The other day, I came across this comment in a magazine interview with psychologist Nathaniel Branden: "The ultimate test of our integrity is not how we deal with those whom we agree with, those on 'our side,' but how we deal with those who do not agree, those on the 'other side.'"
It struck me as a basic truth that ought to be immediately obvious, and that few people pause to think about.
Just look at our political discourse. Right now, there's a lot of talk about Bush-hating versus Clinton-hating. Conservatives who lament anti-Bush vitriol sometimes acknowledge that there have been excesses of Clinton-bashing, but they invariably add disclaimers: for instance, that they were far better reasons to hate Bill Clinton, or that rabid Clinton-hatred was confined to the fringes while Bush-hating is far more pervasive and mainstream. Liberals argue (surprise, surprise!) that it's exactly the other way round.
For another example, compare the reaction, left and right, to the allegations of sexual misconduct against Clinton and against California Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger.
After revelations that 15 women had come forward to accuse Schwarzenegger of making crude sexual advances toward them during his movie career, many Democrats—and particularly feminists, including activists from the National Organization for Women—indignantly condemned his treatment of women. (Schwarzenegger admitted he had behaved badly on occasion and issued an apology.) Yet these were the same people who had backed Clinton and denounced the inquiries into his private life as a right-wing witch hunt. The irony of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton joining the all-female anti-Schwarzenegger rally by telephone was not lost on commentators.
Susan Faludi, the author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, penned a remarkable column for the Los Angeles Times contrasting Schwarzenegger's sins to Clinton's. Clinton, she wrote, "may have been the aggressor, but as a seducer he really meant to seduce, thus exposing an almost feminine sort of desire and vulnerability. For this, he was humiliated, held up … for ridicule in male eyes."
Not so Schwarzenegger, wrote Faludi: He went after women "frat-boy style, for the score," with no "courtship," intending not to seduce but to abuse and humiliate. According to her, "women's anger about rape and harassment is exacerbated by the knowledge that their attackers are after power, not sex"—which was supposedly why more women backed Clinton and more men backed Schwarzenegger.
Never mind that alleged "courtship," Clinton-style, included exposing himself and soliciting oral sex (according to Paula Jones), and groping a woman and placing her hand on his genitals (according to Kathleen Willey). Juanita Broaddrick also accused him of rape.
One feminist activist at the anti-Schwarzenegger rally, film producer Patricia Foulkrod, was disarmingly frank in explaining the double standard: "The difference is that Clinton was so brilliant. If Arnold was a brilliant pol and had this thing about inappropriate behavior, we'd figure a way of getting around it. I think it's to our detriment to go on too much about the groping. But it's our way in. This is really about the GOP trying to take California in 2004 and our trying to stop it."
Of course, the double standards weren't all on one side. Many of the same conservatives who decried Clinton's sexual misdeeds were willing to forgive Schwarzenegger, reserving their anger for what they regard as "dirty tricks" by the Democrats and the liberal media. Even virtue czar William Bennett was muted in his criticism of Schwarzenegger's misdeeds, emphasizing that sinners deserve a second chance.
In his weblog, Schwarzenegger enthusiast Andrew Sullivan explained the differences that he believed favored Schwarzenegger over Clinton. Some of his distinctions make sense (Clinton's alleged misdeeds occurred when he held public office, and he was actually sued for sexual harassment). Others seem more of a stretch. Thus, Sullivan argued that Schwarzenegger's offenses were all one-time whereas Clinton sometimes pursued the same woman for years; in fact, Clinton's long-term "pursuits" were all consensual. He also wrote that Clinton "continued his lies and sexual abuse in office"; yet the only confirmed sexual dalliance he had in the White House was, again, consensual. In an earlier commentary, Sullivan objected to the notion that Schwarzenegger's self-disclosed participation in group sex in the 1970s suggested a troubling attitude toward women; the encounter, he pointed out, was apparently consensual on all sides. Yet Sullivan had also condemned Clinton's consensual affair with Monica Lewinsky as abusive.
Most of our commentariat, it seems, fails Branden's integrity test. Then again, the same thing was said more succinctly many years ago: "Why do you see the speck in your brother's eye, but not the log in your own?"