Normally I would consider the surreptitious taping and then publicizing of a quasi-private meeting unethical, writes a lawyer colleague, “but these are not normal times.”
I thanked him profusely for alerting me that I had inexplicably allowed a hoary, classic rationalization for unethical conduct with a distinguished pedigree to escape the Ethics Alarms list, though this was not, I gather, his original intent. I just remedied the embarrassing omission, dubbing this “The Revolutionary’s Excuse.” Here is the entry:
27. The Revolutionary’s Excuse:
“These are not ordinary times.”
An argument for those who embrace “the ends justify the means”—but only temporarily, mind you!—the Revolutionary’s excuse has as long and frightening a pedigree as any of the rationalizations here. Of course, there is no such thing as “ordinary times.” This rationalization suggests that standards of right and wrong can and should be suspended under “special” circumstances, always defined, naturally, by those who defy laws, rules, and societal values. Their circular logic results in their adversaries feeling justified in being equally unethical, since times in which the other side engages in dishonesty, cheating, cruelty, and more is, by definition, extraordinary.
The inevitable result is a downward spiral of conduct, until unethical behavior is the norm. Ironically, the rationalization that “these are not ordinary times” no longer is necessary at that point. Unethical conduct has become ordinary, the new normal. This is, it is fair to say, the current state of American politics.
My colleague also helpfully flagged a perfect example. For the past week, the media has been flogging with horror an excerpt from a speech Mitt Romney gave to a group of wealthy donors in which the GOP candidate opined that “47%” of the electorate that was dependent on government largesse would not give up a self-serving vote for President Obama regardless of what Romney said, so he wasn’t going to worry about them. Without due concern for the fact that the speech was unethically obtained and that, much like Obama’s “more flexibility” comment to Russian officials earlier in the year, was better explained as salesmanship designed for a narrow audience rather than a window into the soul, this ambiguous comment was treated as the most important news of the week, much as Romney’s previous week’s “gaffe” of correctly labeling the U.S. Cairo embassy’s mea culpa to violent Muslims—which remained on its website after the U.S. Ambassador to Libya had been murdered—was that week’s big news.
Not the fact that the Obama Administration’s Middle East charm offensive, a major foundation of Obama’s argument for becoming President in the first place, had been exposed as the naive, facile failure it is. Not the dragging of a dead U.S. Ambassador through the streets after the State Department ignored warnings and allowed its Libyan embassy to face 9/11, when any fool could have predicted that a terrorist attack was highly likely, with inadequate security. Not the flagrantly dishonest public disinformation practiced by the White House, Obama spokesperson Jay Carney, and U.N. ambassador Susan Rice insisting that the Benghazi attack was just a spontaneous reaction to the a YouTube clip, even though Libya and the evidence indicated otherwise. Not the midnight interrogation of the alleged producer of the provocative video for suspected parole violations, nicely timed to suggest to foreign critics that the First amendment was not so sacrosanct that the U.S. government wouldn’t find a way to punish a defiler of the Prophet. Not Obama’s refusal to meet with desperate Israeli Prime Minister Netanyehu, choosing to hobnob with David Letterman instead. No, Romney’s out-of-context remarks were the real outrages, the real news.
For the media, like the Obama campaign, like my colleague, and yes, in other recent instances, like the Republicans, the conservative media and the Romney campaign, really believe that these “are not normal times,” and bias, lies, and worse are justified and necessary.