Human fallibility appears on a collision course with accountability in American politics. Apologies are judged as no longer adequate to meet the moment. While social media have greased the targeting of miscreants, there seems to be a growing disconnect between indisputable missteps and the acknowledgement of responsibility for blunders. In its place has emerged the slippery phrasing that, “my recent comments/actions do not represent who I am as a person.” This evasion falls far short of an apology and offers a pathetic excuse for escaping responsibility. Where was that truer, more noble persona and why was he or she absent while you were behaving badly?
Historically, societies have embraced informal, yet generally accepted, codes of conduct and courtesy. Most of these have embraced their culture’s inherent and frequently unjust racial and gender prejudices. From feudal conceptions of chivalry and honor to the gallant expectation that Victorian gentlemen would readily toss their capes across puddles in order to assure a protected path for a lady, there were right ways and wrong ways to treat others. Sufficient doubt exists to nurture suspicions whether these expectations were honored as a matter of daily practice.
Nonetheless, the requirement that individuals bear responsibility for their personal behavior still abides in corners of our modern world. Military services place significant obligations on their leaders, implicit in the expression “an Officer and a Gentleman.” Institutional restraints on clergy, police and educators have largely vanished. The “Me Too,” Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights movements are, in large part, a simple plea for civic decency. This is apparently too much to ask from the many Americans who chafe under what they perceive as the unwarranted strictures of political correctness and cancel culture.
Grievance is a poor guide for government and vengeance a solution worse than any problem. While my generation is, blessedly, not trailed by an enduring electronic record of our juvenile stupidities — what one American president referred to as doing foolish things when he was young and foolish — internet age generations are pursued by their texts, tweets, posts, as well as photos and a live video record. This does not mean their seniors are without regrets and embarrassments lost to the frailties of human memory. Yet people do learn from their mistakes. They do mature. They become better fathers, mothers, co-workers, neighbors and, yes, members of Congress. None of us should be judged by our worst moments and absolution should remain possible.
More than one politician has said, “Don’t judge me on what I say, judge me on what I do.” But, if we urged to accept the notion that what you do isn’t necessarily representative of who you really are, we’re left with next to nothing on which to pass judgment. With the exception of parochial schools, American education has drifted away from discussion, much less instruction in morality. We would be hard put to find a public high school that offers classes in ethics or colleges which still require a semester of philosophy. Fifty years ago, this was the most feared course in the liberal canon, aside from public speaking. Philosophy promised to prove difficult, time consuming and offer few practical or pecuniary benefits following graduation. In that more religious era, philosophers were generally stronger on questions of guilt than grace.
The “gotcha” politics pervading our national elections is beginning to corrupt Colorado’s public discourse as well. This is not a problem exclusively of the right or left, Democrats or Republicans. It is a corrosive acid poured out in equal measures by both parties to undermine confidence in the democratic process. I would point to television ads that ran last year attacking Republican Senator Bob Rankin. They charged he was complicit in assaults against the health and safety of his Western Slope constituents while serving as a stooge for oil and gas interests. Whatever sliver of truth lay behind this message, I recognized it had to be a distortion. Bob, who has spent a decade in the legislature and now serves on the Joint Budget Committee, is the kind of thoughtful and dedicated public servant voters are lucky to have representing them. As a Democrat, I imagine there are many issues where we differ. So what?
Equally vicious attacks were launched against Democratic candidates. The partisan campaign consulting industry believes fear mongering provides the shortest route to victory. However, during a period of severe crisis, the politics of personal destruction turns the stomachs of most Coloradans, irrespective of party. Voters should demand those they elect to lead our state government by placing the welfare of their neighbors before all other priorities. When mistakes occur, why not just apologize, request forgiveness and commit to do better next time. If any of the foregoing advice offends you, I take full responsibility for your discomfort.