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Gerson: How tribal politics curse us with tribal morality


America is currently cursed, not only with tribal politics, but with tribal morality. Some liberals tend to minimize or excuse offenses against a few women in the broader cause of women’s rights. What is a politician’s wandering hand in comparison to maintaining legal abortion? Some conservatives tend to minimize or excuse offenses against women in the cause of conservative governance. What are a few old accusations compared to cementing a conservative Supreme Court or passing tax reform?

Both sides give personal failings less weight than a compelling public good. It is not always an unserious argument, but in this case, it is a cruel and dangerous one.

This description may sound like a columnist’s caricature. But, on occasion, a caricature becomes incarnate. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has admitted she has “no reason to disbelieve” any of Republican senate candidate Roy Moore’s accusers. Yet Ivey has announced she will vote for Moore anyway. “We need to have a Republican in the United States Senate,” she explained, “to vote on the things like Supreme Court justices.”

This is worth a pause. One of the accusers in this case says that in the late 1970s Moore, then a county prosecutor, offered to drive her home. Instead, she alleges, he parked behind the restaurant where she worked, touched her breasts, tried to pull off her shirt, grabbed her neck and pushed her head toward his crotch, leaving nasty bruises and a lifetime of trauma. The victim was 16 years old at the time. If Ivey truly believes this accusation, she is voting for someone who committed sexual assault on a teenage girl, in order to help secure one Senate vote on a prospective Supreme Court nominee.

This has the virtue, at least, of philosophic clarity. It is utilitarianism, unadorned. Ivey believes she is pursuing Jeremy Bentham’s imperative, achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of people. It is a simple, easily stated moral rule.

There are many varieties of utilitarianism, but they share some weaknesses. While the principle is easy to state, it is not easy to apply. It always involves speculative judgments about the future. What if, as a senator, Moore becomes a rolling scandal of misogyny and intolerance? What if this deepens the image of the GOP as the party of prejudice and male dominance? And what if this costs Republicans control of the House of Representatives and a few other Senate seats? How would this affect Ivey’s utilitarian calculation?

This scenario is not unlikely. During his recent defeat in the Virginia governor’s race, Ed Gillespie—a comparatively good GOP candidate—lost women voters by 22 points. Is the three-ring spectacle of Roy Moore in the Senate going to improve Republican electoral performance with women?

But the main problem with utilitarian calculation in politics reaches deeper. By definition, it means that the rights of the few can be sacrificed to the interests of the many. It is a theory that has always been plagued by hypothetical questions: What if punishing a few innocent people would, on balance, have a good social result? What if keeping a few people in slavery clearly benefited the many? What if a politician who is currently abusing teenagers demonstrably served a greater public good? At what point does the “but he’ll vote right on Supreme Court nominees” argument end? Three rapes? Four murders? Wouldn’t utilitarian calculations still apply?

In the cases before us—if you believe the credible testimony of the accusers—the rights and dignity of women have already been violated. Ignoring or downplaying those violations in the pursuit of other social goals—conservative or liberal—is an additional form of victimization, this time by the broader society. By politicians such as Ivey. By voters willing to downplay the abuses on their own ideological team. All are making the statement that some lives, when weighed in the balance, really don’t matter.

None of this is to downplay the difficult task of applying appropriate punishments for differing degrees of guilt. But various traditions of ethics rooted in religion—as well as the Enlightenment theories that informed America’s founding—place a primary emphasis on the rights and dignity of individuals, protected against the shifting interests of the majority.

This is the firm moral ground upon which our debate on sexual harassment should be conducted. Political figures guilty of coercion, exploitation, dehumanization, cruelty and the abuse of power should not be trusted with power. Even on our own side.

Guest Views: U.S. Senate sticks up for Great Lakes protection

Congress is wisely reversing President Donald Trump’s rash and irresponsible attempt to cut $300 million in annual funding for Great Lakes restoration.

A key Senate committee last week included the money in a spending bill for 2018. U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, helped lead the bipartisan effort to restore the funding as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Well done.

The House of Representatives previously voted to bring back all of the money the president tried to eliminate last spring. So now the full Senate, including U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, should finalize the $300 million as part of any spending plan Congress sends to the president.

Trump doesn’t have the power to issue line-item vetoes, so the money should be safe if it’s included in a larger proposal.

The Great Lakes are facing dire threats that can’t be ignored, including a possible invasion by giant Asian carp that threaten to destroy sport fishing in Lake Michigan and, by extension, inland Wisconsin rivers and lakes.

The Great Lakes also need help against toxic pollution, farm and urban runoff, and declining wildlife habitat.

As Baldwin noted last week, it’s not just the natural environment that’s at stake. It’s Wisconsin’s economy, which relies on water, tourism and outdoor recreation for business and jobs.

President Trump, a New Yorker, doesn’t seem to understand that importance of the Great Lakes. But here in the heartland, our Great Lakes—and the thousands of Wisconsin waterways that flow into them—are central to who we are. They provide millions of people with fresh water to drink. They help attract millions of visitors. They are a beautiful and invaluable natural resource for the entire Midwest.

So they definitely deserve federal attention to help ensure their health and sustainability.

The recent discovery in the Wisconsin River of five Asian carp—which can grow as large as 100 pounds and crowd out native sport fish—is a stark reminder of how important and fragile our waterways are. A dam by Prairie du Sac, about 40 miles northwest of Madison, prevents the invasive species from moving farther up the Wisconsin River, thank goodness.

But fear is growing that the voracious fish will get into Lake Michigan via man-made Chicago canals. And from there it could spread upstream.

In some stretches of rivers south of Wisconsin, Asian carp, which escaped from Southern fish farms decades ago, have virtually eliminated native species such as walleye and bass.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has for years provided some hope for preserving our rich supply of fresh water in and around Wisconsin. The federal dollars leverage far more money from local governments and Canada for lake projects.

This cooperation has helped reduce algae blooms that foul shorelines and deprive fish of oxygen. It also has helped clean up toxic waste from industrial sites, city sewers and farms.

Great Lakes restoration must remain a high priority in Washington, D.C., regardless of who sits in the White House.

—Wisconsin State Journal

Your Views: Being thankful requires respecting our environment

I am writing this letter on Thanksgiving, the day when we tell ourselves and others what we are thankful for. In short, I am thankful for that which keeps us alive: earth, water, air, sun. I also believe that our thanks should lead to thankful actions. To be worthy of thanksgiving, we should not be decimating boreal forests in Alberta, cutting a pipeline trench Alberta to Minnesota to Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico or gouging an open pit, 800-foot-deep sulfide mine 150 feet from the Menominee River.

Acts that the forests, farms, rivers and the air would be grateful for would be using the sun and the wind for our energy needs, regenerating the soil, purifying the water and air and respecting the heat of the sun. In short, treating them thankfully.