Monday, November 14, 2011


Full confession - I do not read Ross Douthat. Not because he is conservative. Not because he is often skewered by folks like Tbogg and the folks at Sadly,No!. I don't read him because, by and large, I only have so many minutes in a day to dedicate to reading stuff. He is one who has slipped through the cracks, is all.

When the folks at Crooked Timber dedicated a post to a column Douthat wrote on the whole sad Penn State business, I thought it might be a nice idea to find out what it was Douthat had said. First, here's the key point in Douthat's attempt to understand what happened at PSU:
Bad and mediocre people are tempted to sin by their own habitual weaknesses. The earlier lies or thefts or adulteries make the next one that much easier to contemplate. Having already cut so many corners, the thinking goes, what’s one more here or there? Why even aspire to virtues that you probably won’t achieve, when it’s easier to remain the sinner that you already know yourself to be?

But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind. It’s precisely in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away.
Good so far? Paterno screwed up not because he is a fallible human being who acted out of a sense of self-interest and self-preservation, but a hero who, if he has fallen further, had already climbed higher than so many of the rest of us.

Here's what Belle wrote as a summary of Douthat:
The only reason Catholics like Joe Paterno and Darío Castrillón Hoyos are able to commit such uniquely awful crimes is because they are ethical in a way that run-of-the-mill godless folk cannot understand.
N.B.: The Dario Castrillon Hoyos who is named was a heroic Roman Catholic bishop of Medellin, Colombia who, upon being raised to the Crimson and becoming the Vatican's point man on the pedophilia scandal, became the leader of those who denied the existence of such a scandal, tried to claim it was a uniquely American experience, and praised bishops who refused to denounce their priests to secular authorities.

In any event, some commenters at CT are up in arms that Belle wrote what she did about Douthat's column. Except, that is exactly what he said.

And it's bullshit. From beginning to end. To even imagine there are human beings who are intrinsically more in tune with the moral order of the Universe is a marvelous pagan idea. As Douthat describes events, he sounds far more like a classicist describing the role of hubris in Greek tragedy, instead of someone trying to make a serious moral point in some kind - perhaps Roman Catholic, although I can't imagine a serious Roman Catholic ethicist making any claim close to this - of a Christian context.

This is a kind of praising with faint damnation that envisions a Universe where good and evil, virtue and vice, are weighed in a balance. Furthermore, Douthat does a marvelous job reading Paterno's mind, divining all sorts of morally superior reasons for not coming forward, or moving more vigorously to investigate, allegations that a protege of his was buggering little boys in the showers. There is already enough evidence in the public record to make the case that, in fact, Paterno kept mum because he knew, if he pushed to hard, he could lose his job. Imagining he was acting out of an inherently superior sense of right and wrong is not only contradicted by serious ethical reflection. It is also contradicted by the evidence in the public realm.

I'm honestly not sure what Douthat was thinking when he wrote this particular column, beyond - perhaps - attempting to claim that there are individuals out there who are just morally better than others. If that is the case, he probably should have picked a different set of circumstances that the attempt to cover-up serial child rape. It's disgusting.

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