One big problem with much of what passes as moral thinking today is the tendency to treat morality as a black and white issue, when, of course, it’s actually about all those irritating shades of gray.
Murder and adultery may both be immoral, for example, but while most people would agree that life in prison can be a just sanction for the former, surely no one but a raving lunatic would argue it’s a morally defensible penalty for the latter (the recent ruling of the Michigan Court of Appeals notwithstanding).
So it would seem incontestable that to be a moral person, one must have a morally defensible sense of proportion. The sort of sense of proportion, for instance, that allows one to recognize that a sexual act between consenting adults is a less grievous crime than, oh, say, committing a fraud in order to start a war that ends up killing hundreds of thousands of people.
So let us travel back to the waning days of the last millennium, to a time when a blowjob was king. We refer, of course, to Bill Clinton’s ill-fated tryst with a certain young intern. Take a moment, if you will, to remember back to that time of yore; let the sights and sounds of beltway moral outrage roll over you like the polluted wine from a Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Baker or Ted Haggard communion service.
Oh, yes, those were the heady days of righteous indignation among the beltway punditocracy. Most famous of all, of course, were the comments of the “dean” himself, David Broder who said of Clinton, “He came in here and he trashed the place and it’s not his place.”
Now fast forward eight years or so, to a time when — thank God — the White House appears safe from unsavory blowjobs, but where there’s that little matter of Bush & Co.’s clear deceit in leading our nation into one of the greatest foreign policy blunders in its history. Where’s the righteous passion among our opinion leaders today?
The answer, of course, is that for the most part it’s nowhere to be found, packed away perhaps in the same secret hiding place as the weapons of mass destruction. Dean Broder still seems mostly to care about maintaining decorum among the denizens of inside the beltway Washington. And by that I mean the people who belong there, like Joe Lieberman, as opposed to pretenders to the throne like Bill Clinton. In a recent column, for example, he sings the praises of an illusory opportunity for “A Chance For Unity On Iraq.” Yeah that’s the ticket. What’s important is unity among the ruling elite, not ending the war.
That’s a well-grounded view of moral proportionality all right — a consensual blowjob means there’s hell to pay, but defraud the nation into embracing disaster and massive bloodshed and any talk of accountability is met with a resounding “heavens no.” Why do that when, instead, we can simply let bygones be bygones, hold hands and sing a few verses of “Here Comes the Sun?”
I know this has all been said before, but maybe not enough from the standpoint of morality: Because ultimately, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that many of this nation’s top opinion leaders have a staggeringly amoral view of the universe.
And these are the guys who are supposed to lead our national dialogue.
Update: Like I said, it’s all been said before, here by Alterman, via Cliff.