Thursday, July 02, 2009

Why are we surprised that politicians cheat? And why we should care.

Cheating bothers me, a lot. But beyond the actual marital infidelity we've seen from politicians such as John Edwards, John Ensign, and Mark Sanford, what really bothers me is lying, hypocrisy, hubris, narcissism, privilege, and paternalism. In short, the idea that the rules that apply to the rest of us don't apply to them. This raises the "private" behavior of these elected public leaders (current, former, and aspirational) to the level of something that we should all care about. After all, these men are making the laws that govern our lives.

I believe that the behavior of these individual men reflects a larger belief system that underlies powerful political philosophies, namely the conservative movement. The neo-conservatives of the 1950's and beyond, including Bush-era leaders such as Paul Wolfowitz, followed the ideas of Leo Strauss, "a philosopher who believed that the elite should use deception, religious fervor and perpetual war to control the ignorant masses." Many of these leaders who profess a strong belief in conventional morality and religion actually believe it's an important way to control the masses, but once again, the rules do not apply to them, the elites. (And yes, among Democrats, we don't always do better. I am still mad at Bill Clinton for behaving like an undisciplined, privileged idiot, and for exponentially compounding his problems by lying.)

We can see this hypocrisy again in the recent reported instance in which anti-abortion politicians paid for an abortion when he caused a pregnancy. Wealthy, elite men have always found ways to procure illegal abortions when necessary in their own lives; it is women, especially poor women, who must be punished for living with the consequences of their actions under anti-abortion laws.

For a truly revealing example of this dynamic of selective morality in a larger context, which relates directly to Mark Sanford and John Ensign, listen to Jeff Sharlet's interview with Terry Gross on yesterday's episode of Fresh Air. (Well worth listening to, whether you download the podcast or sit in front of your computer to listen. It's the second segment in the show.) Sanford and Ensign have been involved with "The Family," a secretive, powerful fundamentalist Christian organization that explicitly believes that they can identify God's chosen ones, elite and powerful leaders whom God wants to rule. And if you are a chosen one, you can be a murderer or dictator (such as Siad Barre in Somalia and Suharto in Indonesia) and still do God's Work. Sharlet said The Family's philosophy/theology is linked to ideas of American power; paternalistic, dangerous, and away from law and regulation. After all, if God is in charge and the hand of God directs the free market and America's imperialist adventures, who needs laws to protect us?

Think this sounds esoteric? The Family's house on C Street currently houses at least five Congressmen. The Family started the national prayer breakfast back in the 1950's, a tradition that continues to this day, accompanied week of lobbying by foreign officials (lots of defense ministers).

So yes, John Edwards, John Ensign, and Mark Sanford, I care when you start acting like Scarlett O'Hara. As Rhett Butler said, "You're like the thief who isn't the least bit sorry he stole but is terribly terribly sorry he's going to jail." Because if your political philosophy and morality applies to me, but not to you, I want no part of it.

For more on this, and why it actually does relate back to our ideas about mothers and fathers, I recommend George Lakoff's work on the Strict Father (conservative) and Nurturant Parent (liberal) models of the world. The Strict Father is an authoritarian leader whose judgment cannot be questioned. "Because I said so" works in a Strict Father household, but a Nurturant Parent model requires more explanation---and more democratic rule--than that.

Lakoff's book Don't Think of an Elephant is pretty accessible, and I recommend it. I had the chance to hear him speak last year, and while he is incredibly professorial in his delivery, everything he said made sense to me. Interestingly, his model explains why such disparate conservative causes including low taxation, referring to our enemies as "evildoers," captial punishment, anti-abortion, and anti-gay-marriage aggregate under the same tent. All have to do with black and white morality, right and wrong, us and them, and living under the rule of a strong who can pretty much do as he wishes behind the scenes. Lakoff is a linguist, and he makes the point that each of us has some elements of the Strict Father and Nurturant Parent models ingrained in our brains. Conservatives have been better than Liberals in finding ways to use this knowledge to get their message across. Fortunately, President Obama is a much more effective communicator than recent candidates were, such as the inscrutable and wooden John Kerry.

The Bush years showed us where the Strict Father model got us. I have grown much more cynical over the years but I do still hope that we can continue to move toward a model of government that is transparent, accountable, and egalitarian in the sense that the same rules do apply to all of us, and that we create laws that respect people's ability to live their lives without requiring a hypocritical, authoritarian thumb to keep us in place.

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