Fighting Fire With Fire: Immolation or Saving Grace?

I recently read John Heilemann’s and Mark Halperin’s article in New York Magazine about John and Elizabeth Edwards.  The text, and especially the artwork by Nathan Fox, are scathing:

Upon finishing the article, all I could say was “Whew!”.  My son’s response was: “I’m not sure I understand Halperin’s & Heileman’s motivations for writing that article.  It seemed a little over the top.  And the cartoons too.  Painful to read.”  Allow me to offer a few ideas to explain the publication of this article.

When society, government and economic institutions break down, the desperate reaction is often to “fight fire with fire”.  Certainly over the last few years we have seen a moral breakdown in all levels of  American life.  Too many publicly elected officials have engaged in ethically and morally reprehensible acts, such as Mark Sanford, John Edwards, Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer (need I go on any further?).  Moreover, upon getting caught in their predicaments, no one and nothing could make most of them give up their public jobs.  Not shame, not personal responsibility, nor public outcry.  Even if they did resign, after a respectable period of “rehab”, they were back in the public spotlight.

Similarly, we have seen the ongoing destruction of our economic framework by the greed and corruption of our financial institutions.  These businesses no longer care what the public reaction is to their actions; all that matters is the amount of money they can salvage for themselves.  Who would have believed that even after bailing out these behemoths of bounty, the bonuses keep coming?

And don’t even get me started on individual breaches of morality.  Even the most personal levels of adhering to some code of ethics has fallen by the wayside.  How many people are having children just as another effort to enhance their own need for another “thing”?  Lack of committment and marriage, surely a prerequisite for the dedication it takes to raise a child, no longer plays into the picture.  An offspring is just another opportunity for a parent to broaden and widen their portfolio of material objects for the sake of prestige and competition.

My constant criticism and castigation of Sarah Palin is the perfect example of trying to bring some order and truth to my world.  Pray tell, how can Palin quit her role as Governor and in the same breath, describe herself as “not being a quitter”?  How can she aspire to a greater platform to make her views known and not admit to her real motives of financial gain and possible future public office?  How can she have five children, cite the sanctity of parenthood, yet assign the care of those children to whatever older child is around and available to see to that care?  How can she spout off on the details and intricacies of public policy and foreign relations when she cannot even master the spoken word to a degree that is intelligible?  Palin’s sheer dishonesty about her public intentions and private practices make me stoop to equally base motives in keeping her out of public office.  She scares me.

When all regulation and monitoring of a society as a whole takes leave, slinging mud sometimes is the only retaliatory, self-regulating action to which an individual or political entity may resort.  In the Edwards’ case, many of their aides, advisers and friends were thrown to the wayside.  Above all, John wanted what he wanted and Elizabeth wasn’t too far behind.  The power of societal rebuke is vast, yet does not hold a candle to the damage an individual can do to himself.

So yes, my son, sometimes ugliness, shame and narcissism has to be fought with the same unattractive qualities.  It is our current form of anarchy.  However, given the state of our world, what is the alternative?  Civility, responsibility, accountability and real concern for what is right and good is no longer imperative on the scale of life accomplishments.  Thus, one antidote to balancing out the flagrant, in-your-face violations of public and personal behavior seem to be duplicating that behavior.  It is not pretty, comfortable or productive.  Yet, besides providing short- term relief to our frustration and exasperation caused by the self-serving practices of our multi-faceted world, this public humiliation of the supposed offenders really will not effect our long-term accomplishments.  The benefits of fighting brutal behavior seem to result in even more brutality.

So what to do next?  If scoundrels and crooks can fill our highest offices, both public and private, and simply sneer at any legal and social regulations (that might remain) to offset their behavior, what is going to allow the people from having any punitive, corrective effect?  If accepted mores no longer can control bad behavior, what is left except equally bad behavior?  As the old expression says, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”.  Does the pursuit of truth and justice trump revenge and similar anti-social tactics?  This is, I believe, the thinking behind the New York Magazine article on the Edwards’.  Sometimes, just like an ailing heart that has stopped beating but once again comes back to life after an applied electrical surge, it is a last resort type of tactic that our society might return to the proper path after a large dose of “shock value” has been employed.

The truth of this situation is that by acquiescing to the lowest common denominator of personal and institutional behavior, we really have not evolved in any beneficial way.  As my son said about the magazine article, it is “painful” to read.  Alas, our present world  is equally “painful”  and this article is merely a mirror into our distraught and bankrupt souls.  I extend apologies to my son for this current state of our world.  Maybe his generation can pull us out of this vortex of self-adoration and distorted public spin and do better to get us back on the right track.


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