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Bathing in Moral Superiority

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For most of us, the pursuit of moral excellence usually reveals how far we are from attaining it. When Republicans talk about the centrality of moral benchmarks in society, liberals often hear an expression of GOP self-righteousness. In the Grand Old Party, we see those standards as necessary but humbling measures of our imperfections, revealing how far and how often we fall short.

The principled perfection of the left, however, requires little such humility, at least from Katrina vanden Heuvel. In her recent Washington Post column, "Republicans are Causing a Moral Crisis in America," she bathes nakedly in a tub of moral superiority, unadorned by the slightest scrap of embarrassment.

Her essay details the GOP's moral inadequacy: We resist redistributing what the rich have improperly accumulated. Worse, we are not transferring it to the needy with sufficient enthusiasm. Never mind that America's progressive tax system already requires the top 10% of earners to pay 71% of federal income taxes and the bottom 50% to pay 2%, vanden Heuvel still says immoral Republicans deprive the most vulnerable in our society of food and health care because, "...we've got more important things to spend money on. Like a new yacht for that guy who only has one yacht."

In Katrina's World, our moral responsibility to care for those in need is reduced to simple bigheartedness: If people need food, clothing, health care or shelter, we are always obliged to give it to them. Otherwise, we reveal our moral bankruptcy. Though vanden Heuvel has not spent herself into poverty for the benefit of those less fortunate, as has our federal government, she is offended that Republicans are unwilling to surrender more of the well-to-do's possessions. "There is a moral crisis in this country," she tells the GOP. "It's you." I nearly dropped my caviar.

Vanden Heuvel's lack of respect for rival argument is one reason for the decline of critical debate in her magazine, The Nation. Her contempt for opposing views also explains why there is so little hope of bipartisan agreement Washington. This is how liberals argue: Republicans are shamelessly anti-poor and pro-yacht.

The strength of her case, however, is its immaturity. Like many liberals, she reduces moral responsibility to munificence. Charity is her sole measure of compassion. If we really care, we must always give more to others. Apparently, none but our morally sophisticated elite, e.g., vanden Heuvel, can understand this. Republicans like Paul Ryan, for example, cannot grasp this complexity, reducing them to sub-ethical predators. They are pre-human celebrants of a primitive ideology based on "liberty" and "freedom," which vanden Heuvel mocks.

Parents, of course, in our long journey to bring children from infancy to adulthood, cultivate a more developed morality. Though it may surprise vanden Heuvel, even Republicans find we have a moral obligation to provide for and protect our children. Some of us even learn a few things along the path.

When children are young and unable to care for themselves, we believe it is our responsibility to do everything for them. But enabling endless dependence is not a parent's purpose. Moral parenting requires more than open-handedness. If we really care for our children, our most sacred mission is to raise them to grow strong and independent, so they can stand on their own when we are gone.

At some point, genuinely compassionate and protective parents learn we must take a step back so our children can take a step forward. We let go of their hands and watch them cross the street alone. It is the most frightening day of our lives.

Real love is not perpetuating another's dependence. It is freeing them from it. Genuine moral compassion eventually risks detachment. Every parent knows how easy and indulgent it is to say, "yes". Our toughest but most worthy calls are when we are required to say otherwise. Our country's experiment with welfare brought these principles to national life.

In the '90's, welfare reform elevated recipients, treating them as adults, instead of hopelessly dependent children. At the time, vanden Heuvel's fellow liberals ripped the reform's "immorality" and luxuriated in their ethical superiority. Now, the argument is settled: Our tough national parenting ended the perpetual entitlement, required recipients to find work, and reduced poverty and hunger. The left's moral posturing would have produced more, not less, dependence. As Bill Clinton wrote in 2006, "The last 10 years have shown that we did in fact end welfare as we knew it, creating a new beginning for millions of Americans." Clinton concluded, "Welfare reform has proved a great success."

Morality, we learn through life, requires more than giving. At times, it requires not giving. This too, is a test of our virtue: At what point do we care enough to say, "No"?

As Charles Murray notes in Coming Apart, his unblinking study of the erosion of family and community life in America, "People need self-respect, but self-respect must be earned -- it cannot be self-respect if it's not earned -- and the only way to earn anything is to achieve it in the face of the possibility of failing."

Not long ago in France, the birthplace of cradle-to-grave entitlement, President Sarkozy dared raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 years of age, still the lowest among industrialized nations. French unions, of course, went on a rampage. The morally superior left took to the streets, obliviously marching to the day when life is not regulated by consequences and everyone is entitled to prosperity, though there is no one left to construct it.

The Nation, which vanden Heuvel edits and publishes, remains America's oldest weekly newsmagazine. Its founders' charge was "...to wage war upon the vices of violence, exaggeration and misrepresentation by which so much of the political writing of the day is marred." That so much of the exaggeration and misrepresentation in today's political writing comes from The Nation's own editorial desk is every American's loss.

Or perhaps vanden Heuvel is right: It may be hard for Republicans to see those little people on the dock from the lounge of the SS Greed, where all of us languorously cruise, unmoved by anyone else's sorrow. We will never have that debate, however, because vanden Heuvel's arrogant dismissals of all points of view but her own remove her from a serious place in our discourse.

Her bath grows cold, like her politics. That, too, is a shame and a loss.