Entry from June 25, 2009

Kudos to John Dickerson of Slate for sounding a rare note of compassion in the midst of the Mark Sanford scandal.

The minute Sanford started speaking, the reviews poured in via e-mail and Twitter. He was rambling, confused. He didn”t tear up enough when talking about his wife. He favored his mistress. He answered the questions too thoroughly. All these judgments seemed absurd. A man standing in front of a bank of cameras in the middle of a complete collapse is going to say a lot of things poorly. The snap judgments failed to acknowledge a grain of the fundamental human carnage we were witnessing. You can laugh at Sanford, as you can laugh at a video of a wrecked Amy Winehouse falling all over her house. But at some point, even though they did it to themselves, you have to feel sorry for them as human beings. You can do that, I think, and not be a fan of adultery or drug use. I”m not offering Sanford’s humanity as an excuse. I’m just marveling at how few people stopped for a moment to even nod to it. My thoughtful colleague William Saletan and Andrew Sullivan were exceptions. Maybe there are others. Maybe people expressed these views in private conversations. But in the e-mails and Twitter entries and blog posts I read in the aftermath, Sanford’s human ruin was greeted with what felt like antiseptic glee. The pain he’s caused, the hypocrisies he’s engaged in, seemed like license to deny him any humanity at all.

This last bit of his observation is particularly important. Call me a cynic, but I don’t believe that it is concern for the pain Governor Sanford has caused his wife and children which leads his critics to deny, in effect, his humanity. Apart from anything else, much of that pain is caused less by the adultery itself than by the opportunity its being made public provides the humanity-denying Twitterers and e-mailers to make their unfeeling comments. The Governor’s privacy is also that of his family, whose feelings of humiliation in the business are given no more consideration than his own.

Hypocrisy is a different matter. As I pointed out only the other day in the case of Senator John Ensign, it is the media crusade against hypocrisy which makes it necessary for public servants to confess their private misbehaviors in this appallingly embarrassing fashion in the first place. The self-serving media dictum that the cover-up is worse than the original offense is now accepted cultural wisdom. That the embarrassment of such displays as Governor Sanford’s and Senator Ensign’s is not felt as much by the media as it is by those whose private lives they are holding up for public inspection is owing entirely to the assumption that hypocrisy is the sin against the media spirit — that spirit in whose name all things hidden, whether for good or for ill, must be exposed to the public view. That’s the sin, the sin of trying to reserve a scrap of privacy from the klieg lights’ glare, which is now thought to justify any cruelty.

Yet what is so bad about hypocrisy after all? It seems to me to be a necessary lubricant to any moral system attempting to advance a standard of behavior more rigorous than that of, well, of how people actually do behave — which is to say, no standard at all. To watch these hypocrisy-haters sneer, you’d think that the only way for one to have moral principles was always to observe them oneself. But, clearly, that cannot be the case. If it were, there would be no more moral principles at all, since it is in the nature of humanity to fall short of them. That’s why it sometimes seems that doing away with moral principles altogether is precisely the goal of those in the media and elsewhere who are most savage against hypocrisy. What they hate is not that someone has fallen short of his own standards; it’s that he ever dared to have any standards in the first place.


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