The Towns

(Also appeared in the March 24, 2005 Christian Science Monitor)

In M. Night Shyamalan’s incredible The Village, there is a small band of people who speak in an archaic register filled with “thee” and “thou,” who settle their policy differences through town meetings, and who live a simple life of chores and small pleasures. The adults in this Village, surrounded by a menacing forest, all came from the “Towns,” where, to hear them tell it, violence reigns and venality is the norm.

Judging by public life today, many of us would like to live in this Village. You can tell, in part, by what the political parties are peddling. On the Right, the rhetoric of values, if taken at face value, sounds downright Athenian in its high-mindedness. Recapture personal morality and life will be simpler, the choices clearer.

On the Left, there is an emerging back-to-basics consensus that includes a sort of pugnacious honesty coupled with a faith in the little guy’s eventual rising. Howard Dean’s ascent to DNC Chair was fueled by equal parts enthusiasm for his honest style, and infatuation with the idea that the Dean “netroots” would somehow re-empower the masses. He embodied a story of yesterday (the forthright outsider makes good) and brought a veneer of new technology. But, what ultimately made Dean palatable was his eight-point plan to revitalize the party, a plan which amounts to little more than “be more organized” — a back-to-basics tack if ever there was one.

Each side, viewing itself at a sort of inflection point where either legacy or survival are at stake, would like to turn back the clock. Each side yearns to recapture something it feels is lost.

But, it can’t happen. The fundamental characteristic of nostalgia is that it is a desire for a time that never really was.

Some of my friends seem to inhabit an alternate America. Sometime I live there, too. In this America, Jed Bartlett is president and there is a campaign going on to succeed him. This is America as portrayed by The West Wing. In this America, everybody is smart, speaks quickly and amusingly, and there is always an abiding sense of political idealism. Operatives remind one another, at seemingly every turn, about why they got into politics in the first place. They’re in it to make a difference. Sometimes these people lose their way, but there’s always a character on screen who can gently remind them that democracy is really all about helping people.

In this America, a Texas congressman named Matt Santos is running an underdog campaign for the presidential nomination. But he is giving his jaded DC-insider campaign manager fits. Not only will he not run so-called “negative ads,” but he insists that, if he criticizes his opponent, he will only do so personally, in his own voice. He wanders off of the talking points and doesn’t follow the script for important meetings. The sophisticates that surround him all gnash their teeth at his starry-eyed democracy mumbo-jumbo and Frank Capra antics.

It’s not that these sophisticates are against ideals (they have them themselves), but they know what must be done in order to win. Eggs must be broken to make an omelet, and Matt Santos doesn’t seem to have the stomach to break them.

But, watch the camera linger on the nodding faces of ordinary citizens as they listen to Santos’ powerful ideas. Watch the gaggle of trailing reporters grow everywhere he goes in the New Hampshire towns he visits. In this America, the one portrayed in The West Wing, refreshing honesty and fair play are working. Santos has a chance to break through, and we’re all rooting for him, at home on our sofas.

We know Santos will do well. There may be twists and turns but his message will resonate and his honesty will triumph.

But it’s a fake. Switch off prime time and we see how incredibly hard it is to persevere as the straight-talking candidate. The Howard Dean presidential campaign collapsed in a scream. The John McCain “straight talk express,” four years earlier, fizzled as push-poll fueled sniping between his and George W. Bush’s campaign reached a crescendo. The former poster boy of telling it like it is from outside the hallowed halls, Jesse Ventura, is now brought up more in jest than as a role model.

What keeps people in the Village, even in the face of strong temptations to visit the Towns, is a collective nightmare of what might happen if one steps across the border into the forest. The Village is a special place where the prevailing rules — those of the Towns — are in an enforced suspense.

Public life here, in real America, seems more of the venal Towns than of the upright Village. And, notwithstanding West Wing parables to the contrary, those who rise up seem to be the first struck down. Where is the hope? Must we abandon our ideals?

There are small signs of progress. Governor Dean has indeed ridden his plainspoken ethos to power — DNC Chair is nothing to sneeze at. Senator John McCain has recaptured the gloss lost in 2000 so well that he was actually touted as a vice presidential candidate for Senator John Kerry in 2004. Newly-minted Senator Barak Obama’s authentic voice and story have placed him on the short list of people who now really matter.

Those of us on our sofas, wishing real life were more like The West Wing, ought to look around and grab onto these stories. They ought ought to bring true hope, because they are believable. They tell us that just speaking up isn’t enough, we’ll need to do the hard work of persevering, too. Improvements won’t come about in the space of sixty minutes minus commercials, nor even in the space of one television season. But they will come.

We don’t need to move to the Village to hold onto its ideals. We just need to go looking for them here, in the Towns.

(c) 2005 The Christian Science Monitor. Used by permission.

Doughnut Holes

[A version of this appeared in the February 22, 2005 edition of The Christian Science Monitor.]

This column generated more response than anything I have written in some time. People either loved or hated it. The people involved (Joseph Steffen and Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich, Jr.) carry a fair amount of baggage in the eyes of some. Steffen’s reputed longtime role as Ehrlich’s dirty-trickster colors many of these reactions. One question that’s come up, though, is about Steffen’s role in what appear to be widespread firings among political appointees throughout the Ehrlich administration.

The story that has been growing in traction is about this role. Steffen was Ehrlich’s eyes and ears within some of the agencies, and it appears his job was to identify people that, in the view of the administration, ought to go. This has many up in arms (in the same way many are up in arms of Porter Goss’ intent to put a broom to the CIA). But, I don’t have as much trouble with the widespread attempt to change culure (which those efforts amount to) as I do with Ehrlich’s denial of knowing about it. As this note is written (March 13, 2005), emails have been released that seem to indicate that Ehrlich, who denies telling Steffen to be a hatchet man, knew about his personnel role. That’s too bad, as it casts into question his truthfulness when he says he knew nothing of Steffen’s apparent dirty tricks in the O’Malley political rivalry.

More will be revealed as time goes on. And, while I continue to applaud Ehrlich’s swift action in firing Steffen for dirty tricks, I may become part of the chorus who must say that while it may not have been too late, it was too little.

Now, read on for the article.


This week, a politician showed backbone, something many of us believe no longer exists in politics. Ask most Americans how they feel about politicians, and they will use words like “sleazy,” “corrupt,” and “liars.” From most groups to whom I pose the question, an idea eventually emerges that seems to capture it all: “they will say or do anything to get elected.” Heads then nod agreement.

Wednesday, Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. fired a longtime aide for spreading apparently unfounded and certainly mean-spirited rumors about a political rival, Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley. In firing Joseph Steffen, a loyal employee who had been with him since his days in Congress, Ehrlich cut to the chase: “I don’t put up with this, and I will not put up with this. Bottom line.”

While O’Malley may say the move doesn’t go far enough (he’d wanted an apology directly from the governor), it goes light years beyond the norm. Typically, wagons would be circled, denials issued, and there would be a statement amounting to “well, where there’s smoke there’s fire — there must have been something to hide in the first place.” But, standing on principle, Ehrlich made the point that, in fact, there are principles left to stand on. This is news that may come as a shock to an inured public.

On the same day he made his accusations of gossip, Mayor O’Malley delivered an address in our nation’s capital opposing the president’s latest budget proposal, which appears to contain a $2 billion cut in federal aid to metro areas. O’Malley said the cuts are “attacking our metropolitan core,” just as “back on September 11, terrorists attacked our metropolitan cores, two of America’s great cities.” As one might imagine, alarm bells went off in people’s minds and O’Malley was asked to explain himself. Fellow mayors of his party distanced themselves from the rhetoric; the opposition engaged in a mixture of chortling and shock. O’Malley himself issued a clarification. He said he “in no way intended to equate these budget cuts, however bad, to a terrorist attack.”

In other words, he circled the wagons and issued a denial. In the same clarifying interview, he struck a version of the “where there’s smoke there’s fire” theme, repeating that two American cities had “already been attacked in this war.”

There’s a notion in moral philosophy called the “moral perimeter.” The idea is that there is an imaginary circle within which we owe people ethical behavior. Outside of that line, our behavior doesn’t matter so much and we are free to behave badly. In war, the enemy is outside the moral perimeter, so we are free to do to him what we would not do to our own kin. The march of civilization can be viewed through this lens, as the moral perimeter — in other words, the definition of who is considered a “person” — has slowly yet inexorably expanded. Ancient Athens, seat of democracy, held women to be non-citizens. The United States held at its founding that some humans could be kept as property. But now, our moral perimeter has expanded to include women and African Americans within it. Others who used to be excluded are now accepted within this perimeter, too. There are signs that America has begun to cross a similar threshold when it comes to sexual identity, though this battle remains pitched and the outcome uncertain.

Slowly, over time, we demand better behavior towards a broader variety of people. In part, this fuels the screaming headlines we see in public life — where’s the news? yesteryear’s editors might have asked. Infidelities and other such transgressions did not seem so relevant as they do now, because we demand better personal behavior from our leaders.

But, there’s a hole in this. Just look around. Behavior is not any better now than it has been in the past. In fact, many people pine for a time of simpler behavior, when right was right, wrong was wrong, and people behaved. Scandal fills the airwaves, and it’s not just the fault of the media looking for sensational stories. Many of us are truly acting in ways that would have gotten us banished from our towns in other times. Spend just a few moments with your newspaper’s “local” section and you, too, will be saddened by what ordinary people seem capable of.

It’s a paradox. Our stated standards are rising — yet our personal behavior seems to be in a death spiral. Around many of us, it’s as if there’s an ethics-free zone. Some of us are like moral doughnuts, demanding an ever-wider moral perimeter, yet demanding little when it comes to our own behavior.

It’s one thing to know that one always ought to strive for better behavior on a personal level. We can all use that advice. But it’s another thing when public life seems filled with moral doughnuts, demanding apologies and expressing shocked dismay while behaving badly in some other area. The adage that urges those who live in glass houses to throw no stones is ever more apt. In today’s world, where news stories circle the globe with ever-greater speed, the total effect is to confirm what so many believe, and that I have heard said by so many citizens: “these guys will do anything to get elected.”

And so, we ought to applaud instances of moral backbone. Not only do they seem ever-more rare, but they are precisely the antidote we need, if public life is going to plug its leaky holes.