On a conference call with liberal religious leaders and activists this summer, President Obama said, "I know there's been a lot of misinformation in this debate, and there are some folks out there who are, frankly, bearing false witness, but I want everyone to know what health insurance reform is all about." He uses words like "ludicrous" and "fabrications" to dismiss criticisms of his health care plan which is still, in fact, a work in progress, making a lot of people's legitimate worries about the uncertainty of it all very relevant. But here he wasn't just getting into a political dust-up with Sarah Palin a prominent, critic of the reform nor was he dismissing Republicans in the House and Senate. He was dismissing concerned citizens who, at the time, were showing up to town hall meetings in their congressional districts. He was dismissing bishops of the Catholic Church who have been raising concerns about abortion, first and foremost, but about the whole approach as well.
At a campaign rally in Newton, Iowa, in October 2004, John Edwards, then a senator and Democratic nominee for vice president, said: "If we do the work that we can do in this country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again." It was snake-oil salesmanship, plain and simple. Stem cells or Nobel aspirations, it was shameful.
In 1979, in an interview with the novelist Martin Amis in the British Tatler magazine, Roman Polanski said: "If I had killed somebody, it wouldn't have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But (having sex), you see, and the young girls. Judges want to (have sex with) young girls. Juries want to (have sex with) young girls. Everyone wants to (have sex with) young girls!" And this is the man that titans of Hollywood rushed to align themselves with?
What all of these instances have in common is that political and cultural differences had me disposed to disagree with these men. And yet, to each statement, I reacted with a reflexive disbelief. Initially, I couldn't believe that they said the things that they were reported to have uttered. I wanted to think the best of these men whom I disagreed with.
I don't think it was an extraordinary attitude on my part. It's only natural to anyone reared on Biblical messages about charity and compassion. This reflex is the fruit of the kind of moral grounding that's always been in the American bloodstream.
So why is it that when comments like: "Slavery built the South. I'm not saying we should bring it back; I'm just saying it had its merits. For one thing, the streets were safer after dark," are erroneously attributed to Rush Limbaugh, the instinct, not just from the fringes of society but from the very mainstream of our political and cultural and sports worlds, is to believe? And not just to believe, but to be driven mad by falsehood? Chris Matthews, on MSNBC, fulminated: "Rush Limbaugh is looking more and more like (James Bond villain) Mr. Big, and at some point somebody's going to jam a CO2 pellet into his head and he's going to explode like a giant blimp."
It's not a wild assumption that Limbaugh was eliminated as a potential partial owner of the St. Louis Rams because Al Sharpton insisted it be so. The self-appointed representative of moral victories declared another triumph when Limbaugh was shut out of the NFL. The major leagues shouldn't have owners who are "divisive and incendiary," he said.
This would be the same Sharpton who never apologized for the Tawana Brawley hoax that ended a police officer's career; the same divisive and incendiary Sharpton who incited murder at Freddie's Fashion Mart in New York City.
We seem to have a high degree of moral cluelessness when it comes to charity and, to use what has now become a popular word in Supreme Court circles, empathy. We extend it when prudence would direct us to be on guard. And we have no room for it when it comes to a man whom certain top-of-the-world types tell us is no good. Outside of the 20 million or so people who listen to Limbaugh three hours a day, five days a week, maybe we're too busy to listen to all of it ourselves, so we listen to what they tell us about him without any healthy skepticism. We're too busy for charity.
Sounding like a head-over-heels congressional page, Republican-turned-Democratic Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter wrote on his Twitter feed shortly after President Obama campaigned for his reelection on Sept. 16: "I predict he will accomplish the toughest job of all to bring civility to Washington." I suppose the Nobel announcement for the "new climate" Obama's created in the world is supposed to be the exclamation point on that Tweet. But the actual climatological outlook is morally cloudy, with a chance of hyper-political poor discernment. And so we buy lies and let facts fall by the wayside. That's not charity, that's willful ignorance, and it pollutes our politics, as well as our very souls.
Kathryn Lopez is the editor of National Review Online (www.nationalreview.com). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.