There has been quite a lot of head shaking among my fellow Baby Boomers at the current state of affairs in America both political and cultural as though they are thinking, “How could things ever have reached this low?” Well, for them I have some good news. We’ve been there before – about 50 years ago. And we made a comeback. Perhaps the core of our problem is that we think of things in a linear manner. We would be better served if we adopted the Mayan view of time and events and thought of them as circular and recurrent.
That is not to say that as I watch the idiocy, misinformation and shear ignorance that is the stock in trade today of today’s younger generation brought about by an educational system that has largely failed them and turned it’s attention to creating “safe spaces” for these poor, shrinking violets rather than educating them in the classics and history, I do not wring my hands with despair and despondence. I do. But then I remember embarking on my college career as the country was highly polarized both by race relations and the Vietnam War – and I think to myself, I’ve seen this movie, well at least the original version if not the remake.
The college at the University of Chicago was left leaning since long before I started there in 1964. The only place on campus one might find conservatives was at the Business School and, to a lesser degree, the Law School. But for those of us who were undergraduates, we were generally immersed in a culture of the left – whether we wanted it or not. Notwithstanding the political orientation of our teachers, we were exposed to a wide variety of thought – often thought which directly conflicted with our instructors’ own political or social viewpoint.
One of the mandatory courses was Sociology 101. The reading list was extensive, almost unmanageable because of its volume. But among those books which were required reading were the works of J. J. Rousseau, John Locke, the Federalist Papers and Alexis de Tocqueville. These authors could hardly be described as proponents of the philosophy of the left. Despite the fact that my professor for this class was a good friend of Saul Alinksy (Rules For Radicals) who dedicated this work, the subject of Hillary Clinton’s 1969 college thesis, to Lucifer, his approach to dealing with this material was to present it and, because he believed he had a superior mental ability either to the authors or his students, attempt to debunk what they had to say.
Consider that last line as a sign post of the difference between then and now because it is crucial. The material was presented and debated – or at least it was. Today’s universities do not exercise the same intellectual honesty because they present only one side of the story, pretending that is the only side to be told. And this manifestation of intellectual dishonesty extends everywhere into the culture where freedom of speech merely means, freedom to speak but only in the manner that the vocal left minority deems appropriate. The late Chairman Mao would be proud of them – as would have been Adolph Hitler.
“Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”
– Alexis de Tocqueville
De Tocqueville was sent to the fledgling America by the French government to study her prison system and went on to write his classic two volume work, Democracy in America. There are many profound observations which he made in that work and over the next several posts I will be using several of them to illustrate my point.
But let us move on to the subject of this post with the assistance of another of his quotes:
“The greatness of America lies in the fact that her laws are applied equally to everyone.”
There are two separate but equally important points to be taken from these quotes.
First, de Tocqueville recognized that moral behavior was an absolute thing. That there was right and wrong, good and bad, truth and falsehood and that God, not man established those things which also gave rise to the Founding Fathers’ exclamation that “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”. Truth, right and good were ordained as such by God and no matter how man might convolute these to suit his own personal needs, were immutable. There is no clearer expression of this than in our legal system where the person testifying is required to take an oath, pledging to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
But to whom is this oath sworn? To God. As de Tocqueville points out in the first of these quotes, morality is dependent on faith. So if we set God aside, then the only concern of a deponent in a jury proceeding is not in testifying truthfully but in testifying in a manner which best serves his purpose if he is confident that he will not get caught lying. And the sad truth is that there are few cases of perjury which are ever prosecuted – thus reinforcing this self-serving behavior.
During President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial our then Chief Executive clearly lied about his sexual liaisons. Frankly, I could care less about them and would have had more respect if he had said, “Yes, I had sex with that woman in the Oval Office. So what?” Clearly there have been other presidents who had dalliances outside their marriages including FDR and Eisenhower to mention just two who come quickly to mind and those relationships didn’t seem to impact their ability to govern. Instead, Clinton chose to take the low road with a series of legalistic responses to avoid the embarrassment of public revelation about his numerous sexual relationships. And his punishment for this perjury – a fine and the revocation of his law license.
Second, let’s consider the concept of “the equal application of the law” which de Tocqueville lauds and review the case of Martha Stewart.
On December 27, 2001, Martha Stewart disposed of her interest in Imclone stock based on inside information she had received. This helped her avoid a loss of about $50,000 as bad news on the company was about to break. Ms. Stewart was arraigned and her trial took six weeks, resulting in her conviction on nine felony counts. But the bulk of her penalty – a six month imprisonment followed by five months of electronic monitoring and an additional thirteen months of supervision was the result not of insider trading, for which she paid a fine but because she had lied to the FBI while being interrogated under oath by them. As an aside, until 2014 when the law was changed, the insider trading activity in which Stewart engaged and which was illegal for any American to participate in – was fully legal if you were a Member of Congress. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that so many congressmen and women enter the Rotunda poor and emerge as millionaires.
In my view, the penalties meted out to Clinton and Stewart were hardly comparable. If anything, Clinton’s should have been the more severe because he held the highest of public offices and Stewart merely saved herself some money – an insignificant amount considering her net worth. But both of them have returned to the limelight in society, their past transgressions forgotten and forgiven. To this day, Bill Clinton is one of America’s most admired politicians. And de Tocqueville has an explanation for that in our closing quote:
“Society is endangered not by the great profligacy of a few, but by the laxity of morals amongst all.”