The Death of Outrage

By William J. Bennett

The recent scandals in the White House have inevitably led to renewed complaints about the decline of the American Empire. In particular, the Lewinsky affair and its subsequent cover-up have been taken as evidence of the collapse of American morals and the death of family values. Worst of all, the public’s apparent indifference has been seen as symbolic of a broader permissiveness – a tectonic shift in traditional norms.

Bill Bennett, the conservative editor of the popular Book of Virtues, has stepped into this moral vacuum as self-appointed values czar of the Republic. In The Death of Outrage he speaks out against America’s slide into the moral abyss.

It has become necessary to preface any criticism of positions like Bennett’s by saying “I am not defending President Clinton’s conduct in any way, but . . . ”

But there are one or two problems here.

The first has to do with Bennett’s tone. Now I have to admit I like Americans. I like their books, I like their food, and I even like the funny way they talk (and talk). But I also wouldn’t care to deny that they can, at times, be a little . . . full of themselves. Thus Mr. Bennett:

In America, morality is central to our politics and attitudes in a way that is not the case with Europe, and precisely this moral streak is what is best about us. . . . Europeans may have something to teach us about, say, wine or haute couture. But on the matter of morality in politics, America has much to teach Europe.

I suppose a European would dismiss this as condescending nonsense (would anyone be interested in attending Mr. Bennett’s lectures on morality in politics?), but that is really beside the point. The idea of America as moral beacon is a myth that is important to Americans. It doesn’t matter if corrupt Europe ever sees the light.

Then there are other moments like this:

To be called an American citizen is perhaps the proudest title to which any citizen, at any time, in any country, could ever claim. It is that great a privilege. It is that high an honor.

Fie on that “perhaps”! How did it get in there? You’re No.1, baby! Shout it in the streets!

Bennett also takes time to criticize the way the morality of the executive office has been demeaned by the application of the criminal standard of proof, known as “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” of guilt.

Bennett is impatient with this. Surely there are some people (I won’t mention any names) that we all know are guilty, and we should be able to simply deal with them as such. Indeed, the whole standard of reasonable doubt, the “golden thread” of the criminal law, is here dismissed as the “O. J. standard.” Thus Clinton equals O. J. Impeachment’s too good for him.

Bennett gets into even deeper water by drawing a parallel between the Clinton scandals and Watergate. A 16-page appendix compares quotes from some of the key actors in Watergate to similar lines from the Clinton spin team. It is all very clever, and not without a point, but if Bennett is trying to make an argument for either legal or moral equivalence it doesn’t work.

And so far the public isn’t buying it either.

The reason such comparisons fail is that Clinton simply doesn’t scare people in the same way. Americans may be disgusted by Clinton’s lying and sleaze, but they do not fear him. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, was a very scary man.

At the heart of Bennett’s argument is a plea for judgment. Having standards is nothing to be ashamed of: “Judgment is not bigotry, and tolerance may just be another term for indifference. . . . For a free people the ordeal of judgment cannot be shirked. To try to shirk it is not to be sensitive or tolerant, it is to avoid responsibility.”

Fair enough, but both positions have a slippery slope.

It seems significant that Bennett did not call his book The Death of Judgment. Tolerance may have pitfalls and discontents, but it still seems a safer bet than outrage.

Review first published October 10, 1998.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: