Once upon a time, I thought I loved mankind. I believed in brotherly
love. (Never mind the gendered phrase; read “humankind” and
“sisterly,” if it makes you happier, if you’re that kind of
an ideologue.) Once upon a time, I had high hopes, utopian hopes, sweet
little girl hopes of a great smacking, kissing sound wafting over the
horizon and astonishing the closed heart. No longer.
Read this column as confessions of a former sap. I have grown up. No
more do I extend my hand in easy friendship. I admit it. I have become a
snob. Not a mild snob but a bristling, prickly nose-in-the-air snob. I used
to hate snobs. I didn’t believe that you deserved credit because your
ancestors ate salted herring on the high seas on their way to Plymouth Rock
while mine were briny pickle peddlers on the back roads of Minsk or
something like that. I thought it was rude to think you were better than
other people, and a sure sign that you weren’t. But I’ve changed
my mind. There really are some people I wouldn’t allow to dine with me
or to join my club or to marry my child. These are people who really are
worse than I am, worse of character, worse of politics, bad eggs, rotten
sorts, types to avoid at all costs. I won’t comment on their forebears
or their descendants, although I have my suspicions, but I will say that we
in America had best defend ourselves against their pernicious influence,
their constant grab for power and control of the media and the financial
centers, their determination to change America and make it over in their
own image. You know who I mean. They are here legally, so we can’t
deport them, but perhaps we can confine them, keep them off our golf
courses and out of our schools; at least, we should institute a quota
I’m talking about the family-values types who just had a lesbian
waitress fired from her job because her existence offended their values.
I’m talking about the crowd of Patrick Buchanan and Jerry Falwell and
Ralph Reed, the hosts of radio talk shows, the William Bennetts and the Tom
DeLays, the Henry Hydes and all their cohorts who think that morality is
their call and decency is exactly the way they see it. I think their
decency is indecent. My patience has snapped. I don’t want these
people in my country anymore. They are dangerous and stupid. I know calling
someone stupid is not in itself a convincing argument, but stupid is as
stupid does. Out there in America, people are getting dumb and dumber.
If you consider morality as an absolute, a one-line law, an either-or,
your brain is simple. It has not been trained in subtlety or in anxiety or
in empathy or in reality. Your development has been arrested at the stage
of the first dawnings of conscience (roughly 3 to 5 years old). Your lobes
are overly rigid, blinded to competing issues, afraid of flexibility. Your
neurons travel only forward or backward, avoiding all the off-trail
Real morality, on the other hand, is a matter shaded in many colors,
altered by circumstance, patterned by instinct and drive, burdened by
social custom, inherent and not inherent, necessary but complex. It is
moral to tell the truth, but is it always? What about fatal illnesses:
Sometimes we tell a patient, sometimes we don’t. What about when the
truth will hurt someone: Don’t we shade it? What about under oath: We
tell the truth under oath if telling the truth won’t violate
someone’s heart, won’t destroy something we hold dearer than the oath.
We tell lies for the sake of our careers. Sometimes this is wrong and
terrible. Sometimes it’s all right. It’s wrong to say you have
been trained in brain surgery if you haven’t, but it may be all right
for the brilliant chest surgeon to say he doesn’t smoke if he sneaks
one in the alley. Truth is a matter of context, of one value braced against
another. Only the prigs of the right are certain that they, and only they,
can call every ball in or out each time. This is a really important matter.
Not because it affects who comes to my dinner table but because morality in
a world as whirling as ours can survive only if it is embedded in
amorphous, hard-to-pin-down, hard-to-make rules about human decency. It
will flourish if it grows out of an awareness of our limitations, our
Bill Clinton betrayed Hillary and Chelsea with Monica Lewinsky, but many
Americans have failed the test of fidelity and been forgiven and forgiven
their mates and not lost their jobs. Fidelity is a fine moral ideal, but we
who understand that inside each marriage odd vibrations gather know that
sexual urges, sexual distortions, harm basic trust. We haven’t found a
solution for that any more than we have found out how to win the drug war.
Perhaps Pat Nixon was non-orgasmic or Nancy Reagan liked to have sex in her
clothes closet with her suit on. Should this set off moral alarms? Sex
operates at the highly trafficked intersection of morality and psychology.
We are, most all of us, humbled there.
If you don’t know that, you can easily harm others as well as
Who’s off my list? Let’s start with members of the National
Rifle Association. I don’t think those people have enough moral brains
to fill a shot glass, much less a beer bottle. Sure, people should be
allowed guns to go hunting animals and to protect themselves in the woods.
But they shouldn’t have guns on city streets, and when you start to
misuse the word freedom and quote the Constitution as if you had a sacred
right to sell automatic rifles in Flatbush, then you’re not fit for
much. It’s your morality that disqualifies you, you of little empathy
for the child bleeding on the street or the mother grieving in the funeral
Let’s add the family-values people who make smirking overtures to
homosexuals and attend white supremacy meetings, people like Trent Lott who
claim to know right from wrong and would never lie under oath.
Let’s add the folks who get all upset when someone burns an
inanimate flag and not so upset if someone drops napalm on an animate child
in a distant village. Who’s moral here and who isn’t? If Ronald
Reagan gave money to the military centers in South America that trained
torturers to fan out across the countryside, is that moral decency or is it
perhaps politics as usual? Ollie North might say that supporting torture
was necessary to fight the war against communism, but I think his relative
morality reeks to high hell, while Bill Clinton’s is hardly worth a
few weeks in purgatory.
So sue me. I think we ought to offer those people a boat ticket back to
where they came from. Where did they come from? A cave perhaps, a swamp
maybe, a colony of mutant primates? Yes, I sound intolerant. Yes, I seem to
have lost my cool, my respect for diversity and pluralism. I’ve been
driven toward it. Diversity and pluralism is O.K. up to a point. I’ve
been pushed to the brink.