Saturday, August 08, 2009

Doing Unto Others

The recent revelations of marital infidelity on the part of Republican U.S. senators Mark Sanford and John Ensign have sparked a lot of debate over the future of the Republican party, but very little discussion of an issue that (my opinion) might be far more important.

It disturbs me greatly that we who are shielded (in part, because we haven't the courage or vision to aspire to public service) from the glare of public scrutiny into our own moral failures often see the falls of public figures as entertainment.

Maybe I'm unusually beset by personal moral failure. Maybe most Americans sail through life, soaring over the ugly landscape that marks the affairs (illicit or otherwise) of the human heart. Perhaps most Americans, especially those members of the press who currently lead such inquiries, are indeed, without sin and, therefore, have earned the right to cast stones.

But I seriously doubt that. I have yet to meet one person who, after I really got to know them, didn't reveal that time (or those times) in their lives when they fell pretty hard in one way or another. We all have our own personal "Argentina."

Jesus intoned the oft repeated but rarely lived "Judge not, least you be judged" for just such moments. Broken promises, ours and others', are to be grieved, not mocked. They are to be mended, not made into occasions for verbal assassination or mockery.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that I condone adultery. Mr. Sanford should resign, and Mr. Ensign, too. But, frankly, so should have Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy. We forget that JFK's dalliances with movie stars and gangland molls were arranged with the help of paid government employees while the press looked the other way. I'm certainly not suggesting a return to the JFK days. Exposure and a subsequent resignation, ironically, might have saved not only Kennedy's life, but Marilyn Monroe's as well. And it might have set a better tone for public life since then.

Sen. Ensign's affair with the wife of a campaign worker, and his family's sad attempt to conceal "hush" money under the legal fiction of a "gift" ought to be exposed. This is behavior that we cannot have in public officials. It's the type of behavior we shouldn't have anywhere.

But today, with the spectre of "coverup" hanging over their heads, the media/entertainment establishment has now fallen off the horse on the other side. A generation of journalists who grew up wanting to be "investigative reporters" now hover near the supermarket tabloid level as they expose publicly every pecadillo (save those of their own, of course), in as much detail as possible.

We don't need Nathaniel Hawthorne's infamous red letter "A." We don't need to bind people, hand and foot in the Puritan stocks, to be mocked, spit on and ridiculed by the holier than thous. What we have today is far more effective: "The Daily Show" and David Letterman and Op/Ed columnists and other political assassins who masquerade as humorists and pundits — whose TV shows and newspaper columns make public ridicule into international events.

These folks know all too well that sticks and stones break only bones, but words ... well, words are the cruelest tools of torture ever devised.

There was a time when a public figure was faced with the evidence and (not for his/her sake, but to protect a spouse and family from public humiliation) given the opportunity to resign. But that doesn't sell newspapers and magazines. It doesn't inflate TV ratings. We've lost sight of the fact that sparing the victims was what investigative reporting once was all about.

To celebrate the moral failings of others — and make money from it into the bargain — is an act of unspeakable hypocrisy. That we revel in their self-destruction makes us no better than they, and probably far worse. Whatever you think of Sarah Palin, when I meet my Maker, I would rather have to answer for her life than for Mr. Letterman's.

At times like these, it might be wiser to remember that "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," wasn't a suggestion. The Golden Rule comes with an implicit warning: When we visit scorn on another, do we not invite it on ourselves?

There but for the grace of God — and the fact that most of us live outside the media spotlight — go you and I.

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