But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord

It seems only appropriate that Kevin Spacey should play the lead in House of Cards. The recent outburst of sexual assault allegations following an article in the New York Times and Ronan Farrow‘s serial exposé of Harvey Weinstein has gone well beyond salacious gossip and appears to be resulting in substantive legal consequences as well as a, most likely more important, shift in the unwillingness to tolerate foul behavior. I say appears to be because we’ve yet to see the powerful face consequences. It’s good to see people speaking up for themselves and coming forward — finding their power as it were. I’ve some hope that generally acceptable behavior will change for the better, and ladies will no longer need to use their hatpins to ward off unwanted advances.

A smattering of folks have been shocked to find gambling in Casablanca. Open secrets aren’t actually, y’know, secrets. They’re more like intentionally unenforced violations of the criminal code. The perpetrator is friends with the president or the district attorney — or the perpetrator is the president or the district attorney — or the victim’s silence is bought through fear or money or both. This ability of power to do what it wants isn’t an American disease. It’s essential to the nature of power. Power does because it can. A similar scandal is roiling Parliament — France isn’t being left out — but traditional abuse in Afghanistan has been traditional for centuries: The U. S. Army overlooks this, effectively sponsoring it, because “we need them.”

It does beg the question, however, why we overlook these sorts of things for so long while they are so well known. They hang out in society as jokes until they are inappropriate, unacceptable. Our understanding of the casting couch shifted from twittering about sleeping one’s way to the top to disgust at an abuse of power. How long were jokes about Catholic priests and altar boys circulating in Protestant circles before the spotlight fell on the truth? The gym coach at my high school would have girls sit on his lap. We’d yuk it up: “Sit on my lap and we’ll talk about the first thing that pops up.” Ha ha. So funny.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” — Erma Bombeck

One of my college roommates was a page in the House. We didn’t talk much. I seem to recall he had trouble with the school and left after one semester. In that time and place he fit the profile of a troubled youth. He told me a story once, of Congressional shenanigans involving vodka enemas and sexual encounters with Congressmen. Nothing shocking, I’m sure, except he was a minor and an employee. He’s dead now.

Forgiveness, it is thought, arose to maintain the social group and because revenge isn’t possible in some circumstances. This is necessary and generally works to maintain the group. But parasites exact a cost. They take advantage of the overwhelming desire to maintain social cohesion. We allow them to continue, because we think we need them. We think their abuse of power is somehow justified, in the greater interest of our tribe, that it’s not our business, or because, frankly, some of us don’t care. Luckily, the Forest Troop of baboons provides some evidence of what’s possible when abusers are cast into the outer darkness: everyone benefits.

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

What with the renewed interest in a Russian antagonist recently, it has become fashionable in some circles to dismiss criticism as use of a rhetorical device that has stood the long test of time: whataboutism.

Well, yes, tu quoque is a logical fallacy, and that would matter if public opinion were logical. But it is not, so it doesn’t. Whataboutism as a device works because it plays on the cognitive dissonance arising from the conflict between one’s ideals and hypocritical behavior. The case of Thomas Jefferson, for example, writing that all men have the right to liberty while keeping slaves. The United States is particularly susceptible to this style of argument because of our founding in the Enlightenment and because we pretend to be a shining example to the world, a City upon a Hill. How can we on the one hand pledge allegiance to liberty and justice for all while simultaneously denying it in practice? How do we reconcile our behavior with our ideals?

Whataboutism works because it’s true.

Whataboutism may draw a false moral equivalence between parties, without concern for shades of grey, but a decent respect for the opinions of mankind does make it unseemly to criticize others of a crime, e.g. torture, when one engages in that crime. Or at least makes the accusation more than a little ironic. Well, isn’t that just the pot calling the kettle black! The U.N. Human Rights Council is likely tired of hearing this. It would be something else entirely if we admitted our flaws, acknowledged them, and actually held ourselves to at least the same, if not a more stringent, standard than we hold others. “Let he who is without sin…” and all that.

We certainly aren’t without sin. No one is. One might take a moment for self-reflection. Or not. Many so-called patriots prefer denial and cannot admit fault. Brush the dirt under the rug of history while claiming the dirt doesn’t exist and, even if it did, it’s not dirt but soil. We don’t air our dirty laundry in public. This is the “my country, right or wrong” crowd: the reduction of civil society and the clash of nations to a team sport, and, strangely enough, the active embrace of the core argument advanced by the current crop of whataboutism.

Masha Gessen, in “In Praise of Hypocrisy,” writes,

Fascists the world over have gained popularity by calling forth the idea that the world is rotten to the core. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt described how fascism invites people to “throw off the mask of hypocrisy” and adopt the worldview that there is no right and wrong, only winners and losers. Hypocrisy can be aspirational: Political actors claim that they are motivated by ideals perhaps to a greater extent than they really are; shedding the mask of hypocrisy asserts that greed, vengeance and gratuitous cruelty aren’t wrong, but are legitimate motivations for political behavior.

[Vladimir Putin and Victor Orban] seem convinced that the entire world is driven solely by greed and hunger for power, and only the Western democracies continue to insist, hypocritically, that their politics are based on values and principles….

Despair at how the world is shaped by power imbalances, and embrace a blunt conception of the Good Life:

They err in understanding a description of how the world works as a prescription for the way it should. Still ideals beyond power give us something to strive for in this dog-eat-dog world where only the murderous survive. Isn’t it odd that those who care so little for the public opinion that they have no qualms looting their country for their own personal aggrandizement are among those who are the most assiduous perpetrators of fraud, indirection, and deceit in hiding their wealth and the sources of it? Isn’t it odd that heroes must hide their feet of clay?

Perhaps there’s something to these ideals after all.