The following heated exchange occurred yesterday between Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) and historian Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University during a Congressional hearing.
Your Pre-Thanksgiving Ethics Quiz:
Who was more uncivil and disrespectful, the professor or the Congressman?
A. Rep. Young
B. Prof. Brinkley
D. Neither was out of line.
I think it’s a surprisingly close contest. Brinkley is obviously a pompous jerk, as he was outraged at being called by the wrong name and couldn’t wait until the Congressman had finished speaking before he interrupted him with a definite “you’re an idiot” snark to his correction. Young’s barked retort, ordering Brinkley to be silent as if Young were some kind of Medieval Duke talking to an impudent peasant was an obnoxious over-reaction, and Brinkley’s response to that was appropriate indeed: the Congressman needs to remember who he works for.
With reservations, I’ll choose A. I expect history professors to be full of themselves; that’s part of their charm. Brinkley was out of line and rude to interrupt Young, but Young’s disrespectful attitude toward a member of the public is more offensive than Brinkley’s disrespect for a member of Congress.
They both acted like jerks.
CREW—Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington—is one of the most active and fairest of political watchdog groups. It has a definite liberal bias, for approximately twice as many Republicans as Democrats manage to attract CREW critiques, but that’s all right: plenty of elected officials from both parties have had their shady dealings exposed by the group, which is notable for its lack of sympathy for Washington’s traditional myths and excuses to allow guilt-free corruption.
An ethics watchdog, however, can never engage in the same conduct it criticizes in others. The reason for this is as much practical as ethical. A group that made a strong case that certain behavior shouldn’t be tolerated by the public in its elected champions doesn’t diminish the validity of its arguments by violating its own principles, but it does symbolically consent to accepting the same standard of review for its own actions that it demanded for its targets. This is what Will Shakespeare called being hoisted by your own petard—blowing yourself up with a bomb of your own construction.
As Shakespeare also noted, the previous quarry of the one who is thus hoisted just love to see this happen. It doesn’t really make what they did any less wrong or the ethics watchdog any less right to have condemned it, but when the critic gets caught doing something similar, it can make the conduct seem less wrong. This also will often guarantee that future criticism by the watchdog will be greeted with more suspicion than respect.
Salon has a posted a well-researched account of how CREW hoisted itself recently, and the prospects for the organization maintaining its previous level of respect and credibility are not good. Continue reading
John Avlon, a senior political correspondent at The Daily Beast and author of the book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America, has posted his list of “Ten Congressmen Who Should Be Fired.” Though Avlon’s definition of “wingnut” is too often “conservative,” and picking the ten most embarrassing members of Congress is like choosing the ten most offensive reality TV stars, it’s a reasonably good list, if far too short and only the beginning. The members on it seem to split into four main categories: outrageously uncivil, clearly incompetent, corrupt, and too outspokenly conservative for Avlon, who regards all Tea Party sympathizers, for example, as dangerous “wingnuts.”
Here’s the list, with highlights of Avlon’s reasons: Continue reading