03 Apr Killing the Impartial Spectator
Last night, we went looking for an old piece we had written about Joe and Hunter Biden. We knew we wrote it sometime in 2019, before the elder Biden officially joined the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. And we knew that it was about their troubled lives and the deep and abiding emotional pain they had both suffered.
Our intention was to say, “we told you so.”
The way we remembered the piece, it was a plea to Joe not to run. We laid out the case(s) against Hunter, explained why he’d suffered enough for one lifetime, and urged his father not to do it, simply because of the immense additional pain to which a campaign and the presidency would subject his family. Hunter, we suggested, had committed more than enough wrongdoing to spend the rest of his life in prison but probably would not, if his father retired to Rehoboth, where he belonged. If Joe ran, however, and, heaven forbid, won, then Hunter would become a pawn in the tit-for-tat politicization of the justice system. His father would spend his dying days visiting his lone remaining son in prison.
Under the circumstances – in which the tit-for-tat politicization of the justice system is just getting warmed up – we figured it was worth re-upping our warning.
The only catch is that we didn’t actually write that piece. Peggy Noonan did. When we went back and looked last night, it turned out that we did, indeed, make the case(s) against Hunter and did explain why he’d suffered enough for one lifetime. But we did NOT urge his father not to run for president. Instead, we urged people – opponents, journalists, whomever – to treat Hunter, Joe, and everyone else in the political realm with a little more kindness and a LOT more empathy. We put it this way:
[N]one of this should be taken as excuse-making for Hunter Biden. He’s a grown man and is responsible for his actions. He has screwed up an awful lot and has caused great harm to many people.
All of that notwithstanding, he’s a human being, one who has had an awful lot of grief and tragedy in his life. Perhaps taking a swipe at him for having “his mommy” go on TV to defend him is a bit over the top or, at the very least, not especially helpful.
Regular readers will recall that twice over the last couple of weeks, we have mentioned the importance of empathy in a functional society. Indeed, empathy is THE critical virtue in Adam Smith’s political economy. (He calls it “sympathy,” but he uses the word to mean what we call “empathy.”) Only through empathy can a man know not only what is in his short-term interests but what is in his long-term interests as well, since they are tied to the interests of those around him….
We’re not naïve about “negative” campaigning. We know that the American tradition of hurling invectives at political opponents is old and revered. And we are generally fine with it. Indeed, we once wrote a piece titled “A Good Word for Negative Talk,” in which we encouraged political candidates to air all their opponents’ dirty laundry. How else, we wondered, would we learn everything we need to know about candidates, including their ability to handle adversity?
But that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily in our best interests to dehumanize our political adversaries. It doesn’t mean that we have to kick ‘em below the belt to make our point. That diminishes us much more than it does them.
We’ll admit that we have always had a soft spot for Joe Biden. He is a lying, braggadocious goof, who has played political hardball all his professional life and has hit more than a few people in the head with those hardballs. He is a plagiarist with hair plugs who is nowhere near as innocent and harmless as his supporters would have us believe.
He also lost his wife and his baby daughter at the start of his political career and stood by helplessly – despite being the Vice President of the United States – while his oldest son died. That deserves a little empathy, no matter what else you think of him.
Something similar – though admittedly more difficult – can be said about Biden’s longtime Senate colleague Ted Kennedy. Kennedy was a true wretch of a man. He abused women. He abused the political process. He abused and defamed Republican judicial nominees, time and again. And, of course, he left Mary Jo Kopechne to drown, alone, at the bottom of Poucha Pond – in order to protect his own political viability. But he also lost three brothers, one in war, and two who were assassinated at the height of their political power. His overbearing father had his sister committed for being “difficult” and then had her lobotomized. One needn’t overlook Kennedy’s many failings as a man and a politician to acknowledge that, in spite of everything, it is OK to feel some sympathy/empathy for him. Indeed, we’d suggest that it is necessary, in a functional political economy, for us to do so.
As fate would have it, this is actually a much better message for the moment than the one we originally planned to use: “We tried to warn you!”
Just over a decade ago, John Edwards, the former Senator and vice presidential nominee, was prosecuted by the Justice Department for using campaign funds to pay off his mistress, who happened to be pregnant with his child. The case fell apart over the question of intent. In order to prove the case was a campaign finance violation, the DoJ had to prove that the payment was made specifically (and solely) to hide information that would have damaged Edwards’ campaign prospects. Given that Edwards’ wife was dying of cancer at the time of the affair/pregnancy, it wasn’t difficult for his legal team to blow a huge hole in the case. He clearly had non-political motives for paying his mistress to keep quiet.
Three times, potential prosecutors declined to pursue the case against Donald Trump based in large part on the Edwards precedent. The Justice Department, the Federal Election Commission, and Alvin Bragg himself passed on the case. Bragg is pursuing the case now, under political pressure, because people want to see Trump fried – whether there is legal justification for it or not. They want to see him handcuffed. They want to see his mugshot. They want to see him in jail. They want retribution for…well…for all the years that he made them emotional basket-cases…or something.
To his opponents, Donald Trump is a monster, pure and simple. That alone is reason enough to put him away, valid criminal case or not. And in response, Trump’s supporters will feel justified in charging and (if possible) convicting Hunter Biden, and Hunter’s uncle Jim, and even POTUS himself. And Nancy Pelosi, insider trader extraordinaire. And AOC for her own campaign finance violations. And Congresswoman Cori Bush. And…well…the list is endless.
To be clear, we have no problem with the prosecution of politicians (and their family members) who deserve it. But that’s not what the prosecution of Trump is. And it’s not what the retaliatory prosecutions will be. They are/will be pure political theater, in which those charged are not actual people but are, rather, players in the big show.
It’s hard to believe it, but it strikes us that in just the three-and-a-half years since the above piece was written, the nation’s capacity for empathy appears to have eroded even further. The “sides” in this battle have hardened and grown less capable of feeling anything for their “enemies” other than hatred.
The problems with this should be clear. For starters, it exacerbates the animosity in the “total state,” bringing us ever closer to total war (within the total state) and, in turn, the strongman who restores order with the support of the masses. Additionally, and perhaps even more urgently, as Adam Smith suggests, the complete lack of empathy puts our entire way of life at immediate risk. Empathy is the source of the theory of moral sentiments; it is the motivation behind the “impartial spectator” who allows us to evaluate our actions based on morality and justice. Without empathy, the system breaks down, and self-interest can never be enlightened.
Again, we have no brief to make on behalf of crooked politicians. Nevertheless, seeing anyone completely unempathetically, as a political scalp to be won or lost for our “side” is exceptionally unjust and dangerous.
Yet here we are…