We have seen all too well that when the politics of personal destruction — the ultimate expression of “the personal is the political” — is applied to the legal process, the effect is particularly pernicious. When all-out war is declared, whether waged against one’s political enemies or those empowered to enforce the law, there are no rules of engagement and it’s tough to counter the spin, or the lies. And when, as inevitably must happen, respect for the rule of law is eroded, it is the American people who lose.
— IWF Chairman Ricky Silberman
Judge Robert Bork
What is the politics of personal destruction doing to law? The answer is that it is deforming law and the system of justice.
The classic case is the campaign orchestrated by the White House to portray Ken Starr as a sex-obsessed, overbearing prosecutor running wild in an effort to destroy the President, and to smear women who testified to Bill Clinton’s sexual predation as lying sluts.
It is observable that the politics of personal destruction is practiced more expertly and much more often by Democrats than by Republicans. Why should that be so? There is probably more than one explanation. For some, most notably the President, nothing matters but himself. His success, his popularity, is the sole gauge by which all else is measured. It follows that opposition is, in fact, evil and must be attacked as such. But that is a psychological matter for which there is a clinical name, but that is surely not an all-encompassing explanation.
A politics of personal destruction comes naturally to ideologues, and there are many more of those on the Left than there are among conservatives. But it is also true that, for whatever reason, relativism is more common among liberals of the hardcore variety than it is among conservatives. The interesting thing about relativists, who claim there is no truth, is that they also typically have very strong views. Persons with strong prejudices and no belief in objective truth are free to engage in intellectual, journalistic, and political thuggery, and they do.
But why should the public, or large segments of it, be taken in? One reason is that over half of all Americans get their news exclusively from heavily biased television. Moreover, as David Riesman observed about fifty years ago, Americans increasingly feel themselves unable to judge the merits of any kind of performance, artistic or political; but they imagine, quite erroneously, that they can judge sincerity. As a Hollywood sage put it, if you can fake sincerity, you have it made. And here the Democratic ideologues have an advantage. Nothing conveys the impression of sincerity as much as passion. They take hard, moralistic positions, in which good and evil appear clear-cut, while conservatives march to the not-quite blood-stirring words, “Be Reasonable.”
The results for our system of justice are devastating. At times, the White House operatives and their credulous journalistic allies circling Ken Starr with unsupported screams of wrongdoing resembled nothing so much as the Ku Klux Klan in the old days gathered around a courthouse where a black man was being tried. Public relations to a large extent overwhelmed law. We will see more of that now that the tactic has proved successful. McCarthyism has found a new home and it is on the Left.
Robert Bork is the John M. Olin Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Slouching Towards Gomorrah (HarperCollins).
My business is defusing media-hyped attacks that seek to destroy someone. The growth of my business is a direct consequence of the public’s insatiable appetite for hostile information.
Two things drive attacks: conflicts and entertainment. The two are inseparable. The narrative is simple. Bad people are depriving you of what you deserve. If we eliminate them, we will achieve salvation. Salvation is achieved through destruction. This is the conflict. The destruction of a target provides the entertainment narrative that will build and sustain audiences for what is now a quarter-trillion dollar business, the media.
There are six “V’s.” The narrative includes a Victim, and a Villain — an enemy of the culture. This could even be a car, such as the Audi 5000 which was accused in the late 1980s of accelerating all by itself and running over children.
Then, there is the Vindicator who seemingly without prejudice comes to right the wrong. And the Vehicle: a lawsuit or a media expos that brings the villain to light, as when 60 Minutes showed the grieving mother whose bewitched Audi tragically ran over her child.
Next, a fifth “V”, a Value which legitimizes the attack. Finally, a Void, a conflict that can only be resolved by neutralizing the target.
As news has become more like entertainment, the narrative must be spun into the entertainment formula that vaudeville respects. The GM pickup truck has to explode. The food ingredient has to be a carcinogen. The audience will not be satisfied until the target does the perp walk. Make no mistake: The very same public that claims to despise these attacks, demands them.
Example: George W. Bush and the cocaine allegations. The question be-comes not, “Did he or didn’t he?” but, “How will he spin it?” This is the entertainment imperative: The public wants the vaudeville, not the revelation. The public enjoyed when Reagan did not want to handle a difficult question as he came off the helicopter, pretending he couldn’t hear. It was clever and it worked.
The spectacle is the star, and should not be confused with furthering the cause of democracy. The spectacle includes crashing into established institutions. It may look like a liberal bias but it is mostly what vaudevillians call “shtick.”
Name-calling works. After Audi was completely demolished in the U.S. marketplace, the mother conceded that her foot had been on the accelerator. But vindication after Chapter 11 bankruptcy is not exactly strategically useful.
There is no correlation between confession and forgiveness. None at all. Congressman Livingston confesses, he’s gone. Clinton obfuscates, he survives. O.J. Simpson leaves his DNA all over the crime scene and is now free to roam the golf courses of America to look for the real killers in a sand trap.
Confronted by impeachment, the Clintons embarked on a very effective strategy. They made an attack on the sex lives of Republicans, which was a very entertaining diversion. After that a lot of Clinton’s critics said, “I just think I’ll go home and watch Seinfeld.”
Put the attackers themselves at risk. In the GM pickup truck case, NBC did not apologize to General Motors until GM produced the rocket motor that showed how NBC blew up the truck intentionally for the newscast. In order to fight back, the target must be willing to be disliked, and be willing to be accused of being heavy-handed. You cannot always survive attack and be loved. When Cardinal Joe Bernardin was accused of molesting an altar boy, that attack did not stop until Bernardin decimated the altar boy.
That’s what I do. I beat up on altar boys and it doesn’t look pretty. Nevertheless, it comes to that because the narrative sides with the altar boy.
If you live by the sword, you may very well die by the sword. But the truth is, if you live by the olive branch, you can still die by the sword.
You have to ask yourself: Is it worth the fight? Second, ask if doing what must be done is within your constitution. If it’s not, concede. If it is, fight back.
Eric Dezenhall is a founding partner of Nichols Dezenhall and author of Nail ‘Em! (Prometheus Books).
The politics of personal destruction is a symptom of a much larger and more dangerous phenomenon, the culture of personal destruction. This goes beyond the political into a personal realm that was once thought inviolate. It is now one’s nearest and dearest, or what were once assumed to be such, who are the objects of this kind of destruction: a parent, spouse, or a friend. On the most vulgar level, we find this in television talk shows where the most private and disreputable features of a person are trotted out for exposure and derision.
But, there’s another mode of personal destruction that gives the appearance of being more sophisticated and elevated. This is the memoir, often of a person of distinction, written by a close relative who is presumed to be in a position to speak with authority about that person. Here the denigration is more subtle and the violation of privacy more nefarious.
Some recent examples: The English literary critic John Bayley has written two memoirs of his wife, the distinguished novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. In those books (the first published while she was still alive), he recounts, in excruciating detail, the final five years of her life when she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. We are shown her being toileted, bathed, dressed, and cajoled by her husband, spending her mornings watching Teletubbies and exchanging baby-talk with her husband.
The book is a double violation. It is a violation of her as a mature, dignified person, an eminent thinker and writer, and also a violation of her expressed will and intention to preserve her privacy. Bayley himself makes much of the fact that Murdoch cherished her privacy. When asked how Murdoch would have felt about the books, he replied: “She always wanted me to do what I wanted to do.” A remarkable confession of narcissism.
Another example is an essay about the distinguished literary critic Lionel Trilling by his son, James. The son maintains that his father (like himself) suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder, which seriously impaired his personal life and warped his thinking and writing.
Again, this is doubly offensive, first, because (as an eminent psychiatrist has testified) there is no real evidence of this ailment in the father, and, second, because (as the son tells us, not once but three times in his opening paragraph) his father was extremely reticent in speaking of himself, even to his son, still more to the public. The paragraph concludes, “I cannot picture him setting down his hopes and fears, even the most cerebral ones, for strangers to read.” Whereupon the son presumes to do just that.
Later in the essay he observes that his father was private to the point of secretiveness. How revealing that sentence is: privacy itself being understood invidiously, suspiciously, as secretiveness.
The confessional mode used to be focused on one’s own failures or sins. Today it is more often a confession of other people’s failures and sins, or fancied ones. A psychiatrist might be tempted to describe these as acts of aggression. An old-fashioned moralist would speak of them as acts of impiety and indecency.
“Impiety,” “indecency”! The very words now sound archaic, but so do a great many other words that used to be part of our civilized vocabulary. The very language of morality has been debased, so that once honorific terms have become pejorative. To pass moral judgments is to be moralistic and judgmental. To engage in moral discourse is to moralize and preach. To pronounce upon moral affairs is to wage a moral crusade, or worse, a religious crusade. Reticence is equated with Puritanism and Victorianism.
The politics of personal destruction is rooted in the culture of personal destruction, a culture that is permissive and relativistic, and far more narcissistic and nihilistic than we have been led to suppose. Some of us have thought that the culture wars are behind us. Unhappily, they are not. And these wars have to be fought on many fronts.
We will not have a healthier political culture until we have a healthier culture in general-one that is respectful of authority, personal and public, and that has a due regard for privacy, loyalty, dignity, and, yes, piety and decency.
Gertrude Himmelfarb is a historian, social commentator, and author of One Nation, Two Cultures (Knopf).