Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Rise of Politically-Infected Pseudo-Ethics-Speak

Before we talk about ethics, we need to look at the the crap that passes for ethical discourse in the media. To be clear, there is a huge difference between real moral consideration and the politically-infected pseudo-ethics speak that we get bombarded with.

In the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, the media broadly trumpeted the coming of the "values voters." Ethics seemed to be making a comeback in the common consciousness. Perhaps now, many of us thought, we would see in depth, sophisticated, and serious discussions of difficult and important ethical issues.

But the strangest thing happened. The word "morality" was suddenly taken by reporters and pundits to mean nothing more than opposing gay marriage and abortion. To have values meant you were a conservative evangelical Christian; or, if you are Catholic, a self-flagellating member of Opus Dei; or if Jewish, Joe Lieberman. The word “moral” was taken to not only mean religious, but religious in a very particular way with a very particular political agenda. All discussion in the popular media about the serious moral issues facing our society was reduced to nothing more than a question of allegiance to conservative religious organizations and the right-wing policy agenda they are pushing.

So, how did that happen? How did all of ethics get reduced to abortion and gay marriage? Who took the ethics out of ethics? How did our national moral conversation become so incredibly impoverished and politicized in the most shallow way? How the hell did we manage to go from Edward R. Murrow and Martin Luther King, Jr. to Fox News and Pat Robertson?

"Follow the money." Who benefits from this impoverished discourse? Who funded it? Well, let's see...

The first half of the 20th century was not a big boost for the moral credentials of the American right. They were on the wrong side of the fight to give women the vote. They were on the wrong side of helping working people out of the Great Depression. They were on the wrong side of Social Security to keep senior citizens from starving to death. They were on the wrong side of Medicaid to allow needy children access to health care. They were on the wrong side of the civil rights movement and continued to try to block the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Our most prized moral successes in the 20th century came by defeating the entrenched power and roadblocks thrown up by the American conservative movement.

Then, the whipped cream and cherry came in the mid-1970's from Watergate with its lying, cheating, and stealing in an effort to undermine democracy and guarantee continued Republican power. They used the intelligence apparatus of the U. S. government to spy on political enemies. They planted fake propaganda against political opponents. They covered up, obfuscated, and perjured themselves.

(To be fair, though, this was before perjury became a serious crime. It was only later that our democracy became so fragile that lying under oath, even about issues unrelated to governance -- say, about an extramarital blowjob -- could destroy the foundation of our entire nation and undermine all respect for law and order. At this point, the threat of lying under oath is so great that Arlen Specter, chair of the Judiciary committe, refused to even put attorney general Alberto Gonzales under oath when testifying before the committee, despite pleas from Democratic committee members. If you want to make sure that there's no lying under oath, one way is to make sure there's no oath.)

When the "whole rats' nest of illegal shit" of Watergate was finally uncovered by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, the pendulum was in full swing. In the next couple of elections, the Republicans had a big ol' can of moral whoop-ass opened up on them. The "values voters" of the 1970's had spoken. Democrats took power in no small part because of ethics.

So how did they blow it? What happened between 1975 and 2000 to completely invert perception of moral dominance and allow Democrats to be portrayed as traitorous, hateful, immoral defenders of everything evil?

Republicans, when out of power, thought deeply about how to undermine the coalition in the Democrat's big tent. They derived a strategy still firmly in place: when attacking an opponent, don't attack his weaknesses, attack his strengths. If you can muddy the waters on issues where the other side has a clear advantage, a draw is a victory. Let’s say hypothetically that the other candidate is a decorated Viet Nam vet and that your candidate dodged the draft by hiding out in the National Guard and even in that cheesy role, failed to serve honorably. Don’t shy away from the issue, rather make sure that there are continuous attacks upon the veteran's patriotism, service to his country, war record and any medals he might have received. Make swing voters cynical; get them to think, "they are both lying." Then the other side's advantage disappears.

This is what they did to ethics. And the Democrats fell for it each and every time.

There have been five major battlegrounds in the media for the title of "most moral movement": (1) The Southern, turned Evangelical, Strategy, (2) Overplaying the White Guilt Card, (3) ABSCAM, Check Kiting, and Democratic Congressional Corruption, (4) Chicken Little and the Liberals Who Cried Wolf, and (5) The Myth of the Liberal Media. The Democrats went 0 for 5.

We'll need to look at each of these in some detail. More to come...