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October 05, 2006

Conservative Moral Bankruptcy

Is Foleygate a distinctly conservative scandal?

Yes, but not because there’s a link between conservatism and aberrant sexual behavior, gay or straight. The problem is that the conservative political establishment is morally paralyzed. The simplistic and shallow ideological vision of social conservatism has disarmed its political leadership of the conceptual tools necessary to make meaningful moral distinctions between healthy and abusive or predatory homosexual conduct.

The problem is that the leadership must paper over some fundamental differences between elements of its base. For the vast majority of mainstream (non-social) conservatives, “normal” homosexual conduct (i.e., engaging in non-abusive, mutually rewarding relationships between consenting adults) is plotted somewhere on the spectrum between tolerable and insignificant. (I have seen some studies to support this, but most of my evidence here is admittedly anecdotal). But for social conservatives—the demographic that currently holds the monopoly on Republican moral rhetoric—it is neither; in fact, absolutist and unrealistic intolerance concerning homosexuality is one of their a signature issues. The practical effect is that mainstream conservative realists like (presumably) Speaker Hastert have no language to explain or critique Foley-like aberrations—they are unable to articulate a distinction between the behavior they officially repudiate but secretly accept and actions they think are truly repulsive. So, among friends, they shut up.

From this perspective, feigning ignorance was probably the only thing Hastert could do. He could not condemn Foley publicly (or warn him privately) for stalking sixteen year old pages without begging the “gay question.” In order to say exactly where Foley crossed the line he would have had to acknowledge that there even was a line to cross. Of course, that wouldn’t be a problem for most mature adults. They’d draw the line by first affirming Foley’s moral right to have a relationship with any consenting adult he wishes—then point out that targeting kids who are both sexually and psychologically immature is a gross moral transgression: it selfishly makes a plaything of somebody else’s innocence, robbing them of it in the process. Moreover, they’d argue that for a member of Congress to do so is a misappropriation of public power for the gratification personal appetite—an act just as repugnant as any other act of official thievery.

But Hastert can’t say that. He’d have to begin with the proposition that Foley’s primary moral failure is the fact that he’s gay (whether he believes it or not). But then what? If the big concern is Foley’s homosexuality, the fountain of evil from which all else has sprung, the other stuff is small potatoes. At best, maybe, they are evidence that points to the real transgression; not distinct sins in themselves. Mention them, sure—but stress them too much and you muddle the moral picture. It would be like the prosecutor in a murder case harping that it was such a tragedy the killer had to break a brand new door lock to get to the victim—making vandalism the real crime.

Or, like liberal Democrats saying to one of their own: “we affirm your right to be a hate-filled racist, but we draw the line at cross-burning.” Another heinous act of vandalism.

And without the language to make serious moral judgments, it’s best to blame the press or the Democrats or the kids themselves.

Or better yet, just say you forgot!

Posted by stevemack at 12:38 PM | Comments (7427) | TrackBack

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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