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Integrity 101

by James Bowman

Posted: Nov 18, 2009 09:35 PM

In politics as in so much else what you have to say depends on where — and with whom — you have to stand. Everyone has a point of view, and the political process is all about creating constituencies for particular points of view. But the media doesn’t believe in the necessity of these ordinary and universal contingencies. They have their own sort of universalism instead. Because, that is, of their self-conceit as being above what they scornfully call "partisanship," they imagine that there is one point of view that doesn’t come from a particular place on the political spectrum but all points and none. It is, as it were, God’s point of view, sub specie aeternitatis, and they fondly suppose that it is easy to adopt as their own. This is, of course, patently false, but the pretense that it is true lies behind much of what appears in the media, masquerading as news.

Take Dana Milbank’s daily dose of snark in today’s column in the Washington Post. His unerring nose for hypocrisy has caught out — who else? — Senate Republicans who used to complain about Democratic obstructionism towards George W. Bush’s judicial appointments and are now engaging in the exact same behavior when it comes to Barack Obama’s judicial appointments. He seems not to notice that this argument works both ways. If the GOP is guilty of hypocrisy, so are the Democrats who formerly obstructed Mr Bush’s nominees and are now complaining about Republican obstruction of Mr Obama’s nominees. Mr Milbank is simply seeing things, as he generally does, from the Democratic point of view, but he imagines he is making a non-partisan and therefore moral point about Republican "hypocrisy."

Doubtless there are good arguments for a partisan truce over judges, but we haven’t got such a thing and are unlikely to get it any time soon. Right now it would be in the Democrats’ interest for judicial partisanship to disarm just as once it would have been in the Republicans’ interest. But the Democrats then didn’t want to make peace with the Bush appointments, and the Republicans now don’t want to make peace with the Obama appointments. Nobody wants to go first. Until somebody does, such "hypocrisy" will be a permanent feature of our politics, just as it has been for at least the last decade and, arguably, since the Bork confirmation hearings in 1987. It’s only Dana Milbank’s sense of his own moral superiority — that quality which is becoming the common coin of our political life — that makes this seem like news.

His self-righteousness is a paltry thing, however, next to that of Al Gore who is now set — according to the London Daily Telegraph — to become "the world's first carbon billionaire." In other words, as even The New York Times has noticed, Mr Gore is personally profiting, and profiting mightily, from the alarm over global warming that he has so assiduously spreading for lo these many years. Asked about this by Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Mr Gore replied: "If you believe that the reason I have been working on this issue for 30 years is because of greed, you don’t know me." Alas, we know Al only too well. We know him as a man who has never scrupled to use personal and family tragedies for political gain, a man whose criticisms of George W. Bush have not only reeked of sour grapes and been lacking in grace but have revealed a failure to understand the most basic facts about honor and integrity in politics — which, like so much else, depends on an honest acknowledgment of one’s partisanship.

"Sincerity," as Holman W. Jenkins Jr. wrote a propos of the former Vice President’s profitable doom-mongering in last week’s Wall Street Journal, "is no substitute for disinterestedness." This is another way of saying that what you have to say is always and inevitably going to depend on where and with whom you have to stand. Not surprisingly, where Mr Gore stands on global warming is with his partners in self-righteousness in the media — that is among those who also stand to gain from spreading alarm about the supposedly imminent peril to the planet. This doesn’t mean that either of them are wrong about that peril, but it does mean that the rest of us are entitled to regard what they say with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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