A Public Blogging

From The New Criterion

Senator Craig and wife

When I published a book about honor last year, I was invited by friends and associates of another man who had written on the same subject to join an organization that was called something like the League Against Humiliating Punishments. I decided not to join because I thought I was rather in favor of humiliating punishments, at least for certain kinds of crimes. Street toughs, gang members and many other varieties of young thugs are very susceptible to anything that has a dishonoring or humiliating effect. In the case of those who belong to gangs, many of the crimes they commit are committed for honor — that is to distinguish themselves as formidable characters in the eyes of their fellow gang members — and so a correspondingly humiliating punishment for such crimes would seem to be particularly appropriate as well as effectual in deterring them. A day in the stocks being pelted by rotten fruit could only do muggers and other street criminals good, I think — at least if such a thing could ever happen in the 21st century.

It couldn’t, of course. Even if, by fiat, some dictator were to decree that gangsters and other criminals should be stocked or pilloried, there wouldn’t be anyone nowadays who would be willing to bring the rotten fruit, an essential part of the humiliation. Without the jeers of the on-lookers, it would be more honorable than shaming to the thugs and more shaming than cathartic for most of those who were expected to co-operate in their humiliation. In the eyes of our enlightened community, to allow oneself to be seen as someone who was prepared to exult in the misfortune of others, however well-deserved it might be, would be much more humiliating than to be the unlucky fellow in the stocks. Our concern to explain and understand street crime, and to design better social, legal and economic systems with a view to preventing it, gives the criminals themselves a certain dignity that can hardly be disagreeable to them, however amused they may be by the process — like the gang members in West Side Story who found it wildly funny to inform Officer Krupke that “We’re depraved on account of we’re deprived.”

Whether their depravity was on account of their being deprived or for some other cause, apart from mere wickedness, once society had accepted that there was any reason for it, the Jets and the Sharks became, like most other criminals, victims of the social pathology that was supposed to have created them. Although in practical terms there seemed and still seem to be too few alternatives to punishing them as if they were responsible for their own actions, at least their victimhood has immunized them against society’s mockery and derision. Even most ordinary people nowadays would probably accept the commonplace view among progressive intellectuals that they, too, might under the right circumstances be guilty of the same crimes and therefore owe a debt of compassion to the criminals on the grounds that there but for the grace of God — or some suitable secular equivalent — go I.

A few years ago, the British attempted to shame the thugs and toughs whom they call “yobs” and “hoodies” — the latter are named for the distinctive hooded sweatshirts by which they seek to render their features unrecognizable on the ubiquitous closed circuit television cameras of Britain, and not as a variation on “hood” or “hoodlum” — by introducing something called the ASBO, or Anti-Social Behaviour Order. It allowed police to ban from public places rowdy and annoying young people who, nevertheless, had not been found guilty of any crime. By 2006, however, it was becoming clear that the ASBO had backfired. As the Daily Telegraph reported,

The end may be nigh for the anti-social behaviour order, Tony Blair’s great miracle weapon in the war on yobs. A survey by the music channel MTV found that a third of young people believed ASBOs gave their holders “street cred.” More bizarrely, schoolchildren in Liverpool were actively seeking the orders, feeling left out because all their friends had letters after their names. Any modern-day rebel simply must have an order banning him from every nearby shopping centre, petrol station or car park.

In short, the attempted humiliation became a badge of honor — as it almost invariably will do when an honor culture is attacked from outside by those who, like the dominant or official culture in Britain and America today, regard themselves as being above all that kind of thing.

If the old honor culture ever made enough of a comeback to allow for genuinely humiliating punishments, you can be very sure that the media would speak as with one voice against any such measures. They would be called “primitive” and “barbaric” as well as “cruel” and “draconian” — though there seems to be little or no media constituency to prevent or reform what is at least arguably the much crueler practice of sentencing youthful offenders to long periods of incarceration. Whip them, stock them, pillory them, and the effects of the punishment may be long-lasting — as they are with incarceration — but the punishment itself is swiftly over. Their whole lives are not disrupted, and they are not forced to mark time in prison until it is too late for them to learn to be productive members of the community. But the media will not hear of any such alternative to incarceration for armed yobbery, believing along with virtually all enlightened opinion today that it would be more degrading to the punisher and the community forced to witness the punishment than it would to the punishee.

Well, there it is. Nothing to be done. No point in forming a League in Favor of Humiliating Punishments. There is simply no chance of bringing them back. Yet the media, that would prevent it, are all in favor of humiliating punishments if they are the ones dishing them out and if they are being visited upon those who are guilty not of theft or violence or even murder but of the one unforgivable sin of hypocrisy. Look at Senator Larry Craig — though I’m sure he would rather you didn’t just now. It’s stretching a point to say that whatever he may or may not have been getting up to in a lavatory cubicle in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport was a public nuisance. A stander-by — if there were any standers-by — would presumably have had to make some effort in order to be offended. And even if the Senator’s arrest did not amount to entrapment, the private shame of it among family and intimates must surely be all the disincentive to any repetition of the offense that the law could desire.

That was nowhere near enough punishment for the media, however. The guardians of our national compassion and broad-mindedness and the implacable foes of cruel punishments would not be satisfied until Senator Craig were haled forth from his legislative sanctuary and dragged naked through the public prints to the hoots of our journalistic moralists. This was not — heaven forfend! — because he was a homosexual. It was not even (officially, at any rate) because he was a secret homosexual. It was because he was a Republican whose legislative record showed him to be a strong supporter of what are called “family values” — among which, by Senator Craig’s lights, were legal and constitutional protections for the traditional idea of marriage as involving a man and a woman. “I write about closeted people whose records are anti-gay,” said the gay blogger, Mike Rogers in a fawning profile in The Washington Post. “If you’re a closeted Democrat or Republican and you don’t bash gays or vote against gay rights to gain political points, I won’t out you.”

Senator Craig was one of many public men — there don’t seem to have been quite so many women — whom Mr Rogers claims to have “outed” and thereby publicly humiliated because they did not pass his own stringent ideological test.

Last October, he says, he targeted Craig — months before an undercover sex sting in a Minneapolis airport men’s room, and before the Idaho Statesman started its months-long investigation. Two years earlier, Rogers notes, the three-term senator had voted for the failed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. “Hypocrisy,” Rogers sneers, “plain, hate-filled hypocrisy.”

Hang on. Was the Senator trying to deny gay marriage to others while practising it himself? On the contrary, he was in a traditional marriage of the sort that he had attempted constitutionally to defend. If there were any gay sex, it was strictly extra-curricular and secretive and implied no wish for the blessing on it of church or state. Rather the reverse, I imagine. How is this hypocrisy — let alone hate-filled — in any sense that need concern anyone besides the Senator’s wife? But the Post’s reporter, José Antonio Vargas, accepts Mr Rogers’s tendentious analysis at face value. “In Rogers’s mind, if you’re against gay rights in your public life and you live a secret homosexual life, all bets are off.”

“Gay rights”? What this seems to mean is anything that, as a member of a privileged “community,” this particular gay person may choose to regard as his right, including the redefinition and re-constitution of marriage for the entire country — which, however desirable it may or may not be, can be nobody’s “right.” What he is really insisting upon, and enforcing with the help of The Washington Post and the rest of the once-“respectable” media, is a Stalinist uniformity of opinion among homosexuals — or anyone who has ever had a homosexual experience — on behalf of the radical “gay” agenda. And the Post goes along with this and accepts it as a matter of “gay rights” since the terror felt by those who, like virtually everybody employed by that newspaper, are of a “progressive” habit of mind at the prospect of being damned as “homophobic” will not allow them to challenge even the most blatantly arrogant and self-serving of gay activists.

Nor, by the way, will the Post’s otherwise highly-developed sense of journalistic propriety poke its head up, however timidly, to point out the difference between proper journalism and the sort of scandal-mongering that Mr Rogers goes in for. Mr Vargas quotes some people, both gay and otherwise, who deplore his sort of vigilante journalism, but he also quotes without rebuttal or criticism one Kelly McBride, “who teaches about ethics” — I wonder what it is that she teaches about them? — at the Poynter Institute and who apparently thinks it is proper journalism:

In the past, when the mainstream media were the gatekeepers of information, you could scream all. . .you want — “A conservative senator from Idaho is gay!” — and nobody would hear you. But now people can hear anyone, and that’s changed how mainstream media makes decisions about what to publish.”

Evidently so! She doesn’t think it worth her while to spell out that the change in the “mainstream media” is all in the direction of publishing prurient but weakly-sourced and personally destructive tittle-tattle about people’s private lives of a sort that only a few years ago they would have scorned as beneath them. Under any other circumstances, the Post would have been more than eager to point us towards the difference between what it does and what bloggers like Mr Rogers do, and to reaffirm the superiority of its journalistic practices. But the combination of fears — of “hypocrisy” on the one hand and of “homophobia” on the other — is sufficient to still the voice of journalistic rectitude.

The charge of “hypocrisy,” however bogus or ill-founded, serves as an all-purpose excuse for turning traditional media outlets into scandal-sheets. Small wonder that the Post had not strained at the gnat of Mike Rogers when it had already swallowed the camel of Larry Flynt during the David Vitter scandal earlier in the summer. The telephone number of Senator Vitter, who represents the state of Louisiana in the Republican interest, had been found among the records of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who runs an escort service in our nation’s capital and who had become firmly identified by the media, before they had been disappointed by failing to obtain from her the name of more than one relatively low-ranking administration official as an employer of prostitutes, as “the D.C. madam.”

Dan Moldea, who works for Mr Flynt as an investigator, had discovered Senator Vitter’s number during a search of Miss Palfrey’s telephone calls dating back to late 2000 and early 2001 and relayed the information to Mr Flynt — who, coincidentally, seems to have the same standard as Mike Rogers for judging what salacious information should be made public and what should not. Mr Flynt specifically cited Senator Vitter’s co-sponsorship of the federal marriage amendment, designed to forestall state and local efforts to legalize gay marriage, as evidence for his hypocrisy. “He was to the right of Attila the Hun, every step of the way,” the publisher of Hustler was quoted as saying. “I don’t want a man like that legislating for me, especially in the areas of morality.”

This raises the interesting question of what sort of man he does want legislating morality for him. You or I might have supposed that Larry Flynt was not the sort of guy who had a lot of time for morality of any sort, let alone the legislation of it, but we would be wrong. At least in his own conceit, the man whom the Post identifies as “the king of smut” is a man of character. The exposure of Senator Vitter’s seven-year-old fall from marital grace gave him the opportunity to declare — “audaciously,” said the Post, not without a hint of admiration — that “You have people that don’t have an ounce of the character that I have who are running our government.” As it could hardly have been Senator Vitter’s sexual behavior which we are to suppose has revealed his relative characterlessness vis vis the pornographer, it must be the case that “character,” to the latter, depends solely on a man’s willingness to practise his vices in the full public gaze.

Who, save Larry Flynt, can live up to this dizzyingly high moral standard? Even Mike Rogers, when asked by his interviewer if he had any secrets, replied: “Don’t we all?” Well, I’d have thought so too, but perhaps the onward march of enlightenment which has made the humiliation of criminals (but not Senators) more shaming than their most wicked deeds will finally issue in a glorious if paradoxical Flyntian future when shamelessness is the only virtue, and the only shame remaining will adhere to feelings of shame themselves and those still capable of harboring them. For it’s really shame and not hypocrisy that Messrs Rogers and Flynt wish to extirpate from public life. The media see it as hypocrisy because hypocrisy is their bread and butter. It serves them not only as a pretext for publishing what it would otherwise seem intolerably tacky to publish but also as a generator of news stories that would otherwise hardly count as stories at all.

My favorite recent example of the latter was the flutter in the dovecotes of the British press caused by the news that Hitler’s record collection had been unearthed in Russia and had been found to contain music by Tchaikovsky, a Russian homosexual, and even by Jewish composers. As Chris Addison wrote in The Times of London, “what those who have written up this story seem to want us to learn from it is that Hitler was a hypocrite. I know, I know, and he seemed so nice.” When you think about it, it does seem extraordinary that anyone should have supposed it an appreciable or in any way an interesting augmentation of Hitler’s villainy that he was, besides being a mass murderer, a hypocrite in his musical tastes. But that’s the media sensibility for you: genocide may be just another lifestyle choice — and a recent contributor to the Huffington Post made the point that at least Hitler was sincere in believing that the murder of the Jews would be good for the world while President Bush hasn’t even that much to be said for his evil purposes — but hypocrisy is a form of inauthenticity and therefore much more to be censured.

To the media, no crime is quite so heinous as hypocrisy since no crime is quite so well adapted to the media’s exposure. Never mind that, until quite recently, hypocrisy wasn’t a crime at all but rather, as La Rochefoucauld famously said, the tribute that vice paid to virtue. Now the only virtue is personal authenticity, the only vice that which conceals it. The trouble, from the journalist’s point of view, is that the right to hunt down hypocrisy can hardly be made proprietorial. Mike Rogers and other bloggers, or Larry Flynt, can do it as well or better than he and his expensive news-gathering operation can, since they don’t have to make even the pretense of a case for the public interest in scandal or report it according to strict journalistic standards. They’re free to care only about their own interests. The time may come when the Post and others who now lionize such people because of their progressive bona fides will come to realize that they have been cutting their own throats by (further) making themselves indistinguishable from bloggers but with much higher overheads.


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