Entry from May 15, 2009

If it’s OK for Wanda Sykes to relish the thought of Rush Limbaugh’s death, then is it also OK for me to relish the thought of Nancy Pelosi’s discomfiture over (gulp) what she knew and when she knew it on the subject of water-boarding? Can I rub my hands with glee at the prospect of her being hoist with her own petard in the “investigations” into the Bush administration’s complicity in the “torture” of terrorist suspects that she has done so much to bring about? Can I hope that she, if such investigations happen, will find herself charged as an accessory to “torture” herself? It’s tempting, but I can’t help wondering if it’s quite, well, seemly to alter my principled objections to these investigations or prosecutions only because someone I regard as a political enemy might be investigated or prosecuted.

For one thing, you just know it’s not going to happen, even if it were ever so right and desirable for it to happen to one so deserving. The only real question is whether or not the Democratic congressional majority will find some way to exempt Mrs Pelosi from the jeopardy into which she and others want to place the hated Bushites or whether it will prefer simply to let the whole matter drop in order to spare her further embarrassment. Not that she appears to know any better than most politicians these days what to be embarrassed about, or even what embarrassment is. The problem, I think, is our attempt to substitute absolute moral principles for community standards of decency and decorum. All this moralizing does nothing but get us into trouble and paralyze our political process.

Consider. Why would Mrs Pelosi resist so strongly the obvious implications of the briefing she now admits she had from the CIA on the subject of water-boarding and other Enhanced Interrogation Techniques — even to the point of being seen to be caught in a very public and very unnecessary lie? Surely it must be because to admit that she saw nothing wrong with water-boarding in 2002 would be to concede the point of the Bush administration officials whose own discomfiture she has, in her partisan fervor, been so looking forward to — namely, that the community standards, her standards as much as theirs, were different then. She would have to admit that morality and ethics as applied to matters of national defense tend to be (whisper it softly) subject to fashion, which would seem to make them not morality and ethics at all but something much more difficult to pin down.

Like decency. But the trouble with decency is that, like honor, it is not absolute but varies between particular communities and over time. What people thought decent and indecent 40 years ago, when I was growing up, is very different from what they think now. And what they thought then was different from what their parents and grandparents thought 40 years before that. It is not an unimportant part of a politician’s wisdom, if any such commodity is to be had these days, to know where and when the standards of political decency should be applied and when they should not. Certainly, Mrs Pelosi appears to lack that wisdom. Her political sense has been formed in the poisonous atmosphere that has prevailed in American politics since the Bork confirmation battle over 20 years ago, since when increasing numbers of matters once subject to political debate between (as they used to say) reasonable people have instead been transformed into moral arguments between the children of light and the children of darkness: a recipe for gridlock and stalemate.

In an excellent post on National Review Online yesterday, Victor Davis Hanson points to this same change in public perceptions about the threat of terrorism in the wake of the terror-attacks of September 11th, 2001, noting that “now, seven years later, we live in a different world.” So indeed we do. But he puts the change down to political “opportunism.”

Consider also the dexterous Obama administration’s own about-face. It still finds it useful to damn the old Bush government’s embrace of wiretaps, military tribunals, and renditions — even as it dares not drop or completely discount these apparently useful Bush policies, albeit under new names and with new qualifiers. What does this political opportunism teach us? If we get hit again by a major terrorist attack, you can bet that today’s cooing doves will flip a third time and revert to the screeching hawks of 2002 — and once again scream that their president must do something to keep us safe.

True enough. But, although it would be rash to exclude opportunism from Mrs Pelosi’s motivations, I think there is more to it than this. For one of the consequences of indulging ourselves in a moralized politics is that we forget — we make ourselves forget, as Mrs Pelosi obviously has forgotten — how little morality really has to do with policy, and how much even matters of life and death are subject to consensus-building. This is something that Democratic triumphalism in the wake of their election victories has forgotten. Confident that right is on their side, the Democrats may wake up some day to find that the decency consensus has been quietly gathering somewhere else — and left them and their shrill self-righteousness behind.

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