Perhaps it was the sexual nature of Eliot Spitzer's offenses that made the shame stick. That and the fact that the former NY governor admitted he did wrong. Bush by contrast is today's Teflon man. He has been able to unstick himself from accusations of murder, lies, torture, corruption connected to his presidency not only because he didn't himself do it, but also because these crimes, by their very nature, are more complex and hard to believe. We can understand a cheating husband for example, we cannot so easily understand waterboarding. What's more, we have not escaped our love for a kind of brutality which we've convinced ourselves protects us: there has been no correction for a certain kind of rough treatment (i.e. waterboarding) tolerated by the public implicitly in the name of self-protection.
But is that it? Have you ever wondered why some folks never seem to be held accountable for their actions? That's because when someone behaves badly, resolving what to do with them can be a tricky problem. What do we do with bad people? Is it even reasonable to label someone 'good' or 'bad'? Are we each degrees of both? Does punishing a wrongdoer lower the punisher and elevate the offender? In secular terms, when/how does society get satisfaction?
For the sake of argument, let's say an offender could make amends by showing an understanding of what s/he has done and communicating that s/he would try not to do it again.
Bush has been unsatisfactory on both these points. There has been no ground given on the losses his policies have caused Americans and Iraqis or the chaos the poorly conducted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has caused in the world. He has escaped a reasonable accounting for the economic implosion of the markets on his watch and the devastating costs his policies will have on the American taxpayer.
This past weekend in Iraq when a journalist threw both his shoes at Bush, we might have felt some satisfaction. Finally, someone communicated what few have been able to get across to Mr. Bush: you hurt this country and you let us down.
He ducked once and then holding his hand up in the air to block the second shoe, in that moment, we might have seen our answer. I had no idea! But I guess I could see that shoe coming!Later, he didn't offer much on the incident:
"it's a size ten shoe that he threw at me."
Consider a different case, former NY governor, Eliot Spitzer, brought down this year by his charm-free personality and penchant for prostitutes.
And what about his home life? Maybe this morning, his wife Silda watched her husband across from her at breakfast. He used to rush off to work, briefcase and paper in hand, barely drinking his OJ and coffee. Now she sees him lounging around the house, working out paragraphs in the bathroom, running over ideas at the kitchen table, wearing the same shirt and drawers day after day (these are my thinking clothes!). He's posting for an online magazine now; she reportedly edits his columns.
We could use a Spitzer now, with the financial industry in such turmoil. We are instead left in New York State with Senator Schumer, who's received great support from Wall Street:
"AP - A member of the Senate Banking Committee, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., was the top congressional recipient; his campaign received $32,000 (from Bernard Madoff) during that period (2001-present). Schumer has turned over all campaign donations from Madoff to charity. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is the top Madoff recipient overall, receiving $25,000 from Madoff each year since Schumer became its chairman in 2005."
Could Schumer use some help? I think so, especially since Wall Street money is everywhere; Obama has gotten his fair share too.
I like the writer Kafka on a topic like this one. He always seems to exact a punishment inappropriate for the crime, and in doing so, shows what a tough spot we're in. (And, he has a crooked sense of humor.) Here's a line from a story about an ape who's convinced the world he is a man:
"Recently, I read an article by one of the ten thousand windbags who vent their views about me in the newspapers: they say that my ape nature has not yet been entirely repressed; the proof is supposed to be that whenever I have company, I am inclined to lower my pants to show the bullet's path of entry. Every tiny finger of that guy's writing hand ought to blown off, one by one. I, I have the right to lower my pants in front of anyone I like..."
As a student, I had a harder time reading Kafka after I learned his biography. His family is decimated by the Nazis; he suffers from tuberculosis and (by some accounts) dies from starvation. It was upsetting to me to read his work and see how prescient it was: he was attuned to the track he was on, to what could happen to anyone unjustly, and to what his community was capable of. Here Kafka writes about a fictional penal colony:
"Now justice is being done. In the silence you heard only the condemned man's moans, muted by the felt plug. Today the machine no longer manages to squeeze a moan out of the condemned man louder than the felt can stifle, but in those days the writing needles dripped an acid fluid that we are no longer allowed to use. Well, and then the sixth hour would come around! It was impossible to grant everyone's request to watch from up close..."
And without pushing this too far, it is possible to see how not so far we've come. Here, Dick Cheney's most recent comments on the merits of Gitmo prison:
"Guantanamo has been very well run. I think, if you look at it from the perspective of the requirements we had."
Cheney probably has a Teflon coat too.
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