Sunday, June 22, 2008

A virtue worth defending

Previously, I mentioned James Carville's notorious "Judas" remark. ("Mr. Richardson's endorsement came right around the anniversary of the day when Judas sold out for 30 pieces of silver, so I think the timing is appropriate, if ironic.") A commenter named Jimmy got on my case for dismissing the remark, and I would like to clarify my views. I first thought Carville's remark deserved only ridicule, but now I believe it's a good starting point for a larger discussion.

I've never heard anyone defend Carville's remark before. Other members of the Clinton team backed away from it, probably figuring that for a campaign that has presented its candidate as the experienced Washington insider and policy wonk, fire-and-brimstone imagery might give the wrong impression. Obama supporters were predictably unimpressed, and as for Republicans...well, they could just sit back and enjoy the spectacle from afar, content at the comparatively dignified fight happening on the Republican side, like Huckabee seeming to insinuate that Romney was a shade away from Devil worshipper.

Carville, however, wrote an entire op-ed defending his remark, and the column must set some kind of record for its utter absence of anything remotely resembling a logical argument. He went on and on about the importance of loyalty, but he didn't bother to define the concept, nor did he explain why calling the wife of your former boss the second-best candidate in the race is a prime example of disloyalty, much less why it merits comparison to a Biblical villain. His column could be summed up in two short sentences: "It's an old-politics thing. You wouldn't understand."

As it stands, Carville's definition of "loyalty" is as vague and slippery as Bush's definition of "the enemy." Just because you worked for a president doesn't chain you to him for life. And what's even more ridiculous is the idea you're also chained to his wife. That's what was so unsettling about Carville's logic: it reinforced many people's uneasy feeling that Bill Clinton was seeking a third term.

Judas's real crime wasn't disloyalty; it was aiding and abetting murder. I struggle to understand how that applies to the current election. "Murdering" a candidacy--which Richardson's endorsement was far too late to do--isn't a crime but a civic duty, one we practice every time we go to the polls. Of course, the term "murder" is absurd in this context. Hillary didn't have a "right" to the nomination the way people have a right to life. No candidate does. Being nominated isn't a right but a privilege. What is a right, and an absolute one at that, is the right of all citizens in a democracy to choose any candidate they please. The notion that anyone "owes" anyone a vote or an endorsement is fundamentally undemocratic.

I can predict one possible response. "Get real. Richardson wasn't honestly expressing his preferences. He was kissing up to the Obama team, perhaps anticipating a vp slot or some cabinet position." I would disagree, but I'm not interested in debating the point, which would be impossible to prove one way or the other. What's clear is that Carville implied that Richardson's preferences were irrelevant. Hillary could be the most dreadful candidate imaginable and Richardson would still be obligated to endorse her (or to endorse no one), according to Carville's way of looking at things.

Of course, if we accept that logic, how can we be sure even Carville likes the Clintons? Maybe he secretly despises them but feels obligated to continue supporting them. That's what happens from this brand of "loyalty": you can no longer tell who your real friends are. How ironic.

Loyalty has never been an absolute virtue that trumps all else. (Compare, for example, the loyalty of the Nazis who claimed to be just following orders, with the disloyalty of the Founders who waged war against the country that nurtured them.) The loyalty that deserves our admiration is the kind tempered by honesty and integrity. A friend who never criticizes you, who never says what he thinks of you, who just blindly follows you wherever you go, is no friend at all.

A lot of people who were once big supporters of Bill Clinton now believe that Obama is the best candidate to bring America forward. These people haven't necessarily changed their minds about the Clintons; they have simply moved on, as our nation must always do. Carville is entitled to disagree. We can respect his beliefs without calling him names--and that, not his twisted understanding of "loyalty," is a virtue worth defending.

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