Truth, Justice, and the American (sexual) Way
With blogging, I sometimes wonder if I’ve really accomplished anything by linking to another text and saying, “Hey, look at this bizarre thing some dude wrote!” I might just be jawboning and gossiping here and adding nothing of real value. And yet…hey, look at this bizarre thing Michael Gerson wrote!
Actually, it’s a good column with some shrewd insights into human nature; but there’s this weird invective at the end. And it makes me wonder if Michael Gerson is really angry with the straw men he’s burning, or if he’s playing to a readership who needs to see the lines clearly drawn between themselves and the moral Other.
First, let’s praise Michael Gerson! He wants us to have more grace when politicians are caught in sex scandals. The truth is that people can be malicious and people can be stupid; but, when it comes to lust, they’re more often being stupid than malicious. Instead of seeing adultery as evidence of a warped and evil character, we might see a human being failing to use their judgment, which is, of course, a feature and not a bug, of our species.
Gerson recalls that his friend Mark Souder was a good man and dedicated public servant, who also made some stupid sexual decisions. He cites C.S. Lewis’s idea that the Diabolical sins- viciousness, backbiting, spite, meanness- cause more spiritual damage than Animal sins of the flesh. Gerson calls on “moral conservatives” to consider the whole person and not be so quick to condemn human failings out of hand. Gerson’s basic decency shines through here. Seriously.
But, then Gerson worries that he will be read as saying that the personal lives of political figures are totally irrelevant in terms of their job (imagine that!), and so he evens things up by also arguing against the “moral liberals”, who, according to Gerson, have yet to learn that:
“The failure of human beings to meet their own ideals does not disprove or discredit those ideals. The fact that some are cowards does not make courage a myth. The fact that some are faithless does not make fidelity a joke.”
I’ll ask the obvious: Who the hell is he talking about here?! I work in academia, so I know plenty of liberals, radical feminists, Marxists, hippies, libertarians, anarchists, and despite the myth, quite a few conservatives. I can’t think of anyone I know who, when hearing about a politician’s sexual affairs, laughs and says, “Just goes to show you- being faithful to your spouse is a joke!“
Now, sometimes, liberals will laugh at Republicans who get caught with their pants down, and call them “family values hypocrites”. Personally, I find this argument to be graceless, smug, self-righteous, and a bit ridiculous, given the fact that every politician on the left or the right crows about their beloved spouse and deep religious faith. If you can find a Democratic politician calling for open marriage and Satanism, please cite them.
But that’s a far cry from anyone saying that courage and faithfulness are a joke. I also think Gerson’s term “moral liberal” is intentionally confusing. I think we’re to associate the political left with an abiding contempt for things like faithfulness and honor that the vast majority of “us” hold dear. Gerson imagines a slender, ivy-league, debauchee in a dashiki, with a vaguely European accent, her husband on one arm and lesbian lover on the other, smoking a Gitanes and laughing about the readers at home who don’t cheat on their spouses. “Ha! The old tigers are scared, Baby!”
Meanwhile, the liberal in the White House is a Midwestern square- a black Jimmy Stewart and avatar of traditional family values. The political left is arguing for more people, not less, to be ensconced in a traditional marital structure. And even those in the “sex positive” or “non-monogamous” communities consistently insist that cheating, or as they call it “non-consensual non-monogamy”, is unethical and wrong. Honesty is crucial in every marriage. And monogamy is clearly the right answer for the vast majority of couples. Incidentally, the 70s are over.
So, for the Michael Gersons of the world, the good news is that no one really thinks you’re foolish for believing in courage, truth, honor, and marital fidelity. What some of us find offensive is instead your insistence that only people like you really value those traits, or that people who differ with you on matters of public policy do so because they despise truth, honor, courage and fidelity. Why not argue politics and policy with real people instead of cartoons?