A clergyman friend of mine is bemused by America’s fixation with what he calls "genital morality," our seeming incapacity to discuss morals in any but a sexual context, with the result that sexual misconduct ( a la Clinton and Burton) becomes evidence of (drum roll here, please) the Moral Decline of Western Civilization….
A clergyman friend of mine is bemused by America’s fixation with what he calls "genital morality," our seeming incapacity to discuss morals in any but a sexual context, with the result that sexual misconduct ( a la Clinton and Burton) becomes evidence of (drum roll here, please) the Moral Decline of Western Civilization.
The daily news confirms his observation. Pundits fall over each other bemoaning the public’s indifference to each revelation. Members of what Molly Ivins calls the "chattering classes" cluck disapprovingly on talk shows and rush books into print so they can turn a quick profit feeding the frenzy over our deplorable national character.
Is America really moral bankrupt? Are we truly adrift, without role model or moral compass?
I teach young (and not so young) people, and my firsthand observations lead me to a very different conclusion. My students are deeply engaged with issues of right and wrong. They exhibit compassion for others and concern for the environment; they are respectful of their peers as well as their elders. They are refreshingly earnest and hard working. Nearly all of them lack the smug self-satisfaction of the pundits, the moral arrogance that brushes aside the complexities and nuances of real life in favor of instant judgment. They hold strong opinions, but will question their assumptions. They have little use for cant, hypocrisy, or ideologues of any stripe.
A few days ago, I asked a small group for their thoughts about Bill Clinton and Danny Burton. Their responses were instructive. Clinton was seen as morally flawed, but few drew that conclusion solely or even primarily from "Monica-gate." Some were appalled by his attempts to gut historic habeas corpus protections, while piously claiming that his antiterrorism legislation would do no such thing. Others were incensed by his treatment of immigrants. "You can argue about illegals," said one, "but how can he tell the 100,000 documented aliens in our armed forces that we may ask you to die for this country, but if your kids are hungry we won’t feed them? How moral is that?"
Burton was considered an embarrassment for his persistent grandstanding and intemperate behavior ("He wanted to nuke Iraq, for goodness sake!"). But moral disapproval was much more severe for his brother Woody, who may or may not be a paradigm of sexual purity but is constantly using his public office to promote bigotry and justify mistreatment of people he dislikes–notably gays.
One young woman summed it up. "Being moral is more than keeping your pants zipped. It’s integrity and fair dealing; it’s holding yourself to a high standard while giving others the benefit of the doubt." Or–as it says in that bible that so many people would rather thump than read– it’s doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.