Saturday, September 19, 2009

Manslaughter and other foibles

It's a bit late in the day to write about this, but its been fermenting in the back of my mind ever since the the news coverage of Ted Kennedy's death started. I actually expected Kennedy’s passing to be an even bigger deal than it is, given the American fascination, and a specially the American media’s fascination, with the Kennedys. Still, what we got was ridiculous enough, with days of wailing in the media and endless glorification of Kennedy’s supposed “compassion” and "service." There’s one thing that especially struck me.

It is a commonplace among libertarians that government leaders routinely do things that would cause them to be regarded as fearsome criminals if done without the halo of state power- looting people of their wealth, burning down cities, and so forth. I also find it interesting, however, to see the extent to which even actions that don't fall under the moral free pass given to "matters of state" get swept away.

One thing that always irritates me about the hagiographies that fill the media, and for that matter a lot of discussion by regular people, whenever a major politician dies is the way they deal with embarrassing aspects of the politician’s life that can’t be swept under the rug entirely: It is admitted that, though the deceased was of course a great man, he was “flawed.” This has been said a number of times about Ted Kennedy.

This is an interesting use of the word, and a nice example of how to be literally accurate and grossly misleading at the same time. My paranoia, tendency to slouch, and near-total inability to produce comprehensible human speech when I go to my neighborhood bar and the owner's daughter says hello to me are flaws. My elementary school gym teacher’s laziness was a flaw. The Trix Rabbit’s intemperate obsession with sugary cereals is a flaw.

Careening off a bridge into the water because of your drunk and reckless driving, leaving your passenger to her fate under the water, and then spending the next few hours- during some of which your passenger may still have been alive and hoping for rescue- trying to find a way to avoid telling the relevant authorities who might have saved her because you don’t want to damage your political career, and finally coming clean 9 hours later when you realize the authorities have already found the body rises several notches above the level of "flaw."

If you or I did that, the result would be the everlasting contempt of everyone who found out about it, and probably prison time. Most people would regard it as the defining moment of our lives, the act that defined our character. When a major politician does it, well, he was a complex person and we shouldn’t let one thing dominate our perception of such an important figure and great leaders often have feet of clay and hey, nobody’s perfect, right?

Bill Clinton would be another good example- office workers making dirty jokes and lewd remarks constitutes sexual harassment worthy of legal action, but the governor of a U.S. state having a female subordinate brought to his hotel room by a state trooper, propositioning her, and then responding to her rejection of his sexual advances by brandishing his genitalia does not. An extremely powerful man committing perjury while giving sworn testimony related to a female subordinate’s sexual harassment lawsuit isn’t a big deal, either.

Ted Kennedy, however, takes it to an even more impressive height (or depth): he kills an innocent woman formerly employed by his brother with his reckless, callous behavior, and when the nation’s biggest media outlets and most powerful statesmen summarize his life it is a footnote, too petty a matter to mar his glory. Ted Kennedy was a Great Man, the Lion of the Senate, a giant; Mary Jo Kopechne was an ant, as we are, and it is of no account if a few insects get trampled.

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