Too darn much virtue

March 14, 1994|By Joanne Jacobs

I AM NOW an expert on virtue.

I'm against it.

I know I'm an expert because I was invited to speak on virtue by Santa Clara (Calif.) University's Center for Applied Ethics. The invitation came by virtue of my having written about William Bennett's "Book of Virtues" in a column.

OK, I'm not really against virtue, personal or civic.

Virtue is good, by definition. I'm against the use of virtue in politics, in particular its use as a substitute for politics.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the purest of them all?

Before her reputation was shredded, Hillary Rodham Clinton was the protector of the sick and the poor. Critics of Saint Hillary's health plan necessarily had to be against the sick and the poor. There was no need to debate the workability or cost of Hillary's health plan, anymore than you'd debate whether good is preferable to evil, compassion to hard-heartedness or chocolate to vanilla. Even discussing alternative health care ideas was morally suspect.

Now Bill Clinton's defense of his wife's conflict of interest in her legal career is to claim that her virtue is above reproach, case closed. She has a stronger "sense of right and wrong" and "moral compass" than anyone in the U.S.A., the president says. She is not a crook.

I bet she has a plain cloth coat, too.

An excessive sense of personal virtue is the besetting sin of the Clintonites, products of the '60s anti-war movement. They want power and purity simultaneously. (Unwillingness to compromise one's desires is the quintessential characteristic of the baby boomer generation, in which I claim membership.)

In "Reinventing Citizenship," in the Kettering Review, Harry C. Boyte argues that the "personalized, moralistic politics" of the '60s have turned Americans from Tocquevillian citizens, organizing themselves for civic betterment, into wimps and whiners.

Virtue politicians cast themselves as "benevolent outsiders who seek to rescue the unfortunate from depraved environments," writes Mr. Boyte, a senior fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs.

They are social workers and therapists with a strong sense of right and wrong, and no sense of complexities, ambiguities or competing interests.

"In place of government of the people by the people and for the people -- a politics in which we have a role and personal stake -- we see government as 'for' the people, providing us services and giving us answers," Mr. Boyte writes. "From a nation of citizens, we have become a nation of clients."

Political activism either means lobbying government for favors or swooping down on the powerless to "advocate" for what the swooper presumes to be their best interests.

Community service, one of the Clintons' dream programs, does not build politically active citizens, Mr. Boyte argues. It trains middle-class kids to be expert helpers of the powerless. It fosters virtue, which it confuses with citizenship.

"One result of this utopian, intimate and sentimental quality of citizen activism is that people see themselves as aggrieved, righteous and misunderstood outsiders. . . People ask to be heard in politics and to receive things from government. They rarely imagine themselves as creators or producers of politics."

Ross Perot, the self-proclaimed public citizen, claims to be disinterested, a man of virtue above politics. But the point of American democracy is not to find the virtuous man and let him run the show.

The founders didn't expect Americans to be philosopher-citizens, nor did they expect us all to love each other. They thought we could get along if the political process allowed for a balancing of different factions' interests.

Alexis de Tocqueville saw Americans organizing civic, social, religious and labor groups to advance their ideas and interests. "The Americans believe their freedom to be the best instrument and surest safeguard of their welfare: They are attached to the one by the other," he wrote in "Democracy in America."

Now, in our superior virtue, Americans pretend to have no interests. We speak of "special interests," as though we were pure of heart, but "they" are not.

The purest of the pure are the victims, but this is an increasingly expansive category, so various categories of victims must compete for the status of most wronged, and therefore most endowed with rights. The way to power is to claim powerlessness. Of course, this doesn't work very well, because it's based on rhetoric rather than the realities of political life.

Mr. Boyte argues that Americans need to reclaim politics from the professional helpers, and give up the roles of innocents, outsiders and supplicants. "Americans need to relearn the skills of everyday problem solving -- how to deal with others with whom we may not desire at all to share life in community, but with whom we recognize the need for common work."

I think we'd like each other a lot more if we stopped pretending to like each other so much. I think we'd develop more civic virtue if we stopped pretending to be so virtuous.

Joanne Jacobs is a columnist for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News.

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