Crime and Punishment

The West Wing, the now defunct NBC show, is the ne plus ultra illustration of how Democrats think the world should be run. Indeed, you can amuse yourself with a list of top Left Wing scenes culled from all of the show's episodes. Last night, though, I was struck by a plot line that didn't make the list. A bit of background:

A season or two ago, a subplot involved a crippled space shuttle with three astronauts inside. There appeared to be no way to rescue them until someone leaked the fact that the military had a top secret space shuttle, invented for matters of national security, that could be sent up at a moment's notice. As it happened, that rescue didn't need to be done (either the astronauts died or their shuttle fixed itself; I don't remember which). Investigation eventually revealed that Toby Ziegler was the one who spilled the beans. His motive: his brother, an astronaut, had died in some sort of astronaut-type accident years before, and Toby couldn't bear that to happen again.

Here's where it gets interesting. From the moment Toby was identified as the culprit, all the other characters were mad at him. But they weren't mad at him for putting his personal interests and the lives of three individuals ahead of America's security, they were mad at him for humiliating them and putting them at risk professionally. Ziegler himself, when finally caught, was mad too. His attitude seemed to be "How dare that destroy my life this way?" When he wasn't mad, there was maudlin self-pity: "How could they destroy my life this way, and the lives of my children by a woman to whom I'm not married and with whom I don't live?"

Fortunately, Toby's life wasn't destroyed, and everyone could live happily ever after. In the show's swan song last night, ficitional President Jed Bartlett's last act before leaving office was to grant clemency to Toby Ziegler, the man who compromised America's security in the fantasy world of The West Wing.

The episode had me thinking two things. First, we now have a lovely template of how the Left thinks about the NSA phone monitoring program. The program reviewed the occurrence of calls to and from telephone numbers, and was intended to track telephones that were used to dial up phones owned by known terrorists.  It could, therefore, not only have identified terrorists making calls to each other, put also some people who were, for reasons unrelated to terror, regularly calling these same known terrorists. In liberal land, that last — an innocent person swept into the net for having conversation with a terrorist — is untenable, so it was totally okay for the press to break the law and put America at greater risk by revealing vital security information. And since personal feelings are so much more important than law and public safety, those who broke these laws shouldn't have to suffer the consequences.

The other thought this episode triggered is the meaning civil disobedience has in today's world. (Some of you may recognize a few recycled ideas from an old post here.) Although civil disobedience has always been around — that is, at all places, at all times, people have been willing to risk their lives, safety or comfort for their beliefs — it was Henry David Thoreau, in the mid-19th Century, who best articulated the "official" definition of that doctrine.

Thoreau objected to a poll tax because he felt the money was being improperly spent to support slavery and the war with Mexico. Rather than paying the tax, he took a principled stand, refused to pay the tax, and went to prison. His single night in jail inspired him to write an essay about a citizen's obligation to strike out against unjust laws — and to demonstrate the law's invalidity through the citizen's personal martyrdom. In his essay, Thoreau ruminated about irritating laws versus unjust laws, and about the vehicles available for protesting the latter. These protests include voting or, if that won't work, doing such things as refusing to comply with an unjust law, or refusing to pay a tax that supports something unjust. Significantly, Thoreau felt that, if voting was not an option, the other actions gained weight from an attendant sacrifice — which, in America, is usually imprisonment:

Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place today, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less despondent spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles. It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race should find them; on that separate but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her, but against her–the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor. [Emphasis mine.]

The notion of civil disobedience gained great currency on the liberal side in the 20th Century because of two men who put it to its highest and best use. Ghandi and Martin Luther King. Had each not been willing to accept imprisonment, thereby demonstrating the manifest unfairness and immorality of the laws against which each struggled, neither would have even appeared as a footnote in the history books.

Nowadays, though, whether in the fictitious world of The West Wing, or in real life, people break laws with impunity and to applause. I was most strongly reminded of this when San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome, in February 2004, suddenly announced that he was going to ignore California's laws against same sex marriage, and have the City issue marriage licenses to all gay couples desiring them. Newsome was a fifteen minute wonder. The Press oooh'ed and aaah'ed about his bravery. But, really, what was so brave? Newsome wasn't running any risks politically in San Francisco, where a critical mass of voters approve his step. He wasn't running any risk of humilitiation or ostracism, because he became the media's darling. No one even mentioned prosecuting him for breaking the law, or impeaching him for violating his official obligations. It was a media stunt, but it wasn't civil disobedience, because we didn't get the spectacle of a righteous man felled by an unjust government.

As I noted above, precisely the same thing happens in the fictional world of The West Wing. A beautiful nexus with entertainment also appears in the whole Steve Colbert thing. I happen not to be a Colbert fan. To me, his comic persona is the political idiot savant — except that he routinely leaves out the savant part.

What was so fascinating about the kerfuffle following the Press dinner is how even those who had to admit that he wasn't actually funny were still thrilled about his bravery. "He spoke truth to power." Let me correct this misperception. There was no truth to power at play there. Colbert insulted the President to his face, the President was a gentleman about it, and Colbert was lauded in the press the next day for his bravery in insulting a gentleman to his face. This is not truth to power. This is not civil disobedience. This is the refined behavior of a four year old in a snit. It's only on the modern Left, which considers brave acts without consequences, that Colbert is revered as an intelligent political satirist.

UPDATE:  The lovely thing about an idea is seeing someone run with it and take it to great places.  Patrick did that at the Paragraph Farmer, where he used the "speak truth to power idea" as the starting point for a wonderful riff about the success of the West's intellectual flexibility.
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