Monday, August 31, 2009

Teddy's Atonement

According to Don Cooper, some news commentator said, the morning of Ted Kennedy's funeral, that "he spent the rest of his life trying to atone for his transgressions by serving the public." I've seen the same sentiment expressed in blog comments.

I find it very hard to understand what these people are thinking. How can his later life be seen as a sort of atonement? Maybe the idea is that "public [ie., government] service" makes you automatically virtuous, superior to the comparatively selfish private citizens who toil to pay your salary. Or maybe it is that people who do this sort of work are virtuous already, different from the ordinary run of human beings. Or maybe it is that pushing the "progressive" agenda automatically makes you superior.

Do these ideas even deserve to be refuted?*

As many people have said, the US Senate is the most exclusive club on Earth. You get a large (to me at least) salary at the expense of taxpayers, and in return you get to make up rules that they have to follow on pain of a term in prison. You also get to pass laws that take money from some people and give it to others (typically, ones who helped you to gain or keep your job). This sounds less like penance and more like privilege to me -- a privilege so immense as to be very difficult to justify from the point of view of absolute justice and morality.

If this had any connection with past transgressions (which it doesn't) I would have to think that it is not restitution to a world wronged, but a reward.

I have seen an idea similar to the public-service-as-atonement one attributed to Adlai Stevenson, but in a context in which it makes a lot more sense to me. Here is the Wikipedia version:
At the age of twelve Stevenson accidentally killed Ruth Merwin, a 16-year-old friend, while demonstrating drill technique with a rifle, inadvertently left loaded, during a party at the Stevenson home. Stevenson was devastated by the accident and rarely referred to it as an adult. However, as the Governor of Illinois he was told about a teenager who had survived an automobile accident while his friend was killed. Stevenson told the teen's father that he should tell his son that "he now has to live for two", which Stevenson's friends took to be a reference to the shooting incident
I find this story moving and more or less understandable. I see a couple of relevant differences from Teddy's case:

First, Adlai atoned by serving as governor of a state. I can actually see that as penance of a sort. Compared to being in the Senate, it is real gruntwork. And helming a state that contains a political cesspool like Chicago must have been repugnant to someone with Stevenson's refined sensibilities.

Second, the idea in this case doesn't sound like moral atonement -- in the sense of this will erase my guilt -- as much as something more primitive and profound. It seems to be something like: Because of me, there is one less person on earth. Unless I achieve enough good for two, my stay here will be a net deficit in the scheme of things.

Perhaps, as Spock would say, this is "not logical," but it does make a sort of emotional sense. If it isn't logical, it is psycho-logical.
* Even further beneath contempt is the sentiment allegedly expressed by Melissa Lafsky at Huffington Post, who wondered what Maryjo "would have thought about arguably being a catalyst for the most successful Senate career in history … Who knows – maybe she'd feel it was worth it." Here we see utilitarianism exposing its cloven hoof. (Hat-tip to Mark Steyn.)


Ann said...

Well said! If he'd gone into the Peace Corps or Teach America, maybe I'd give him a nickel's worth of credit.

Lester Hunt said...

In the linked article, Mark Steyn contrasts Teddy with John Profumo:

"Six years before Chappaquiddick, in the wake of Britain's comparatively very minor "Profumo scandal," the eponymous John Profumo, Her Majesty's Secretary of State for War, resigned from the House of Commons and the Queen's Privy Council and disappeared amid the tenements of the East End to do good works washing dishes and helping with children's playgroups, in anonymity, for the last 40 years of his life. With the exception of one newspaper article to mark the centenary of his charitable mission, he never uttered another word in public again."

Traditionally, that is what was meant by the word, "atonement."