I Don't Think the Moral High Ground Exists Anymore

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I was going to let Dahlia Lithwick’s angry, lucid account in Slate of the end of Al Franken’s senatorial career speak for me, since Lithwick said everything I felt about this tawdry episode, and probably better than I could. Especially this part:

Is this the principled solution? By every metric I can think of, it’s correct. But it’s also wrong. It’s wrong because we no longer inhabit a closed ethical system, in which morality and norm preservation are their own rewards. We live in a broken and corroded system in which unilateral disarmament is going to destroy the very things we want to preserve.

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It seemed fitting that Franken invoked the name of his mentor, the late Senator Paul Wellstone, in his valedictory address on Thursday, because it was his account of the indecent political hijacking of Wellstone’s memorial service by the flying monkeys of the right that first made me think that Franken was more than simply a gifted satirist. Very important people in American politics, and in the elite American political media, most of whom still have their jobs today, lied about what went on at that service. They did so deliberately, and for cheap political advantage.

The memorial service for Paul Wellstone.

(This was the funeral after which conservative commentators told America that the crowd was being prompted to applaud because the closed-captioning on the big screen in the hall said, “Applause” when there was applause.)

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I know they lied about it because my wife and I watched the whole thing on CSPAN and the conservative accounts of it did not match the reality of the service in any way. In his first book, Franken ran all these lying liars to ground and left them there. That was an early example of the broken and corroded system of which Dahlia Lithwick wrote, and that came for Al Franken this week.

His speech was a good one, somber and hard to listen to. It was apologetic without being maudlin, and it did not give up an inch of ground more than was necessary. There was no confession, no lachrymose contrition, which I think is a good thing.

Then the conversation turned to me. Over the the last few weeks, a number of women have come forward to talk about how they felt my actions had affected them. I was shocked. I was upset. But in responding to their claims, I also wanted to be respectful of that broader conversation, because all women deserve to be heard and their experiences taken seriously. I think that was the right thing to do. I also think it gave some people the false impression that I was admitting to doing things that, in fact, I haven’t done. Some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others I remember very differently. I said at the outset that the ethics committee was the right venue for these allegations to be heard and investigated and evaluated on their merits, that I was prepared to cooperate fully and that I was confident in the outcome.

It also did not shy away from making the obvious point that is hanging over the entire system of government at the moment, one that the Republicans are desperately trying to wish away.

Nevertheless, today I am announcing that in the coming weeks, I will be resigning as a member of the United States Senate. I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party.

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(Alas, he failed to mention that a man credibly accused of sexual harassment under oath has been sitting silently on the Supreme Court for more than two decades, but, hey, it was a tough speech for a man to give.)

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The problem is where do the Democrats go now, although I’m fairly sure Senator Kirsten Gillibrand will be heading to Iowa. Is it time (again) to tug their forelocks over Bill Clinton? Maybe they could dig up Teddy Kennedy and hold their own Cadaver Synod, expelling him from the Senate posthumously? LBJ would be next, then Jack, then finally Thomas Jefferson. Ah, but now, we are told, they have The Moral High Ground, as though you needed to throw one of your own overboard in order to have the moral standing to oppose seating an alleged child molester in the Senate, or to remind people that the president* copped to sexual assault on tape.

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Lithwick is dead right. There is no commonly accepted Moral High Ground left to occupy anymore, and to pretend one exists is to live in a masturbatory fantasyland. It’s like lining yourself up behind Miss Manners in a political debate against Machiavelli. Until the Democrats are willing to think asymmetrically about the very real political danger posed by the president* and his party, the danger will grow until it becomes uncontrollable, and that point is coming very soon, I fear. By the time the Democrats admit to themselves that their political opposition has moved so far beyond shame that it can’t even see Richard Nixon any more, the damage wrought to our political institutions may be beyond repair.

Oh, and just a reminder, out there touring a book right now are veteran conservative ratfckers Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie. Lewandowski grabbed a female reporter on the campaign trail and Bossie once invaded a hospital room and berated the mother of a young woman who’d committed suicide. You look across a political landscape like the one that the last few decades have created, and the Moral High Ground looks like the lichen-mottled ruins of a dead civilization.

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