Occasionally I am genuinely shocked at how blatantly unfair people are on certain topics. Sometimes it is people generally; sometimes the people shocking me are those who I respect, and their unfairness outbreak sets me running to the mirror to check for tell-tale symptoms in my own visage, like a righteousness rash or bias buboes. I am never surprised by the unfairness of the media, politicians, or Lawrence O’Donnell, but even with them, I persist in the silly hope that some shred of decency survives.
The Washington Post’s despicable exposition of ancient recollections of Mitt Romney’s mean-spirited and boorish conduct while being enrolled in that well-known cauldron of mean-spirited and boorish conduct—prep school—has caused me serial episodes of shock. The blatant unfairness of dredging up pre-majority incidents to denigrate a presidential candidate should be so obvious that would expect writers, pundits and readers of all ideological persuasions to toss such swill back in the face of the incompetent waiter who served it…but no. Far and wide, people who should know better, think better and be better are waving the Post’s front page like a bloody flag. I’m embarrassed for them, and for any political affiliation that removes basic ethics alarms so effectively.
The story was offensive and unforgivable enough online, where I saw it yesterday, but on the front page of the Washington Post, where it appeared today, it is beyond belief. The story takes up almost half the front page: you would think the Martians had invaded. My first thought was: “Wow…the liberal establishment must really think Obama’s in trouble!” And so he is. But that’s no excuse.
All the usual suspects have seized on the Post’s hit job to paint Mitt Romney as some kind of a closet monster—again, on the basis of his actions as a spoiled, rich kid with a famous father going to school at a snooty prep school where they breed the kind of creeps represented by Greg Marmalard and Doug Neidermeyer in “Animal House.”
I should mention, in passing, that I am fairly certain that in college I knew personally one of the models for both Marmalard and Neidermeyer, an arrogant, ultra-preppy, ultra-conservative, tall, handsome student who was an outspoken supporter of Richard Nixon and who was known and roundly detested by the Harvard Lampoon types that wrote the “Animal House” screenplay. And guess what? He grew up. He was not “raped in prison” after Watergate, like Greg, or “shot by his own men” in Viet Nam, like Doug. He became a dedicated philanthropist and a courageous father, and has accomplished more good since college than all the fine liberals who ridiculed him combined. Citing his college conduct (when he was older that 17) as indicia of his character today makes about as much sense as—no exactly as much sense as—using Mitt Romney’s prep school actions to judge him now. That is to say, none.
Rick Jones, the smart and sensitive teacher and blogger who sometimes weighs in here, shocked me with his own boarding of the anti-Romney train in the wake of the Post smear. Still, his post on the topic, which you can read here, is more persuasive, fair and articulate than the others around the web written by those with names you might know better, so let me focus on Rick’s well-stated versions of their arguments. Rick writes:
“While we can all, I suspect, muster a little retroactive compassion for the victims of schoolyard bullies from the distant past, it really doesn’t tell us much about candidate Romney that he was a douchebag half a century ago. How he and his campaign have handled the publication of his teen-aged “pranks,” however, tells us a lot about the man who would be POTUS.”
This reasoning is why the Washington Post and other media Luca Brasis persist in the manufactured embarrassment tactic. That someone with Rick’s ethical sense and intelligence falls for it I find depressing. It is, after all, just a variation on the Big Lie tactic: throw out an unfair accusation, and watch the target writhe. There is no, I repeat, NO good and effective way to counter this kind of unscrupulous attack, and neither Rick nor anyone else should pretend that there is. If the target angrily or emphatically denies the episode, he is being “defensive,” and tacitly admitting guilt in the eyes of some, lying in the eyes of others. This was Clarence Thomas’s fate, though he had little choice. When Herman Cain denied Politico’s quoting of a STILL unidentified woman who accused him of sexual harassment, it prompted more publicity-seeking women to come forward. If the target brushes off the incident as “no big deal,” then he is condemned as insensitive. “Bullying a gay student is no big deal?” “Eating a dog is no big deal?” How about the response that one “doesn’t remember?” What? How could anyone not remember something so horrible! Obviously, he’s lying. Now. That 50-year-old story proves that he is currently a liar.
Rick’s post follows this line completely, and he is wrong. He is wrong in may ways:
- He is wrong to assume the events took place as described. I think they may have, but the Post has already had to change the reference to one of the supposed eye-witnesses after the Post’s statement that “he has long been bothered by the Lauber incident” was challenged. It turns out that this supposed eye-witness wasn’t one, and that he was only “bothered” by the incident after the Post reporter told him about it. Bootstrapping, anyone? (The Post, it should be noted, changed the text on its website without flagging the change as a correction.)
- He is wrong to assume that Romney’s claim that he doesn’t remember the incident is untrue. This is confirmation bias in spades. Rick’s reasons are 1) Because the wording of the response from Romney’s campaign is awkward, noting that the story “seems exaggerated and off-base.” How does the clumsy wording of whoever wrote the response tell us what Romney remembers? 2) Rick says he remembers the bad things he did as an adolescent, because he felt remorse afterward. So do I, but I am certain there were incidents that I should be embarrassed about but was not at the time. Rick is saying the he would have remembered pinning down a boy and cutting off his hair, and maybe he would have…but that doesn’t mean that Romney does. It’s quite possible that he didn’t think it was that significant at the time, and when he had matured to the point that he recognized what was so wrong about what he did, he no longer remembered it. I have a wonderfully clear memory of events from my childhood, yet I have often met friends and acquaintances from that period who tell me about something they say I did or said that they “always remember,” and the episode made no impression on me at all. I have no recollection of it.
- Rick is wrong to write, “The “I can’t recall” ruse is, frankly, worse than lying about the event itself, because it adds cowardice to the already-established dishonesty.” That’s a lot of certainty and venom to base on accounts of an event one didn’t witness, all of which were related over a half-century after the alleged event, where one of the sources has already been discredited and the reporter of their comments has already had to change an outright falsehood in the article. Don’t you think?
- Rick is wrong to trust the same newspaper that found front page-worthy the account of six unidentified sources who thought Rick Perry and his father were racists because of what was or was not visible on a painted over rock at a camp they used for hunting parties.
Next, the post on Curmudgeon Central finds dubious Romney’s insistence, in another interview, that harassing gays was the last thing on his mind in the early Sixties. To the contrary, Mitt is 100% right. There were no openly gay students, or very few of them then; I was aware of none when I was in college, several years after Romney’s prep school days. Some jerks picked on the students who were small, weak or effeminate, but it wasn’t gay-bashing, just old-fashioned bullying, hazing or, yes, pranks. One of my room mates put a pile of excrement in my bed in my freshman year; believe me, I would have preferred a forced haircut. Still, it was a joke, though a disgusting one. I didn’t feel ostracized or mistreated. I usually got my revenge for such practical jokes. If I had been later revealed as gay, would that make my bed experience proof of gay-bashing?
“In other words, Governor, your criminality wasn’t because you were a bigot, but rather because you were a pedestrian bully and garden-variety sociopath. I’m glad you explained; I feel so much better now, “ Rick writes.
Guys in school assault each other, batter each other, punch each other, and do horrible things to each other that would get them arrested if they did it to a stranger on the street. That doesn’t make them “criminal,” and it doesn’t make them sociopaths. It’s called “growing up.” If Rick Jones avoided that particular rite of passage, I’m happy for him, because I didn’t much like all that stuff myself. But as with the template for the mega-jerks in “Animal House,” all of my tormenters—and yes, I was occasionally a tormenter myself—are respectable, trustworthy, kind and responsible adults today. Why does Rick assume that Mitt Romney is different? Why doesn’t he see that it is unfair to assume that he is?
Perhaps the most unfair aspect of Rick’s analysis is its temporal chauvinism. Cultural standards have changed since 1963…have you noticed? Women weren’t supposed to go to law school; gays were regarded as perverts; segregation was thought of as civilized; a woman who had sex before she was married was a slut, and hazing on campuses was all the rage. Yes, and bullying the oddball was standard practice in school, especially by the big, handsome, arrogant kids who were the natural leaders and could get away with almost anything, like Mitt Romeny. It wasn’t right, but the culture didn’t send clear signals that it wasn’t right. Assuming Romney did what the Post reports, and there is room for doubt, it says far less about him when he did it than it would say about a 17-year-old who behaved that way today. Rick knows that, but seems to have forgotten it in his fervor to find fault with 21st Century Mitt via time travel.
Rick Jones is as fair a person as I know, so the fact that he would join with the likes of Paul Begala and Andrew Sullivan in this orgy of unfairness plotted by the Washington Post simply tells me that even the best of us can have our ethics alarms go dead in the heat of political campaigns.
I guess I better stop being shocked.
Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at firstname.lastname@example.org.