Thursday, October 12, 2017
Perhaps without intention, the New York Times op-ed page Sunday perfectly presented the nation's worsening malignancy of political polarization.
It just so happened, I suspect, that the paper chose to publish a guest essay about right-wing moral and sexual hypocrisy on the same day a regular columnist turned in a piece about left-wing moral and sexual hypocrisy.
But it was a serendipitous juxtaposition.
On the left side of the page was a guest column about the right-wing affront committed by resigning Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania. He was a preachy professed pro-lifer who, it turned out, had encouraged his pregnant mistress to seek an abortion.
He was pro-life "in the streets" but pro-choice "between the sheets," wrote the guest essayist.
In the middle of the page was this headline--"The Pigs of Liberalism"--over the work of regular columnist Ross Douthat. The subject was Harvey Weinstein, big-time entertainment mogul and donor to political liberalism who, at that point, was trying to deflect revelations of a long pattern of covered-up sexual harassment of women by vowing to do better and support more liberal causes.
Douthat's point was ... not hypocrisy, exactly ... or, well, maybe it was.
He wrote that liberals tend to keep quiet about their sexual predators--Weinstein, Ted Kennedy--as if general policy is more important than personal behavior, which, he said, it isn't.
My takeaway from the two adjoining pieces of opinion writing was that, taken together, they conveyed profoundly a compounding and debilitating scourge on all our politics.
They presented the right's and left's polarized disdain for each other's hypocrisy, which means they can't possibly work together on anything.
They also presented a polarizing distrust by growing numbers of voters in the apolitical center for the whole lot of politicians.
In other words: Those engaged in politics on the right and left despise each other and everyone else is disengaged from politics because of being sickened by both.
These growing numbers in the apolitical center become ever more convinced that there is no connection between what is real or true and what they see pronounced and pretended by the charade of popular culture.
This combination--a mutual partisan disdain and a general distrust--gave us the ironic outcome of President Donald Trump, who boasted of sexual predation and made bogus statements and tweets with daily regularity.
The effect was that the weary public--or a decisive element of it--saw him as a political outsider exposed in behavior common but cynically cloaked in those of the political class.
At least he wasn't a hypocrite, they thought.
It's the "yeah, but" form of political reasoning and argument, which goes as follows: Trump gets caught boasting of being a sexual predator. "Yeah, but" Bill Clinton did as bad or worse and got away with it.
Or it goes as follows: The Republican congressman is a hypocrite and typical of the greater hypocrisy rampant in right-wing rhetoric. "Yeah, but" Harvey Weinstein was a creep and Democrats didn't care, all of which was typical of the greater hypocrisy rampant in left-wing rhetoric.
It is possible--I'd almost go so far as to say probable--that Murphy is not representative of the cultural and political right wing and Weinstein is not representative of the cultural and political left wing.
But it also is possible--I'd almost go so far as to say probable--that some in the respective philosophical camps knew of the egregious behavior of these individuals in their own camps, and, while privately disdainful of it, chose to overlook it for the supposed greater political good of their party's interest.
That's a tradeoff--Weinstein's donations to worthy liberal causes in exchange for pretending you don't know about his treatment of women; and support for tomcatting Republican politicians who at least would oppose sinfulness in public policy if not eschew it in private practice.
One of Douthat's conclusions was that personal behavior must matter anew in politics.
I agree if we are to regain vital public trust in our public institutions. That can't happen if people continue to have their cynicism validated by the slow drip of sordid revelation.
There is true virtue within conservative thought, and there is true virtue within liberal thought. So how about we start seeing more of it?
A little more John Kasich, maybe, and a lot less Tim Murphy.
A little more Joe Biden, maybe, and lot less Harvey Weinstein (overlooking Joe's famous use of the "F" modifier that time.)
The only way back from the disaster of Trump is a politics and popular culture with less hollow talk, more real decency, more evident righteousness, fewer blind eyes and a steady reduction in opportunities for the right and left to chortle about the personal disgraces of the other, and for everyone else to lament the tiresomely predictable disgraces of both.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.
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