Pack Your Bags, Ideology and All, and Just Scram!

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.

Pack Your Bags, Ideology and All, and Just Scram!