The reaction to the drug problem - and drug felonies - recently
alleged against Rush Limbaugh highlight sharply the differences
between conservative morality and liberal/progressive morality.
Conservatives often mistakenly proclaim themselves the sole
holders of morality.
Their error comes when they define this word first and foremost
in terms of personal behavior: What goes on in people's bedrooms,
what drugs others may be taking in their own living rooms, whether a
woman should be allowed to prevent or terminate a pregnancy. In
their fervor for these issues, many conservatives think they are the
only ones concerned about morality in an otherwise decadent society.
Liberals, however, are equally passionate about morality.
While personal morality is key in the conservative world-view,
public morality is the overarching concern of liberals. Some are so
passionate about this morality that they're led to acts of civil
Perhaps best summarized in Jesus' description in Matthew 25 of
who will (and who won't) get into heaven, liberal morality asks:
"Are the hungry fed? Does everybody have the housing, clothing,
and health-care they need? Are those in prison treated humanely? Are
we caring for the "strangers" - the less fortunate or less
competent among us - in the same way we'd want to be cared for if we
fell on hard times?"
Many liberals would say that what people do in the private lives
is their own business, and that if we hold to the ancient standard
that only those among us without sin may cast stones at those with
personal failings, we'll have a more humane and decent society.
Just as liberals hold public morality as a high positive virtue,
public immorality equally disgusts them: Movie stars using their
power and position to force themselves sexually in a non-consensual
way on others. Politicians using their positions to award their
buddies taxpayer money in grants, contracts, and tax breaks.
Bureaucrats, expecting a job with industry when they leave
regulatory agencies, allowing those industries to make our air,
water, or food more toxic.
Most liberals don't care how stoned Rush wants to get in the
privacy of his own home (private morality), so long as he doesn't
try to drive while high (public morality). Similarly, they don't
have a problem with Bill Clinton's consensual extramarital sex
(private morality), but are horrified that he'd sign GATT and NAFTA
without human rights, environmental, or labor standards (public
morality). Bill Bennett is welcome to gamble as much as he wants
(private morality), but when he supports right wing causes that harm
the environment or oppress women in America or people in the Third
World (public morality) he has become toxic.
There's an interesting consistency to these differing definitions
of morality. Conservatives like Falwell probably are free of
personal sins like philandering or pot smoking, and so feel
righteous in condemning others who do. And because Falwell's
definition of morality is limited to private behavior, he's
comfortable hobnobbing with millionaires who made their money
harming the lives of others or making the world more toxic. (Just so
long as they don't sleep with somebody of the same sex!)
On the other hand, because liberals like Martin Sheen define
morality by how well we all are taking care of us, and he's most
likely never worked to increase the amount of toxic waste in the
air, he's willing to both overlook the personal foibles of others
and to put his life and freedom on the line for the public morality
he so passionately cares about.
Which brings us back to Rush. Some believe that these
private/public morality differences that form the demarcation line
between conservatives and liberals are instinctual, an early
imprint, or genetic, the same as a person being an introvert or
extravert. Others believe they're the result of experience, and
people can learn from their experience and grow up enough to become
a liberal. Psychologists tell us that nobody knows for sure what
causes a person to become a liberal or a conservative (although
there are some interesting, and frightening, studies about the
latter - but let's leave that for a future discussion.)
It's going to be interesting to watch. Will Rush's apparent drug
problem cause conservatives to grow in wisdom, reconsider the
destructive nature of their so-called "war on drugs," and
begin to treat drug addiction as a medical - instead of a legal -
problem like so many other liberal nations have done? Might they
even discover the importance of rebuilding the pillars of public
morality on which this nation was founded - life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness?
Some say it's impossible. As a good liberal, however, I'm willing
to cut Rush some slack and hope for his and his followers'
enlightenment. Let's hope and pray that if he gets out of this okay,
he'll work to help release the millions of others today in prison
for personal poor choices about drugs.
Thom Hartmann (thom at thomhartmann.com) is the award-winning,
best-selling author of over a dozen books, and the host of a
syndicated daily talk show that runs opposite Rush Limbaugh in
cities from coast to coast. www.thomhartmann.com
This article is copyright by Thom Hartmann, but permission is
granted for reprint in print, email, blog, or web media so long as
this credit is attached and the title is unchanged.
originally published in commondreams.org