The Coming Morality
Everyone’s trying to talk like this Weiner thing is over and we can get back to where we were. But we can’t go back. The matter is dead, but it wasn’t killed correctly. It was just transformed into a zombie state that will haunt us going forward.
We once lived in a world where people stayed in office because they were elected to office and that was the final word on the matter. Today we live in a world where election is not the final word. Shame is. And shame is too easily manufactured—too easily forged. It just takes money and a media enterprise and the will to make mischief, or worse. And there’s a rich supply of that right now.
We had a political system ruled by the Constitution, but we traded it in for one ruled by the Media—and the unelected people with the power to control it, people we can’t shame into leaving office if we don’t like them, people whose names we might not even know. We’re moving away from government transparency back toward government shadowiness.
And, yes, Weiner did something Bad. We’re all supposed to agree on that. We do, don’t we? Well, let’s suppose—just for the purpose of discussion here—that we do, in fact, completely agree that Weiner did Bad.
But does the stipulated fact that he did a Bad thing mean we agree generally on what Bad is? Because that’s the subtle trap, isn’t it? In the process of trying to argue over whether what he did was Good or Bad, we implicitly bought into the idea that individual personal Goodness or Badness, whatever that means, is what should decide whether a person is allowed to remain in office.
The Democrats, a party that has traditionally rejected the notion of a Theocratic state, got tricked into out-moralizing the Republicans, and in the process implicitly accepted the validity of the Moral State. That was no victory. It was unilateral surrender.
Our Collective Distraction
In fact, the meaning of “Bad” is not something we all agree on. We all use the word, but we mean different things by it. That’s what was troubling about this situation. Our differing views overlapped enough in this one case that we allowed ourselves to be distracted by that fact into thinking it was acceptable to allow Badness to be the guiding rule.
If you even get to the point where you think there’s one right answer to what’s Good and what’s Bad, you have to next wonder who is going to give it to you. That’s why we have the First Amendment, and its so-called “establishment clause,” to remind us that there are many ways to answer such philosophical questions and that we must not presume that there is only one. Because the judges of Good and Bad are not our legal system, they are our parents, our religions, our friends. Are those to become our new government? Who says? If we are to use terms like Good and Bad as the criteria for who may serve in office, we must dispense with the First Amendment’s protections against the establishment of a state religion, because that’s really what’s in play just now.
So I don’t like that we just saw a sitting US Representative removed from office because of what amounts to sleight of hand. A trick. Certainly not a procedure under due process guaranteed by our Constitution. Not a procedure that can be reliably employed, but one that worked at the moment because we were collectively looking the other way.
In a magic trick or a con job, that’s the key. Get the victim to take their eye off of what is really at stake. And so the key in the feat of political legerdemain we just went through was to get us all to take our eye off of the issue of due process. People were led to cry so loudly in common agreement that they felt Weiner’s behavior was Bad that it distracted everyone from the question of whether Bad was the critical criterion. So many just wanted the matter ended that they became disinterested in other questions.
The same trick of distraction was used when we lost our privacy rights to the Patriot Act. Everyone was so in much agreement that they wanted to protect themselves and get revenge that they took their eye off of the Constitution. There again, we sacrificed our rights to save our freedom. This gambit is one we should be recognizing by now, not falling for repeatedly like a chump.
Crouching Liar, Hidden Damage
I will return to the matter of lying, since some seem to focus on that. But it won’t be in this post. For now I want to move on to examine the damage caused by asking Weiner to step down.
It seemed so innocent, what we did in our mob mentality. Weiner did Bad. We removed the Bad. Now things are Good. End of story. Right?
The media focus seemed to obsess on the question of whether he deserved to remain in office, but sadly I heard almost no serious discussion at all about whether his constituents deserved for him to stay there. The media treated reports out of that district as a mere curiosity. Yet many of his constituents were outspoken that they did want him to stay, and the media just glossed right over that. It didn’t fit the narrative. They and their witch hunt were the champions of the narrative, and it would be a messy detail if the people they were saving didn’t feel saved.
Just look at how hard MSNBC host Ed Schultz worked to spin the message in another direction even as the facts of his very own presentation pointed elsewhere. The people interviewed here do not uphold his message. Yet in a move worthy of Bill O’Reilly, he still pushed for an outcome that seemed more about reassuring audiences that he was on the side of Good. Having recently found himself on the wrong side of the Morality bulldozer, he did the thing I’m suggesting to you is becoming the order of the day. He came to attention and offered a crisp salute to the peddlers of Morality, doing his duty to ferret out the immoral among us. Because that’s the new order of the day:
So the needs and indeed the rights of the people of Weiner’s district took a back seat to other concerns. Concerns about personal morality. And in so doing, material concerns took a back seat as well. To quote Ed’s guest, Michael Blozen, “I didn’t vote for him for his sex life or that kind of thing. I voted for him for his views on women’s right to choose, on environment, on education, on saving social security, on Medicare, on Medicaid ... Why do the Republicans have us back-biting each other when the richest people are taking all the tax breaks?”
In the end, the needs and fate of the people in that district were the only issue. Did this process do right by them? I can’t see how it could have. Neither was due process upheld nor is the result likely to end in better representation for that district.
Who’s Driving this Bus, and Why Are We Seated at the Back?
I should also note that standards of Good and Bad change over time. In the modern world, shifts in perception are accelerated by media manipulation. Our beliefs are constantly being molded. And it’s bad enough the television moguls have such a strong influence on our election process every few years, but at least we used to get a period of time between elections when work could sometimes get done. In fact, one might argue that the real genius of our political system is that we effectively schedule our political overthrows. We put them on the calendar and do them in an organized fashion so we can get work done in between.
No longer. With this new tool, political overthrows can happen at unscheduled times for totally petty reasons. That throws a serious monkey wrench into our ability to do anything useful with the time between revolutions, and puts everything off balance. We see now that the decision of one or more media outlets to relentlessly badger a candidate can cause great political upheaval, not just as the next election but immediately, even to the point of removing a candidate from office. After all, what really brought Weiner from office was said to be the distraction. And what is television if not a Distraction Machine?
And distractions don’t have to be righteous. They can be utterly fabricated. We’ve shown we have a high tolerance for that. Even the President of the United States was forced to show his papers to prove he was an American citizen.
Obama happened to pull a rabbit out of his hat by getting bin Laden, but that wasn’t a done deal at the time he released the long-form birth certificate. A lot was left to chance, and history could easily have been very different. It could have been that we failed in the attempt to get bin Laden and that all that happened was the giving in to badgering about the birth certificate. It should never have happened. But it did. And it’s further evidence of the power Media is taking in deciding what we must not allow Media to decide.
With every election, there now comes an almost inevitable fuss over questions of voter fraud. We care a lot about that as a public because we feel every vote should count and count correctly. But what good is all that fuss if ultimately that same person so carefully elected can be pushed out without an equal degree of process? A media giant doesn’t need to interfere with an election if successful candidates can be disposed of later, yet the result will be just the same.
Sure, Media should still be allowed to report, but We The People must reserve the ultimate right to decide, and I’m worried we’re quietly ceding that right.
Yielding Our Right to Disagree
Cognitive dissonance is a powerful force. We don’t like to feel we might be hypocrites and we work very hard to avoid feeling that way, even sometimes adjusting our fundamental beliefs until they allow us to live with ourselves in what we perceive as internal consistency.
So as long as someone has to convince you that you should do something they want you to do, they have an uphill battle. You are your own person and can take whatever position you like. But as soon as they can get you to admit or even imply that you want a thing, your freedom of choice is lost. Forever after, they no longer have to convince you that you want to do what they want. They just have to convince you that you admitted that you wanted it, and why wouldn’t you do what you want? It’s wedge they can drive to make you go crazy in a search for self-consistency until you finally agree to do what they want you to do.
So they no longer have to convince you that morality should be allowed to throw someone from office. That was yielded in this battle. Democrats already admitted that morality is a good reason to throw someone from office. So the Republicans no longer have to have a political fight about whether that’s a good criterion. All they have to have is a religious fight about what constitutes Good. That’s a much easier fight for them, and from that they can get what they want.
I have been remiss up to now in not prominently featuring author Robert Bolt’s brilliant take on this philosophical matter. In his master work A Man for All Seasons, he sums it up so much more eloquently than I imagine anyone else ever will:
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