Putting together two pieces that I happened upon – Sheila Seuss Kennedy’s “Pondering the Puritans,” talking about John Ensign’s peculiar method of valuing families, and Buzzcut’s “Sanford’s a hypocrite, get over it,” talking about Sanford’s adventures in Argentina.
The Buzzcut piece is fairly representative of a strain of commentary that seems to emerge whenever a sanctimonious conservative gets caught practicing something distinctly different from what he preaches.
The vast majority of our social problems are the results of bad behavior in violation of family values. Divorce and out of wedlock births lead to poverty. Show me someone who is poor, and I’ll show you someone who is likely to be divorced (or never married) and have children out of wedlock.
Sanford has shown an incredible amount of bad judgement and disappointed us all, but we should not be surprised. We’re all sinners. That doesn’t mean that we should all just accept sin, or worse, encourage it.
Sadly, we as a country are not prepared to talk about the societal chaos that libertine ism is causing. Divorce is a non-issue. Out of wedlock births are skyrocketing, and no one cares, as long as you’re not a hypocrite about it.
The problem, of course, is that socially conservative politicians never seem to cast these moral aspirations as aspirations – rather they profit politically by holding themselves out as exemplars of these virtues. They tend to cast those who do not live up to these proclaimed virtues as sinful objects of scorn or pity. What’s worse is that, rather than turning out to be mildly or even ordinarily flawed, they turn out to be extraordinarily flawed. Enter John Ensign.
Ensign seems to be involved in a case where he cuckolded a staffer by having an affair with the staffer’s wife — another staffer — then had his parents unsuccessfully attempt to pay off the couple for their silence. Sheila Seuss Kennedy talks about the schadenfreude one experiences when watching the fall of sanctimonious gasbags:
These were the men who loudly called for Bill Clinton’s resignation over the Monica Lewinsky affair. (I guess it’s different when the person who cheated was a Democrat.) These are the men who were out and proud members of the GOP “God Squad”—Culture Warriors who sternly judged women who terminate their pregnancies, who equated homosexuality with sin, who justified their adamant opposition to same-sex marriage with the argument that such unions would inevitably lead to a “devaluing” of the institution itself. They were two of the numerous bible-thumpers and theocrats who wear their religiosity as a badge of honor and as evidence that they are among the elect, the “saved,” the morally superior.
And now we find that it was these very men, these arbiters of our morality, who have—how shall we put this?—fallen from grace. How unfortunate.
Of course there is going to be schadenfreude. These guys pretended they were better than we are. It’s satisfying when it turns out that they are worse. And, contrary to what Buzzcut seemed to suggest, their sanctimony wasn’t valuable despite their hypocrisy on account of the morals themselves being valuable. The medium is the message here. Because guys like Ensign and Sanford are the messengers, the message becomes tainted. We don’t need purity in our messengers, but we do need less stern judging and more acknowledgment that people who fall short are common — not sinful, corrupt, pitiable or rare. It’s the difference between “We all fall short one way or another, we should try to do better, and we can help one another in this way” on the one hand and “They fall short in this way, they are corrupting us, and we should stop them in this way” on the other hand.
One thing that makes me wonder, a bit, however, is why these guys seem to be embroiled in behavior that goes beyond the ordinary. Some of it might be that it takes a special kind of scoundrel to profit politically from sanctimony. But more of it can probably be chalked up to power, privilege, and money. That simply gives a person greater opportunity for deviance. An Argentinian mistress simply isn’t within the range of motion of a poor man. Similarly, most folks can’t run to mom & dad and get them to cough up $96k for anything, let alone hush money. Michael Jackson serves as a lesson on what can happen when money removes the boundaries imposed on ordinary people. It puts additional stress on whatever fault lines might already exist in the person’s psychological geology. Extreme weirdness can ensue.