“Pervert” may be the wrong word. While it certainly fits Anthony Weiner, “hypocritical creep” may better define . So what, some may ask, if a guy wants to flash his manhood over the internet to some young women, or another guy chooses to be serviced by prostitutes? Would that make the first a bad mayor or the second a poor comptroller? We cannot know, but such actions are indicative of poor judgment and suggest both men are ethically challenged. They reflect their character, and not in a positive way. It is not as though there is anything unique about deviant or aberrant politicians – scandals are as common to the political arena as black flies are in June in New Hampshire. Power is an aphrodisiac to some women and has a corrupting influence on many individuals that exercise it. Because of a twenty-four hour press and wide access to TV and the internet, anyone who chooses public service as a career understands that fame/notoriety comes with the job. In many cases, it is love for the limelight that leads them to politics. As a politician, what one does and says becomes part of the public domain – not because what they do or say is particularly interesting, but because there are cameras and microphones everywhere. There is no privacy. However, as public officials they should understand that they set standards that are emulated by their constituents and others. They have a responsibility that extends beyond their personal preferences. It is the loss of that sense of moral responsibility that I find troubling and which grows stronger when men like Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer use their name recognition to propel them back into public life. It is also why so many talented individuals no longer seek careers in public service.
There are cultural differences today that did not exist yesterday. Discretion has been replaced with a claim that we should be more open about our desires. It is thought to be more honest, but too often serves as an excuse for voyeurism. Personal aggrandizement has replaced a sense of selflessness. And, of course, in our fear of imposing our standards on others, we have become moral relativists. Simple concepts, like honor, self-respect and respect for others, personal responsibility, pride in work, self-sufficiency and aspiration have disappeared down a cultural sinkhole for too many of our citizens, led there by amoral elites that run our country and a media that too often feeds on deviants. The cultural problem goes beyond kinky sexual exhibitions. There is less value placed on work and self-sufficiency. The safety net that was welfare has become a source of income. Schools are there to provide good incomes and benefits to teachers and administrators, not to educate the young, especially the underprivileged in inner cities. This dumbing down of American culture was clearly manifested in the highly embarrassing interview CNN did with Trayvon Martin’s girlfriend, Rachel Jeantel. As a 17-year-old in the Miami-Dade County school system she showed herself unable to speak intelligibly or to even read a letter she had purportedly written, “I don’t read cursive.” It explains, in part, why African Americans live in such hopeless poverty, and it also in part explains why social and economic mobility in the U.S. lags that of Canada and most of Western Europe. The fault is not theirs; it is society’s.
Passing judgment on anyone’s indiscretions or transgressions carries risk, though that has never stopped faux moralists like Mayor Bloomberg or former Vice President Al Gore. But for the rest of us, are we willing to be judged by the standards we assign to those with whom we disagree? Of course, given President Jimmy Carter’s definition, we are all (or certainly I am) adulterers: “Anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart committed adultery.” His standards, though, are higher than most. I have a greater problem with the sending of photos of one’s genitalia to young women, than visiting hookers. The former is just plain weird and for which there is, in my opinion, no excuse. Mr. Weiner should be seeking psychiatric help, not the office of Mayor of New York. Mr. Spitzer showed poor judgment and a lack of respect for his spouse; it expresses a personal problem that he needs to work out between his wife and family. Hypocrisy may prove rampant in Washington, in New York’s City Hall (and in the writings of pieces such as mine.) But we should remember that character counts, or that it should, and that is particularly important in those we choose to represent us in government.
As much as anything, it is character we want in our leaders. Character, by which I mean honesty, reliability, integrity and responsibility, is virtually non-existent among many of those who opt for public service. It was once deemed important. When J.P. Morgan was asked, what is the best collateral for a bank loan? He replied “character.” Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important matters,” said Albert Einstein. It was the key word in a sentence uttered by Martin Luther King in his “March on Washington Speech” fifty years ago next month: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character .” The word is missing in most speeches today. Fifty-three years ago, President Kennedy spoke at his inaugural: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Things have changed. From a politician’s perspective today, it is all about promises. From the constituents’ perspective, it is what can government do for me?
The United States was built on the concept that anyone could come here and succeed. If they were smart and worked hard they could do well. It was a system that relied on personal initiative; it required desire to better oneself, and success depended on a willingness to work hard. Those traits represent a disappearing ethos. How have we come to this pass? In my opinion, its principal cause has been a cultural decay. America was always seen as a land of opportunity. Unlike countries from which immigrants emigrated, we had no class system. Success was determined by merit and aspiration. Working hard allowed one to rise both economically and socially. There was no instant gratification. Investment in labor and money was necessary, which often meant personal deprivation in one’s early years.
A consequence of our subsequent cultural decay is that economic and social mobility is no longer as prevalent as it once was. In fact, in that regard, we lag Canada and most of Western Europe. The welfare system was created with the best intentions, to protect people from starving to death, to provide relief in times of extreme need. It was supposed to provide a source of temporary income until the recipient could get back on his or her feet. It was never intended as an alternative life style. It has had the unfortunate consequence of reducing aspiration and its benefits are such that people can do better on welfare (assuming they have no ambition) than if they were to take a menial job, or even a job paying average wages. It has fostered a reduction in the sense of self respect and has made it harder to climb out of poverty and dependency. And our schools have been of little help. They have widened the gap between the haves and have-nots, they have made more difficult the climbing the ladder of success. In keeping people imprisoned in uneducated poverty, our society is depriving a broad chunk of society, especially African Americans, the opportunity to fully participate in the American dream. Without self-respect, there is no success.
I have wandered off the reservation of perverts in politics, but I believe that their presence is due, at least in part, to what I see as a moral decay in the culture of our country. Too often government emphasizes dependency over responsibility. We put too much emphasis on winning, regardless as to whether rules have been broken. Bankers on Wall Street took taxpayer money and used it to pay bonuses. Banks too big to fail have less concern about the consequences of risky behavior, because they know government will backstop debilitating losses. We allowed Congressmen like Barney Frank and Chris Dodd to essentially bring down Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac, by requiring that they provide loans to individuals with no ability to pay back. In the aftermath, they took no responsibility for what they had done. The political system cares more about the voting bloc than the individual. In a world where people can not only survive without working but do well, aspiration fades. A lack of personal responsibility breeds dependency. Self-reliance is necessary for self-respect; when we ignore the former, we lose the latter.
If there was a genesis for this essay it was the op-ed by Peggy Noonan in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal , “How to Find Grace After Disgrace.” She told the story of John Profumo, Britain’s Secretary of War, who was caught in a sex scandal fifty years ago this summer. He was a young man in his 40s with a bright future. But once caught he chose to “go away, really away.” He believed, as Ms. Noonan wrote, “in remorse of conscience – because he actually had a conscience.” He never knew political power again, because he never asked for it. He didn’t write a book. He didn’t go on talk shows. He made no money. He went to Toynbee Hall in the East End of London where he did social work, starting by washing dishes and cleaning toilets. Over time he became president of Toynbee Hall, staying there forty years. The only interview he gave was on his 40th anniversary at Toynbee. When asked what had he learned doing social work, he answered “humility.” He died in 2006 at the age of 91.
It is hard to imagine Mr. Spitzer choosing such a path, or Mr. Weiner bowing out from the public eye. They are both, in part, responsible for our cultural decay and they are victims of it. And we (and they) are all poorer for their continued participation in the political process.
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