Judge not, Rush, lest ye be judged

November 27, 2003|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The recent saga of Rush Limbaugh and his drug addiction raises important questions.

The crucial thing is not that Mr. Limbaugh was a drug addict who fed his habit on the black market. That private vice is small change compared to his larger, public sin.

The real issue about Mr. Limbaugh is brought into focus by asking: What does it say about a man if he can talk with contempt, without a shred of compassion, about the shortcomings of others while knowing that he is no better than they?

And that raises the still larger question: What does it say about a society if it repeatedly grants high moral authority to people who practice such hypocrisy?

"Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye ..."

First, about the man. Even in a moralist who is himself above reproach, the lack of compassion for sinners would be troubling enough. Especially since most of Mr. Limbaugh's contempt has been directed at groups that have, historically, been the least privileged in our society, one would hope for moral condemnation to be leavened with human sympathy. One would hope, that is, for the impulse to denounce from on high to be mitigated by the humility embodied in the old line, "There but for the grace of God go I."

We in America talk a lot about things like sex and drugs and rock `n' roll when we address issues of sin and morality. But, the red letters in my New Testament talk a lot more about the dangers of mounting the kind of high horse Mr. Limbaugh rode into fame and fortune. Even as a non-Christian, I would say that Jesus' insight into that danger has lost none of its relevance.

Which raises the question about the society that gives such a dishonest voice so large a megaphone, making him the Godzilla of talk radio to spew out -- into the American airwaves to tens of millions of his countrymen -- the "hate the sinner" kind of moralism.

If Mr. Limbaugh were the only instance, the question would not arise. But consider the other most prominent voices of American moralism in the past decade. Surely, even a very short list would also include the voices of William J. Bennett and Newt Gingrich.

Mr. Bennett is a less blatant instance. The man who became Mr. Virtue for the 1990s -- with his bestselling Book of Virtues -- and whom we've since discovered to have gambled away millions of dollars in what may have been a gambling addiction, did climb onto a high horse. But he never treated with scorn those who lacked the virtues he represented himself as having.

The same can hardly be said of Mr. Gingrich, the most prominent Republican moralist during the 1990s. His disappearance in disgrace from his position as speaker of the House cut short our marveling at how a man could so viciously denounce the sexual misbehavior of Bill Clinton while at the same time, as we eventually learned, he was conducting a similar and much more serious sexual adventure of his own.

"Let him who is without sin ..."

So there's a pattern there, and we're compelled to ask what does it mean.

I think I see some possible connections that might point toward an answer.

It connects to our having the most punitive of penal systems among Western democracies. For we humans are never so eager to punish as when we make others scapegoats for our own unacknowledged sins.

It connects to our failure to notice how bizarre it was for our president to denounce Osama bin Laden as a coward for sending young men off to die while remaining himself protected from danger. Neither the president, nor the media covering him, seemed to think it strange for this accusation to be leveled by the best-protected person on the planet who had just sent young men off to war. For there's something in our culture that can make it difficult to see ourselves in the same moral perspective we apply to others.

And it connects with our current leaders' righteous anger at those nations who do not assume that the unilateral actions of the world's one superpower advance the cause of justice in the world. For the unquestioning assumption of our own righteousness can reflect blindness to the perspectives of others, as well as to what lies within ourselves.

We need to be able to talk with each other about the moral challenges we face and about how far short we fall in meeting them. But our conversation about the problem of sin in our society needs to be about "us" and not about "them."

Andrew Bard Schmookler teaches American Studies at Albuquerque Academy.

Columnist Ellen Goodman will return Dec. 8

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