This week, Harry Reid came out with another appeal for Mitt Romney to release ten more years of his family’s personal tax returns. As to whether the release of that additional information is a good idea, or propitious in any kind of moral or political sense, is beside the point. Of significantly greater importance is the guise under which our Senate Majority Leader offered his gentle admonition. He quotes an “extremely credible source” who had directly told him that Mitt Romney had not paid income taxes over an extended period of time. Presumably, we are just to take him at his word that this source actually exists (outside Harry’s imagination), and that the source would actually have an ounce of insight into the actual claim.
After a few days, Harry got a second chance to address his position at which point he fired back “As I said before, I was told by an extremely credible source that Romney has not paid taxes for ten years.”
I have a nephew who has a tee-shirt that simply states: “I make things up!” We should get one of those for Harry.
My first cynical and highly undignified response in seeing another in a long line of continued absurdities from Mr. Reid was that he might have been the subject of an experimental lobotomy as a child (all in the name of the advancement of science). This little “experiment-gone-bad” would seemingly explain much. My second unedifying thought was “Should we not have some type of regulatory requirement for members of the Senate that would – at a minimum – require the demonstration of the cognitive skills of an average Bassett Hound?” I then went back to watching the Olympics.
But, my point has actually nothing to do with Harry’s intelligence. It actually has to do with his complete lack of any sense of moral decency. In a word, he lacks dignity. Should the elected leader of the most prestigious legislative body in the history of the world not be more dignified that to stoop to using unidentified sources as a cudgel?
The problem with undignified public leaders is that they invite their opponents into a fight which no fully-formed adult would ever be willing to engage. For Mitt Romney to publicly reply with a comment about lobotomies or the “Bassett Hound Test” would be to stoop to Reid’s level. So, what remains is for innuendo to float over the entire political process. No wonder no one actually trusts what goes on in government anymore. Public discourse is now conducted behind a smoke screen created by the patently undignified.
The intellectual history of the concept of dignity takes many turns. Thomas Hobbes thought of dignity in terms of personal productivity. His thought was that we gain dignity as we use our talents and abilities to actually produce something. The Locke’s and Hume’s of the world spoke in terms of personal autonomy – and the value of the free-standing self. The Judaic and Christian traditions advance the notion of Imago Dei, and the dignity that emanates from being created in the image of God. For purposes of this conversation, any of the above archetypes fit the bill.
The problem with people like Reid is that they have no definition for dignity that is conceptualized as either personal or individual. The modern and liberal/progressive concept of dignity is solely based in a societal definition that links dignity to our collective material outcomes. The individual person is not at all important in this view. Only the state has the power to create dignity. So if an undignified approach (quoting unnamed sources accusing a presidential candidate of a felony) is required to create a “dignified end,” then so be it. In this view, the ends always justify the means.
I always cringe when I hear that the upcoming election is simply about the economy. It is about so much more. The fundamental notion of human dignity is at stake. And, Mr. Reid is simply the poster-child for the liberal “government as supplier of ultimate dignity” alternative.
Fighting indignity is a fool’s game in the political arena and in life. That is why is so important that it never gains a position at the starting line.
About the Author
Mr. Nygaard is a Managing Director with Atticus Advisers, a marketing consulting firm in Atlanta, Georgia.
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