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Adultery and Double Standards

On my drive out to McLean earlier today, I was tuning in to The Mike Gallagher Show. I haven’t listened to Gallagher all that much, but the times I’ve heard him he comes across as a reasonable person. Among the topics that arose was Newt Gingrich’s marital infidelity. I felt like I was in a time warp, with Gallagher and his callers arguing that (a) we’re all flawed and imperfect; (b) it’s important to forgive people who slip up; (c) isn’t it unfair to keep people like Gingrich from serving in public life because of past failures; and (d) many impressive political figures, including past presidents, have committed adultery. Surely that shouldn’t be a disqualifier.

Those were exactly the arguments that liberals were making in defense of Bill Clinton’s various indiscretions 13 years ago, and many conservatives didn’t find them to be terribly persuasive at the time. Now, it seems, some of them do.

I’ve written before on the matter of adultery as it bears on lawmakers and presidents. My own view is that it’s a factor to take into account, but how much of a factor depends on facts and circumstances—how long ago it occurred, how often it’s happened, whether there was evidence of cruelty or abuse, whether it signals a dangerous degree of recklessness and self-indulgence, whether genuine repentance has taken place, etc. I will say that when it comes to Gingrich the element of cruelty in his actions (see David Frum’s post here) is troubling and probably should count more against him than marital infidelity might count against some others.

In any event, my point is a rather different one, which is how easy it is to employ different standards based on our political affiliations and ideological predilections. We take similar facts and interpret them in very different ways, depending on how well they reflect on those whom we’re inclined to like or support as opposed to those whom we’re inclined to dislike or not support.

Thus infidelity in the case of Bill Clinton is a huge strike against him, but for Newt Gingrich the verses from John 8:7 (“Let him who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her”) and Matthew 7:1 (“Judge not lest you be judged”) are the order of the day. When Sarah Palin talked about “death panels” it was considered an outrage, but when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius claims that under the GOP Medicare plan people with cancer will “die sooner” it goes almost unnoticed. Rendition under President Bush was considered to be a violation of basic human rights, but rendition under Barack Obama is justified. Special prosecutors are constitutional and a great way to pursue criminal wrongdoing when they’re used against the other side, but they’re extra-constitutional and a terrible misuse of power when they’re used against our side.

The examples of sanctimonious hypocrisy are almost endless. And truth be told, we all engage in it to one degree or another. None of us come at these things from a position of perfect objectivity. Our personal histories, dispositions, and preferences in all kinds of areas—from politics to faith to our favorite foods and athletic teams—cause us to view the same set of facts through different lenses. The question isn’t whether hypocrisy occurs; the question, I think, is how much we strive to minimize it. Do we even try to employ a single standard, or are facts and events simply tools to be used in a larger ideological battle?

It’s easy enough to see double standards and the failure of intellectual integrity in others; the harder question, I suppose, is whether we see them in ourselves.



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