|Venditrici di Amorini|
"The Roman government once issued a decree that Jews must not keep the Sabbath or circumcise their children, and that they must have intercourse with menstruant women. Thereupon Reuven son of Istroboli cut his hair in the Roman fashion, and went and sat among them. He said to them: 'If a man has an enemy, what does he wish him to be, poor or rich? They said: That he be poor. He said to them: If so, let the Jews do no work on the Sabbath so that they grow poor. They said: ‘He speaketh rightly’, let this decree be annulled. It was indeed annulled. Then he continued: If one has an enemy, what does he wish him, to be weak or healthy? They answered: Weak. He said to them: Then let their children be circumcised at the age of eight days and they will be weak. They said: ‘Hespeaketh rightly’, and it was annulled. Finally he said to them: If one has an enemy, what does he wish him, to multiply or to decrease? They said to him: That he decreases. If so, let them have no intercourse with menstruant women. They said: ‘He speaketh rightly’, and it was annulled."
--A rabbinic tall tale from the Talmud, Meilah 17a
Before emancipation and before there was a Jewish state, Jews thought about power and the state instrumentally, said Yehuda Kurtzer in a lecture at B'nai Jeshurun in New York City, May 30, 2018 (The Moral, the Political, and The Partisan). How can we manipulate the state to do what is good for us? When Rome ruled the world, Jews would never confuse the merely political with their Jewish values.
At the heart of his talk, Kurtzer has a criticism for us all: we are hyper polarized he suggests, in part because we are conflating the moral, the political, and the partisan. We have become our partisan political selves, and in the process we have lost sight of our values. "When politics and winning become your group identity," says Kurtzer, "the version of politics we are going to get is the crudest reflection and manifestation of politics." He sounded nostalgic for the Roman past "when Jews would never conflate the norms and values of what they do at home with what they do politically."*
But I'm not so sure that this charge is helpful: the problem in this political moment is not that some people (or all) are conflating the moral, the political, and the partisan; the problem, more simply, is some people have shitty politics! When I look at Mitch McConnell vowing to never grant a hearing to judge Merrick Garland, I see a man not sufficiently dedicated to the ideals of our constitution and liberal democracy. I have no reason to believe that Mitch McConnell is not a perfectly decent man in his private life. I would not question his morals, I do question his politics. I look at Mitch McConnell and I see a man who would never conflate the norms and values of what he does at home (lead a decent moral life) with what he does politically (a cut-throat partisan game devoid of values). In other words, McConnell is conducting politics just like the rabbis in Kurtzer's story. It's nothing to be nostalgic about.
The Sexual Transgressions of Bill Clinton and Donald TrumpKurtzer challenges us to contrast our emotional reactions to the Bill Clinton impeachment proceedings and the revelation of Trump's Access Hollywood tape. He suggests this illustrates that our moral sensibilities--what moral transgressions of a president we might find to be disqualifying for the office of president--is dictated more by our politics than by any independent sense of morality. Our moral outrage is dictated by our partisan political commitments; it should be the other way round.
Articles of impeachment were filed against Bill Clinton on December 19, 1998 following seemingly partisan investigations of the Clintons that spanned most of his presidency (1993-2001). In March 1992, during Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, the New York Times reported that the Clintons' had invested with Jim McDougal (the owner of the failed Madison Savings & Loan) in a real estate deal in Arkansas (Whitewater). This piqued the interest of Savings and Loans investigator L. Jean Lewis. Between 1992 and 1994 Lewis sent several criminal referrals to the FBI relating to Whitewater--none of which were found to have sufficient merit to proceed.
In 1994 an ex-Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones, sued Bill Clinton for sexual harassment. Clinton sought to delay the suit until after his presidency, but a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that a sitting president was not immune from civil suits relating to actions he took before assuming office and unrelated to his presidency. Clinton v. Jones (1997). In the meantime (1995-1996) Clinton conducted an affair with Monica Lewinsky--a White House intern (22-23 years old at the time). In late 1997, Linda Tripp, a civil service employee in the Pentagon, secretly recorded her conversations with Monica Lewinsky and ultimately persuaded Lewinsky to "save the blue dress." The information was passed on to Paula Jones' lawyers, which led to Clinton lying under oath in deposition.
Clinton was a major moral transgressor. In addition to repeatedly cheating on his wife, using his positions of power for sexual exploits with young women in a way we can all relate to as horribly wrong in this post-#MeToo era, he lied under oath, and he lied to the American people. Republicans were outraged and pursued Clinton's impeachment with great sanctimony and vigor (even as some of them were guilty of conducting their own secret affairs). Republican outrage was not fake: but Kurtzer suggests it was driven by the politics. That much seems correct.
As Kurtzer points out, most Democrats were not similarly outraged by Clinton's conduct: Democrats were more offended by the partisan nature of the impeachment proceedings than by Clinton's transgressions. The country's perception of Republican partisanship--and game playing--about the Lewinsky affair lead to a loss of 5 Republican House seats in the 1998 mid-term election. The Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, had expected to pick up 30 seats: a miscalculation that lead to his resignation as Speaker. If we did not have term limits for presidents, we would have re-elected Bill Clinton in 2000 (he ended his presidency with a 58% approval rating).
With Trump the situation is reversed. When the Access Hollywood tape came out Democrats were outraged by the behavior and thought it was disqualifying; Republicans stuck with their man. By now it's apparent that Trump is in Harvey Weinstein's league of sexual predation, yet his approval rating with Republicans stands at an astounding 89 percent this week.
Reflecting on this, Kurtzer concluded that our moral universe is constrained by our partisan politics:
"My partisan and my political commitments--which I come by honestly--driven by larger moral commitment of what I want for the world and what I think is morally right--but those partisan and political commitments shape my moral horizon as much as the other way round. We don't always fully interrogate what drives our moral convictions and we assume there is a continuity between our moral commitments and our partisan expressions of those commitments--but sometimes it happens that it comes the other way around: our political and partisan commitments perhaps (constrain) and dictate the shape of our moral universe--what we wand to see, what we don't want to see, what we can tolerate, and what we consider intolerable.... We become aware that our moral universe is constrained by our political and partisan commitments. And what I'm concerned about is that we are engaged in a massive conflation between the moral, the political, and the partisan..... (And) the more urgent (our) political views, the more likely (we) will do whatever is necessary to get (our) political objective achieved. This is the great morally compromising conflation of ends and means. The minute (we) say 'whatever means are necessary to achieve this moral outcome, we are not anymore holding ourselves accountable to our moral compass, we are simply willing to do whatever takes to produce the outcome that we want."But I don't think this ("we are conflating the moral, the political, and the partisan") is the right conclusion. What's wrong with a partisan commitment to what we want for the world, and what we think is morally right? What we think is morally right for the world should shape our partisan commitments and our moral horizons.
Extreme partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression to play for partisan advantage, or throwing out constitutional tradition as Mitch McConnell did with judge Garland (means to ends), is certainly wrong, but the values that are being sold down the drain with gerrymandering and abusing the confirmations process are political values. This has nothing to do with how anyone feels about Clinton's or Trump's sexual transgressions.
The political affiliations of sexual transgressors and how we feel about them is a Trolley Problem.
That is to say, how we feel about Trump and Clinton emotionally doesn't determine whether what they did was moral or not. Moreover it is beside the point since everyone agrees what they both did was wrong. Although Republicans support Trump today, they aren't doing so because they think what he said in the Access Hollywood tape is O.K. behavior; they are supporting him despite this improper behavior because they believe Trump is a partisan for the larger moral commitment of what Republicans want for the world. As best I can tell that commitment is less redistribution of social goods, fewer environmental protections, less support for education and the arts, and a more self-reliant, gun toting society, where women and minorities don't get to claim an equal stake at the table. Republicans are not selling out those value commitments by supporting Trump, they support Trump because they think these are the values he stands for, and his sexual transgressions have nothing to do with it.
Democrats did not support Clinton in 1997-2000 because they thought his affair with Monica Lewinsky and lying about it was O.K.; they did so because despite his failings because they believed Clinton was an effective partisan for the larger moral commitment of what Democrats want for the world: including redistribution of social goods to provide a decent life for the least among us, medical care and support in retirement as a right, access to education for all, sensible gun regulation to prevent mass shootings, an appreciation for knowledge and expertise, a commitment to equality of opportunity for all, and a commitment to government working to promote the common good.
The problem with Donald Trump's supporters and apologists is not that they are conflating their morals and partisan politics and selling out by accepting Trump's behavior, the problem is that they have shitty political values.
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*Kurtzer has written a book to explain how he thinks the Jewish past relates to the present. I intend to read his Shuva.