Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Realpolitik Online

Rep. Edward L. Schrock withdrew his re-election bid in Virginia's 2nd District. Today's Washington Post helps to explain why (page A7, By Peter Whoriskey and Chris L. Jenkins):
The claim that the Republican congressman pursued gay trysts had been presented to journalists and political opponents as far back as three years ago and had never found its way into print. But Michael Rogers, the publisher of, which he says aims to expose the hypocrisy of gay politicians who vote against gay rights, ran with it Aug. 19. He posted an audio file in which a man asks "to get together with a guy from time to time to just to play," later suggesting oral sex.

Rogers's blog never offered proof that the voice was Schrock's, but it led Schrock to withdraw from the race 11 days after its posting.


Rogers said he was angered by stands that Schrock had taken on gay-rights issues, including co-sponsoring a proposed constitutional amendment that would bar same-sex marriages.

He scoffed at any suggestion that the congressman might have been misidentified on the audio.

"When is the last time a congressman resigned over baseless allegations?" Rogers said. "If the congressman believes it is untrue, I welcome him to file a libel or slander suit against me."

Dave promised his faithful readership (of how many...?) that I'd write on ethics. Here, it's easy to get other issues out of the way: I think the legality of this is pretty clear, assuming the story is true, and it's publication is probably also a helpful thing, since such writing helps to keep the media accountable. Ethical? I think not. Mostly, I have a problem at a fundamental level with character assassination of any sort: in politics, in the courts, or elsewhere. Attacks on character serve one purpose and one purpose only: subverting reasoned opinions by arousing base emotions. Attacks such as these twist our capacity for moral judgment, and eliminate our capacity for unbiased decision making. In most political societies, we think of that as a bad thing.

Let me be up front. I don't think we should erect far reaching sanctions against personal attacks (assuming they're true - otherwise, they're slander/libel). My view is that a little bit of social ethics would go a long way - don't publish private lives, and don't be personal in attacks. My personal favorite philosopher, Thomas Nagel, phrases this very nicely:

Thomas Nagel in "Concealment and Exposure"
Originally published in Philosophy and Public Affairs 1998 (vol 27 no 1)

Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court could have been legitimately rejected by the Senate on grounds of competence and judicial philosophy, but I believe the challenge on the basis of his sexual victimization of Anita Hill was quite unjustified, even though I'm sure it was all true. At the time I was ambivalent; like a lot of people, I would have been glad to see Thomas rejected for any reason. But that is no excuse for abandoning the private-public distinction: This sort of bad personal conduct is completely irrelevant to the occupation of a position of public trust, and if the press hadn't made an issue of it, the Senate Judiciary Committee might have been able to ignore the rumors. There was no evidence that Thomas didn't believe in the equal rights of women. It is true that Hill was his professional subordinate, but his essential fault was being personally crude and offensive: It was no more relevant than would have been a true charge of serious maltreatment from his ex-wife.

But consider the situation we are in: The only way to avoid damage to someone's reputation by facts of this kind, in spite of their irrelevance to qualification for public office, is through a powerful convention of nonacknowledgment. If this is rejected as a form of male mutual self-protection, then we are stuck with masses of irrelevant and titillating material clogging up our public life and the procedures for selection of public officials, and shrinking the pool of willing and viable candidates for responsible positions. I'm not objecting to the regulation of conduct at the individual level. It is a good thing that sexual coercion of an employee or a student should be legally actionable, and that the transgression of civilized norms should be an occasion for personal rebuke. What is unfortunate is the expansion of control beyond this by a broadening of the conception of sexual harassment to include all forms of unwelcome or objectionable sexual attention, and the increasingly vigilant enforcement of expressive taboos. Too much in the personal conduct of individuals is being made a matter for public censure, either legally or through the force of powerful social norms. As Mill pointed out in On Liberty, the power of public opinion can be as effective an instrument of coercion as law in an intrusive society.

from Concealment and Exposure

One good thing to come out of this is a sound demonstration of the effects of blogging. I'm feeling powerful already.

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