The Usual Apology
I think the standard explanation of the trashing accorded the foolish Governor Mark Sanford (who in embarrassing, and by now truly surreal fashion, confessed, and confessed, and confessed to an affair with an Argentinean girlfriend) and the tsk-tsk treatment of former Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards — who, in grotesque fashion, fathered a child with his mistress, lied about it on several occasions while he tried to gain political mileage from his ill wife, all as he concocted an alibi that his aide, not he, had really impregnated Rielle Hunter — is that Sanford suffered from the addition wage of hypocrisy.
That is, self-proclaimed moralists like the late Henry Hyde, Newt Gingrich, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, John Ensign and other conservatives raised the sexual morality bar high on others, and then proved they could not meet it themselves, while libertine Democrats like a Bill Clinton, Barney Frank, or Jesse Jackson never claimed to judge others’ sexual mores. Therefore their behavior is not at odds with their rhetoric. So despite their public status, the “sin” in their case remains more a “private” manner.
But there are some problems with this facile analysis. While it is true that Americans seem to detest hypocrisy more than sin, there is something more to this strange unevenness in attitudes toward conservative and liberal transgression. Feminists have long argued that serial womanizing is a sort of moral cheapening of their gender. The supposed male power broker uses rank, money, and privilege to sexually exploit the vulnerable, gullible, younger (fill in the blanks) female. A lot of Foucouldian gibberish is thrown in about power and control — as in mandarin males exploiting victimized female subordinates in supposedly consensual relationships.
So why then do professed feminists largely ignore an Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy, who did not suffer an additional wage of hypocrisy? Monicagate, after all, was a classic feminist cause célèbre: Monica was younger, supposedly naïve, a subordinate, without power and a voice, a victim drawn into an asymmetrical relationship with her “boss,” who used his superior position to cajole the younger woman into exploitive sexual services. But, of course, feminists were largely quiet — although not entirely quiet as many prominent commentators trashed Monica, as they had Paula Jones, as they had Clinton’s harem, as a sort of trashy vixen, whose sluttishness (see David Letterman on such usage) endangered the political capital of a feminist supporter of everything from abortion to gay rights.
Another exegesis goes something like this: “Well, you conservatives suffer the additional wage of hypocrisy on matters sexual since you yourselves are so moralistic; while we liberals get hit hard on matters of high living and privilege given our professed egalitarianism. So it evens out.” But is that second half of the equation true?
Taxes for Thee, not Me
I don’t think so. Very few in the media ran with the Timothy Geithner messy story. The problem was not just that he took quite embarrassing unlawful deductions, but actually pocketed the very FICA allowances provided him by the IMF to address his exposure to self-employment payroll taxes.
In addition, Geithner was to oversee, as Treasury Secretary, the Internal Revenue Service, which, given its limited resources, must rely on the goodwill and honest voluntary compliance of the American taxpayer. Furthermore, Geithner was part of a new administration whose trademark theme was that an under-taxed elite, in near unpatriotic and greedy fashion, had made out like bandits in the Bush years. Thus, those over the sinister $250,000 threshold owed the rest of us overdue money as a sort of financial penance. I could ditto the cases of Daschle, Solis, and Richardson as well, but leave you with Charles Rangel and Chris Dodd — champions of the people and enemies of privilege, who in the most tawdry fashion sold influence for things like lower interest on loans and possible gifts to their eponymous centers.
But perhaps the most glaring example is the strange case of former Senator and Vice President Al Gore. He was canonized with various awards including, but not limited to the Nobel Prize, on the basis that his disinterested global campaign to raise concern about global warming had given us all an eleventh hour reprieve from ruining the planet.
Remember the Gore themes: we are destroying the planet by gratuitous use of fossil fuels. Each of us must know his own “carbon footprint,” and adjust accordingly. But then we learned, in addition to the movies and books, Gore had created a carbon-exchange company, a modern version of medieval penance, in which for a fee Gore’s people would evaluate one’s environmental sins, and suggest how one could get right with the gods of the environment.
And on and on it went until in just a few years Gore’s net worth went from $2 million to nearly $100 million. But the additional rub was that Gore lived in an energy-gobbling big house, flew in carbon-polluting private jets, and seemed to benefit financially from the very policies he was lobbying governments to embrace. None of these facts had any effect on the media, the Nobel Prize committees, or his general public stature. Today he remains a liberal icon, not a hypocrite who seemed to live the carbon high-life he demonized so publicly.
So, then, what accounts for the hypocrisies?
Is there some generic, overarching explanation that accounts for the lopsided charge of hypocrisy?
I think we must go back to the nature of the liberal, egalitarian mind that professes the greater care for the welfare of the commons. In contrast, the conservative, the Republican, the libertarian, in dog-eat-dog fashion believes that life is sort of a tragic free-for-all, and to the victor goes the spoils, who then by his own sense of right must help the poorer and less well off. The latter are less sensitive, less caring, more goal orientated; the former are mellower, more sharing, and pit the power of ideas, morality, and fairness against the overwhelming power of money and influence.
Presto! The beleaguered, more moral liberal must be given greater leeway, even can employ sometimes questionable means, since his ends are the more exalted. Yes, Al Gore gets to fly private, and have a few extra rooms in his mansion, but he is in pain, sacrificing on the planet’s behalf, and needs a more ample footprint than the rest of us to save us from ourselves.
Who cares if George Bush’s Texas ranch house has a lighter footprint than Gore’s mansion, given that Bush thwarted Kyoto and Gore promoted it? Yes, Timothy Geithner skipped a few thousands in taxes, but who wouldn’t if you were trying to reformulate an entire tax code to level the playing field? Yes, Bill slipped up with Monica, but Monicas come and go — a woman’s right to chose, however, simply does not and cannot. Yes, Eliot Spitzer had a bothersome desire for young prostitutes, but he was a crusader against Wall Street greed. And yes, the previously mentioned John Edwards was campaigning to the left of Clinton and Obama, and thus his “problems” deserved some sort of reflection and gestation, given his voice on the behalf of the poor.
In contrast, Mark Sanford would cut needed entitlements, let the wealthy off, hurt gays and harm a woman’s right to choose, and, thank god, his self-interested morality drew in a well-earned nemesis.
Ends and Means
I am not suggesting that liberal adulterers are not ostracized or Democratic tax cheats are not condemned, but rather not to the same degree, given their egalitarian fides, as others. Charles Rangel’s financial ethics seem comparable to those of Tom DeLay’s, but not their respective fates. The sordid network of John Murtha, I think, will prove not that much cleaner than Duke Cunningham.
We see the same phenomenon in matters of war and peace: Iraq under Bush devolved into a hopeless quagmire, given the strutting Texan’s bellicosity; Iraq under Obama in a hundred days has blossomed as a bright light of democracy in the Middle East, given Obama’s concern for global humanity. Renditions, tribunals, wiretaps, intercepts, and Predator attacks are either assaults on the Constitution or tragically necessary protocols to keep us safe — depending on the mentality of those who administer them.
Public speech is the same: Imagine the following what ifs:
Justice Alito: “I do not think a Latina can be as wise a judge as a good old fashioned white male” = career over.
John McCain: “The people of inner-Chicago cling to their churches, pack their handguns, and are xenophobic to the Latino population” = career over.
Don Imus’s slur that cost him his job is not synonymous with David Letterman’s slur about an underage Palin girl being raped in a baseball dugout that cost Letterman nothing.
At the extremes we always rightly deplore the murderous fascist like Franco or Pinochet, but cannot quite admit that peasant-clad Mao was the largest mass-murderer of the 20th century, or that over his long career a Castro killed and jailed more than was true in Pinochet’s Chile. And our enemies know that: a Chavez or Ahmadinejad or Castro simply dons some sort of anti-tie outfit, gets a little scruffy looking, mouths some recycled American campus platitudes, and, presto, taps into the Che-effect — and can almost pass as a nationalistic, authentic liberationist and anti-colonialist, rightly at war with capitalism and corporations, in a way a creepy right-wing sun-glassed Greek colonel of the 1960s or South American caudillo with epaulletes does not.
Oh, Well…so what?
The difference between a Nixon and Reagan was that Nixon was obsessed by the asymmetry, and in near paranoid fashion thought the Kennedys, the New York Times, the universities, all applied standards to himself that they did not to themselves. And this was so unfair! Reagan grinned and accepted it, laughed it off, and went forward.
Not long ago a friend revealed a bit of Palin derangement syndrome. I thought it was sort of silly and smiled. But, finally, to stop the rant, I meekly suggested, “At least I bet she knows there was not TV in 1929 and that Hoover, not FDR, was president.” At that jab, the person, veins bulging, flushed and flashed, “You’re sick, if you can’t see Biden has more brains in his little finger than that Palin.”
Biden, you see, cares for us, and so make chronic slips in a busy stressful schedule to help the helpless; Palin is an ignoramus, one that shows her ignorance hourly in red pumps and small-town Pennys’ outfits. Of course, she must be a right-wing nut that kills animals and visits trailer parks. She has no margin of error, Biden has no error at all — it’s “just good ol’ Joe at it again”, unlike “It came from Wasilla.”
So, yes, hypocrisy we do not like — or rather sort of, sometimes, kind of do not like.