Of Petraeus and Portia
Original post made by Tom Cushing on Nov 12, 2012
This has been a big week for empathy in my household -- starting with the elections, as we watched those who lost bear-up bravely under crushing disappointments. My week also included The Sessions, a terrific and frank film that offers a ticket into the chaste world of a polio survivor, and invites the audience to experience his quest to overcome profound barriers to human emotional intimacy that his disability had previously foreclosed to him. The week ended with the crashing downfall of an American hero, as former General Petraeus resigned his leadership of the CIA, in adulterous disgrace.
The facts continue to emerge as to the latter incident we don't yet know whether he has simply joined the non-exclusive political hypocrites club of found-out philanderers, or whether his affair with another married person was a true aberration. I do know that I've been there often enough to understand that there are places in a marriage that outsiders just never see, and about which we cannot know such that we ought to resist simplistic, he-done-her-wrong conclusions.
We also know that there is irony in this public exposition of the General's privates (sorry, Mrs. Lovett!), based in his former disdain for others who had broken similar vows. But mostly we have to be aware that there's an awful agony making the rounds here, and we'd be less than our best selves not to feel empathy for the tragic emotional plague that's been visited on at least two houses, and their several children.
Giving Mr. Petraeus a hero's benefit of the doubt (I'm sure there'll be some score-settling on the reputation front, capitalizing on his weakened state), I suspect that he will come to understand from this humiliation that, despite all the Rules Web Link , occasionally, "life happens" in unplanned, sometimes unwelcome and yet irresistible ways. He has been a man of accomplishment, high principle, duty and achievement on behalf of others, but he, and she, both managed to betray the very two people to whom they had most and publicly promised their faithfulness. While you wouldn't wish these circumstances on anyone, that humility may be one of the most important life lessons a person can learn. When circumstance gobsmacks you upside Your very own noggin, you become a wiser, if sadder, participant in the human race.
In an earlier context, one might assume that former VP Mr. Cheney would have opposed same-sex marriage "on principle," as do many of his philosophical neighbors. His family had been blessed, however, with a lesbian daughter -- and, sure enough, he favored full social participation for her and others who share her sexual orientation. Life happened, and informed his approach, at least on that issue. Query how President Bush, the Younger, might have conceived this question had one of his twins been attracted to Ms. Cheney?
Sometimes, the empathy lesson is incompletely learned. During the recent campaign, it was said of Mr. Romney that he had spent countless hours lay-ministering to people close to him. I have little doubt that he's a person capable of deeply caring about people he knows and sees. Thus, it was surprising to me that this was the same man who would unhesitatingly consign untold others, unknown to him, to the medical mercies of the ER ("That's why there are emergency rooms," on 60 Minutes). He could also state that nearly half the citizenry are not his concern because "they consider themselves victims." Somehow, he couldn't translate his immediate capability for caring into a broader concept of empathy as expressed in policy.
Or had he seen too little during his life of relative privilege? That's my fiancee's theory. The best thing he could have done at some point in his marathon candidacy, she believes, would have been to go and live with a very poor family, to share their struggle and understand the difficult odds they face daily, well toward the base of Maslov's Need Hierarchy. Smart gal, my fiancée.
Perhaps this empathy notion is related to the concept of "compassionate conservatism" which is a very tough sell to many on the Right of the spectrum, and an oxymoron to Southpaws. It seems that contemporary conservatives would sooner side with Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, and cut out the heart of a defaulting debtor, as required by a binding legal contract (a "bad life choice" by old Antonio).
But didn't Portia have the better part of the argument, in her "quality of mercy" speech? Web Link Shouldn't leaders have a feeling for the consequences of their decisions on living, bleeding people, rather than just, say, mechanistically slashing and burning their way through the budget?
I don't want my leaders to forget to limit spending. But neither did I want Antonio's heart removed in the play, and I don't want my leaders' hearts cut out, either or even checked at the Oval Office door. As the great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes observed: "the life of the law is experience." Experience that teaches empathy, and animates public policy priorities.
I don't know what lies in-store for Mr. Petraeus, his wife, mistress or anyone else caught in this sad, sordid web of deceit. He certainly fell on his sword in a remarkably public way a ritual of shame and regret. He had to resign, in my view, because of both his high position as exemplar to his subordinates, and the special circumstances of the agency he ran. I suspect that he will seek redemption at some point, and as we all know, America loves a comeback. If that transpires, I think he will be a better leader for his hard-won understanding that "life happens."
on Nov 13, 2012 at 6:57 am
And now, General Allen -- has he been building His character, too? With all the slap-and-tickle being played by the brass and their buddies, it's a wonder anyone has time to fight the war.
What I want to know is: who'll be the first to say that this is all Obama's fault?
on Nov 13, 2012 at 11:43 am
Congratulations on your engagement, Tom.
As you know, I enjoy being an internet troll. So since you brought up General Petraeus's adultery, I thought I might ask you a personal question on this topic.
You believe in Jesus, the Bible, and whatnot, right?
Remember when Jesus said that if you marry a divorced woman, you're committing adultery? It's in Matthew 5:32:
But I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
You don't actually believe that, do you?
General Petraeus may be facing criminal charges that stem from circumstances around his adultery. Fortunately for the broader public, the government no longer tries to criminalize our private sexual behavior.
But imagine if they did. You wouldn't like that, would you?
Yet, segueing into the other topic in your column, aren't you and your liberal friends shoving your version of morality down our throats with respect to Obamacare?
Your version of morality forces a rich person like me to pay for middle class healthcare. You call it a moral issue.
But Obamacare is not a clear moral choice, because due to its mammoth cost, it will prevent us from keeping our promises we already made to pay for Medicare and Medicaid for the poor, elderly, and disabled.
These programs will be insolvent in about 10 years. Web Link Medicare costs alone are expected to rise from 3.5% of GDP today, to well over 6% of GDP in less than 20 years. Web Link
Everyone agrees that we cannot possibly tax our way out of this fiscal crisis. We will have to make cuts. And after we've raised taxes to ruinous levels and slashed our military budget to the bone (which we should) we will still be left with the hard choice of cutting Medicare and Medicaid. There is no way around that.
There is nothing moral about breaking our promises to the poor, elderly, and disabled so that Obamacare can give $200 billion a year of healthcare tax credits to the middle class.
Yes, Obamacare is paid for through tax increases. But as you know, we can't rob Peter to pay Paul. Every tax dollar that goes to Obamacare is a dollar that can't be used to stabilize Medicare and Medicaid.
It's not unlike Gen. Petraeus's affair. He promised to love and care for his wife. He can't possibly care for both his wife and his mistress.
We can't possibly pay for both Medicare and Medicaid and also pay for Obamacare benefits for the middle class. So who deserves it more? The poor, elderly, and disabled? Or the middle class?
Sometimes there's no clear moral choice.
on Nov 13, 2012 at 12:40 pm
I'm not comfortable sharing that much personal information with an anonymous internet troll. As a UU, though, you could say that I do believe in a fair amount of 'whatnot.' That spiritual stuff is better the subject of a long conversation, over beers.
Suffice it to say, though, that enough is already known about me that, if I was a Tampa socialite, I might consider bringing in the authorities.
I will be busy for the next few days, and not able to give you the detailed fight you want over the ACA, again. I Can say that straw dilemmas are rarely sturdy. More later.