies.
This moral simplification ignores the complexity of the issue: The social factors that lead to abortions, the safety questions for women and the unborn child, the lack of societal support for single mothers, the question of when a fetus can factually be considered a living, autonomous organism (somewhere between conception and birth, but where is the exact line?).
Even as I write that, though, I hear the voice of moral indignation saying, “It’s never okay to kill a baby.”
And there it is, the moral trump card. It’s absolute, it’s immovable and, most importantly, it’s selective in what facts it chooses to accept.
This same sort of moral absolutism enters into most issues these days. Homosexual Marriage? Immoral. Torture? Immoral. Taxing the rich? Immoral.
With the right spin, every political argument turns (confoundedly) into a moral argument.
I’m not saying that there isn’t a moral component to these arguments. There absolutely is. But, in the political sphere, questioning the morality of a political view turns into questioning the morality of the person holding that view.
We love a villain.
A Nation’s Morality
I have come across some truly reprehensible people in my time: racists and homophobes, bigots of many shades. But, and this is important, they have been few and far between.
I’ve lived all over this country. In the South, in the West, in the Northeast, in the Midwest (and soon, in the Pacific Northwest). Guess what? People are, by and large, decent. Some people I haven’t liked, some have annoyed me thoroughly, but I’d be hard pressed to name more than a few people (of the hundreds, maybe thousands I’ve met) who were truly immoral.
The other day, a coworker found out I was an atheist. She expressed amazement and told me how excited she was because she had never met an atheist (she probably had; atheists don’t tend to advertise). She said she had lots of questions. One of them, not meant entirely seriously, was if I sacrificed children. It was 99% a joke, but there was a tinge of, “An atheist could do anything,” in the way she looked at me.
It’s simple to imagine that Others have morality completely foreign to our own, but my experience has taught me that isn’t true.
If that sounds a little ridiculous to you, congratulations, you have a brain. Those pushing the myth of the Gay Agenda are attempting to paint homosexuals as a force for immorality. By taking the focus off of individuals and putting it on a faceless entity, it’s much easier to make the whole argument Us Vs. Them, Good Vs. Evil. Nevermind that the gay couple with two adopted children who live next door to you are perfectly civil and respectful people, behind them is an insidious engine for a transformation of society into a godless orgy that would make ancient Rome look like the Bible Belt. (My focus on homosexuals as decent human beings is all part of the Gay Agenda, of course, so ignore it.)
If there is a Gay Agenda, there is a Christian Agenda. In the sense that people with like interests often come together to try to get those interests represented in the larger public realm, there are agendas. The difference is, when Gays seek the right to marry or the right to fight openly in the army, there must be a secret evil motivation, whereas when Christians seek the right to pray in public schools or have the Ten Commandments on government property, they’re just wanting their freedom of religion.
Double standard much?
(There are groups with agendas, some of which are highly questionable. The Family for one and the Discovery Institute for another (read the Wedge Document). Having an agenda, in and of itself, isn’t evil. I do think even Christians would be disturbed by the theocratic aims of the Family (read Jeff Sharlet’s book on it) and scientists have a reason to be leery of the Discovery Institute’s claims to scientific validity based on their own stated goals within the Wedge Document. But that doesn’t mean all Christians or supporters of Intelligent Design are part of some grand conspiracy.)
Our narcissistic mind interprets all reality as a reflection on us, when in fact reality is largely indifferent to us.In this way, we see our views in the terms of our personal morality. Obviously they are going to line up. Therefore, if someone opposes our views, they oppose our morality, thus, they oppose all morality. When stated so blatantly, it sounds ridiculous, yet this is precisely the mechanism at the heart of so many political/social debates.
Reading that back over, I can make an argument for my pro-choice, pro-homosexual marriage, pro-communism stances (among others). But, I can also see how someone with the exact same moral beliefs could have the complete opposite stances, depending on how they interpret the outcomes of their views.
Ultimately, that’s what these debates are really about: The outcomes of our actions. Will raising taxes on the rich hurt or help the economy? Will gay marriage undermine social values or strengthen bonds? Did legalizing abortion ultimately reduce the number of women/children living in misery or did it merely increase the number of aborted fetuses (and is that number truly greater than the unreported, illegal abortions that occurred before Roe V. Wade)? They are complicated questions, which is exactly why dealing with them is the antithesis of the modern political and media machine that loves bold proclamations and flashy headlines.
So we get moral indignation and handwringing in the place of actual debate and serious consideration of consequences.
…Cast the First Stone
Next month there’s gonna be another senator caught with his pants down. The Moral Indignator will fire back up and we’ll all participate in our national delusion of Moral Superiority.
Meanwhile, as we head towards 2012, we’re all about to get a heavy dose of moral posturing from politicians and somehow we won’t bat an eye at the irony.
Well, I’ll tell you what. Give me a politician that debates the topics on outcomes and historical precedence and not on the moral weight of his or her views and I might listen.