Written by Laura Harrison McBride
I used to write a “lowly paid” column about ethics for a nominally unaligned online newspaper that turned out to be right of Genghis Khan’s center. In short order, the “opportunity” had turned into a nightmare in which I had to field excessive and abusive commentary from that organization’ core constituency, right-wing zealots who make Ann Coulter look sane and balanced, and some of the more gormless right-wing writers on the site itself.
No matter. Perhaps those articles have enlightened someone, which was my intention to begin with, not―lord knows―getting rich on the internet via pay-per-click.
In those columns, I dealt with ethical concepts, one of which was touched upon by Matt Taibbi in his recent Rolling Stone article about his first glimpse of a presidential wannabe, Rick Perry: The Best Little Whore in Texas. Wrote Taibbi:
…voters who want to know who Rick Perry really is would do well to remember the advice of noted political analyst Hannibal Lecter, who instructed Jodie Foster about the serial killer she was tracking in The Silence of the Lambs. What does he do, Lecter asked, this man you seek? He kills women? No, that is incidental. Don’t look at what the man does, look at what he is.
That should be the AHA! moment in American politics.
Taibbi looked hard at what Perry is, although I think we all know what he is from his escapades in governmentally sanctioned murder, that is, capital punishment with no more thought given to it than swatting a mosquito. Does one really need to know any more to decide that this man would not be a good leader for an ethical population, positing that there is still something of an ethical population left?
Think about it: We might all have known sooner what George W. Bush might do to the nation had we simply applied the Hannibal Lecter Principle early and often.
By their idiocy shalt thou know them
Dubya was famous for little except being the son of a one-term president, talking his friends into buying him a baseball team by trading on the accident of his birth, and for putting record numbers of inmates to death, as well as mocking one of them in public. This was a kid the righteous would have shunned in the school yard. This was a kid your parents would have told you to keep well away from. This was a kid the local cop on the beat, had Geroge been born into a working-class family, would have been keeping an eye peeled for and cracked over the head with his nightstick with some regularity. This wasn’t, however, the boy your parents warned you about; your parents wouldn’t have bothered, thinking he was so no-account that no self-respecting teenage girl would touch him with the proverbial ten-foot-pole despite his loot.
How did intelligent grownups miss this? Why did Americans not apply this rather simple ethical litmus test, the Hannibal Lecter Principle, to little George? A good question. But perhaps the answer is to be found in two things: human decency and America’s checkered past.
Human decency? How so? The same parents who might tell their kids to keep well away from troublemakers also often impart the necessity of giving the benefit of the doubt. That’s one possibility.
Another is that George was at pains to present himself as an ordinary guy. None of us ordinary guys wants to think we are as decidedly unempathetic, as vicious, as gormless as George certainly appeared to be. So we studiously ignored all that. Still, the smirk should have been a clue. Various online dictionaries define the expression as, “An affected, often offensively self-satisfied smile,” or, “a smile expressing scorn, smugness, etc., rather than pleasure.” That’s George. And we didn’t get it. Republicans still don’t get it, except those who DO get it. Those who do? Mainly, they’re named Koch. Or Rove. Or Cheney. Or they are the great untutored, a/k/a the Teabaggers, so blind they will not see, so fearful they dare not look in a mirror.
Goat or sheep?
But that’s water under the bridge. More to the point: How can we quickly get to the heart of who the current Republican front-runners might be? Simple. Assess them for who they are, not who they say they are.
Perry is easy. He’s got a squinty smile that reminds me of nothing more than a guy on the Strip in Vegas trying to cajole people into a casino where he promises a lot for virtually nothing. In short, a sleazoid. Scummy. Probably washes his jockey shorts once or twice a year whether they need it or not…just so he has a loud silk tie to set himself off with.
Romney. Who knows? Who cares? He comes out of the Mormon tradition of straight-laced, unforgiving followers of the greatest manmade religion (well, they ALL are, but you know what I mean…it doesn’t say Latter Day Saints for nothing) until EST. Trust him? Not bloody likely. First, he’s too rich to be normal. Second, he flip-flops almost daily. Third, did you know neither women nor blacks can be full members of his native church? Enough said.
Bachmann. Derivative, without the Alaskan creds. Dismissed.
Who’s left? Well, that is, who remains on the right as a viable candidate? Santorum?
The most interesting thing about Santorum is his name. Except of course that business of Mr. and Mrs. Santorum bringing home their premature stillborn child to introduce the poor dead wee thing to the living children, and then sleeping with the stillborn overnight. Creepy. At best.
There’s the Intelligent Design thing he’s fond of, speaking of oxymorons.
And there’s the dodgy bit about in-state or out-of-state tuition for his kids at college, and maybe his claiming a false residence…all of which perfectly fits him to ring in on immigration, since he has been involved in living in one place and reaping benefits from another. The only difference between him and the Mexicans seeking a better life, the ones he wants to fence out or shoot? Money, and crossing state, rather than national, boundaries. In short, no difference to speak of. A hypocrite.
Leave our history in the dust, please
Leaving the fascinating subject of assessing political candidates’ aberrant psychology via the Lechter method, there’s still America’s checkered past to bring to the discussion, however, as a way to explain how Americans can be so foolish about whom they elect.
America was settled by the following groups:
Puritans, whose fundamentalism knew no bounds (you may recall that they determined whether a woman was a witch by dunking her, head and all, into a pond. If she drowned, she wasn’t a witch);
Criminals, sent by His Majesty to the colonies where they could serve out their terms in misery and then be let loose to populate a captive land mass, and:
Adventurers, out for gold regardless of how they got it, mainly by raping virgin forest, killing native inhabitants, wiping out herds of valuable beasts and finally being granted large tracts of that wilderness by a monarch or two grateful for the riches they sent home in tribute.
Can spirit trump genetics and history?
And therein lies our national inability to see the unethical forest for the immoral trees; we are not too many generations removed from those who pillaged the nation to create it. At some level, perhaps, we realize we are one with them, one with either the criminals sent to the Georgia penal colony, or the patroons that gobbled up the Hudson Valley, later morphing into Robber Barons of a different sort. Or Puritans who begrudged every human any joy and regarded all compassion as weakness, and had a few squirrelly concepts about cause and effect as well. Seem to fit?
There were a few decent folk―the founding fathers, for the most part―among them. But too few to make a dent in the gene pool of the populations enumerated above and change the character of most of their descendants. Many of us understand that, while we carry those unfortunate genes, the world―physically, spiritually―has advanced and it is no longer necessary to act in accordance with our unfortunate history, but rather in accord with the ways in which a decent, compassionate, brave and free people would want to behave.
Until we do this―until we elevate whatever innate decency somehow survived our brutalized and brutalizing history―we will remain ill-equipped to practice the Hannibal Lecter Principle and recognize perfidy and worse when we see it. Unless we surmount our history of vicious individualism and trade up to benign individuality, we will be doomed to deal with the George Bushes the gene pool pops out so disgustingly often.
Laura Harrison McBride
About the authorFormer columnist for US newspapers; former editor of US insurance and agriculture industry magazines; former ethical issues columnist for examiner.com. Author of 14 books for mainstream US publishers on a variety of subjects from Ireland to Y2K. Blogging at http://therealcafedeflore.blogspot.com