Changing morals, changing America reflected in the polls

March 17, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- By the eighth week of the longest running un-morality play in modern memory, all sorts of bit players had walked onto the stage in reversible roles.

One week we heard the Rev. Billy Graham forgive the president for his alleged infidelity, because "I know the frailty of human nature."

The next week we heard writer David Brock ask the president to forgive him for starting a "witch hunt" because "what the hell was I doing investigating your private life in the first place?"

The absolution and the mea culpa were just part of the plot of this so-called scandal -- an unpredictable drama that's stumped even those who make their living speculating.

But one thing that has remained constant is public opinion. In one poll after another, one week after another, Americans go on stubbornly reiterating their view that (1) the president probably had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky and (2) they approve of the job he's doing. No matter how often they are asked or how tricky the question, they hold tight to these two opinions at the same time.

Stumping the analysts

Explaining this collective shrug of the American shoulders has produced a cottage industry of head-scratching analysts. But if there is one person entitled to say, "I told you so," it's Alan Wolfe, a professor at Boston University and author of the newly released "One Nation, After All."

Some time ago, Mr. Wolfe set out on a "Middle Class Morality Project." The title alone is enough to conjure up Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown. And he went to see the cultures clash.

Mr. Wolfe found out that a culture clash exists -- among intellectuals. But among the vast middle class he discovered something else: a shared culture of nonjudgmentalism.

"Once upon a time, middle-class Americans judged their neighbors harshly if they failed to live up to a common moral code. But, as novelists and pop sociologists loved to point out, they violated that code in their daily conduct," he says. "Now Americans have revised themselves. However strongly they may judge themselves, they are reluctant to pass judgment on others."

This tolerance is especially true for people of different religious beliefs. But it extends to families as well. As Mr. Wolfe found, "most people are too busy trying to make their own marriages work to lecture neighbors on what happens in theirs."

Much of what he found in some 200 interviews fits the Lewinsky conundrum. Americans believe in "morality writ small." As long as this appears to be a "victimless crime" -- without a suffering wife or child -- other concerns, like a general horror at the invasion of privacy, take precedence.

All this does not mean that the country is going to hell in an Oval Office. Middle-class Americans are not amoral. Indeed, as the voices in Mr. Wolfe's book attest, "they think complexly and yearn for a sense of right and wrong. But they think that what is right and wrong for themselves is not necessarily a guide to what is right and wrong for others."

Right now, we "prefer to sit in the seat of nonjudgment." Indeed, we seem to be most judgmental about those who are judgmental. This is driven by a strong desire to avoid conflict. Something that sets us at odds, to put it mildly, with a conflict-obsessed media.

The good news in the shared middle-class morality is that it helps a diverse country co-exist. The bad news -- or, let's not be judgmental here, the other news -- is that it may lead to a "moral mediocrity," or what Mr. Wolfe describes as morality by anecdote. We are sensitive to the complexity of individual stories, but aren't guided by abiding principles.

Tolerance or indifference?

Reading the words of Mr. Wolfe's middle classmates, I wonder if the culture clash is actually over, or has become internalized in our own ambivalence. Tolerance may be just another word for uncertainty. Or indifference. Especially toward government.

"One Nation, After All" reiterates our low esteem and expectations of morality made by, in or for government. Is it possible that those of us who once looked up to presidents now look at them as just one of us? Kenneth W. Starr may be big government, but Bill's just another guy, in just another job, just another family. The wonder may be that we are actually less judgmental about our leaders than we would be about ourselves.

After all, while Americans continue to confound the culture warriors by assuming Mr. Clinton's adultery and admiring his presidency, it's not a duality that would survive in their own marriages. What is the most telling moral motto of this drama? "Don't Try This at Home."

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/17/98

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