When questioned why I spent so much time and effort on potential cases of student misconduct during my time as a college professor, the answer was simple. If students get away with the small stuff now–cheating on an assignment or lying to a faculty member–there is no reason to believe they will not behave similarly when the stakes are higher than a mere grade. It was never about the punishment. Among the faculty, we often reminded each other our students were “adults in training.” It was about the teaching moment. Getting young men and women back on the right path.
An event this week reminded me no lesson is permanent. But the dilemma that has unsettled me is, “What do you do when when one of the ‘good guys’ begins to exhibit behaviors which suggests he is falling prey to influences which may seem insignificant at the time, but have much larger future consequences?” Let me explain.
On Tuesday, a long-time friend and his wife paid a visit on their way from their Plains State home to a winter rental in the Florida Keys. After a wonderful dinner in town, we decided to watch a movie. As we were scrolling through the Netflix options, there was a promo for David Letterman’s new show “My Next Guest…” My friend is a life-long Republican and we met when we were both directors of community development in our respective states. Letterman’s first episode featured an interview with Barack Obama. I jokingly said, “I guess you don’t want to watch this,” knowing he disagreed with many of the former President’s policies, yet I never heard him make any personal attacks against Obama or his family.
But I was wrong. His response was directed at Letterman. “I hate anybody who would call a 17-year-old a whore. And he used that exact word.”
The incident to which my friend was referring was Letterman’s June 10, 2009 monologue in which he told the following joke about Sarah Palin’s family attending a New York Yankees baseball game. “There was one awkward moment during the seventh-inning stretch when Palin’s daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez.” When you parse the sentence, you realize there are multiple references to current events. In May 2009 Palin’s 18-year-old daughter Bristol was (some might say ironically) named a “Teen Pregnancy Prevention Ambassador” by the Candies Foundation following the birth of her son Tripp. At the same time, headlines about the Yankee shortstop’s sexual exploits involving celebrities such as Madonna and Kate Hudson were plastered across every tabloid and gossip magazine.
No one can argue this was not a distasteful and totally inappropriate attempt at humor. It was made worse by the fact Bristol had not accompanied the family that evening. Instead, Palin and husband Todd took their younger daughter, then 14-year-old, Willow with them. Letterman was roundly criticized and eventually apologized on air to the Palin family. “I told a bad joke. I told a joke that was beyond flawed, and my intent is completely meaningless compared to the perception.” Even Palin recognized the worse offense was joking about the sexual exploitation of children. In a June 16, 2009 statement, Palin wrote, “On behalf of all young women, like my daughters, who hope men who ‘joke’ about public displays of sexual exploitation of girls will soon evolve.” And she was absolutely right.
But in this era of tribal political warfare, I wondered if maybe I was wrong. Maybe there was something else I missed. So, I Googled, “David Letterman calls Bristol Palin a whore.” In what may be the first time in Google history, there were NO direct hits containing the words Letterman, Bristol and whore. No mainstream media outlets. No alt-right sites. Not even one conservative blog.
Why did I find this so discomforting? After all, it was eight and a half years ago. The effected parties seemed to have put it past them. Because as I explained earlier, despite differences in party affiliation and ideology, I always considered my friend to be one of the good guys. An honest broker of an opposing perspective who did not need exaggerations or false claims to make his point.
What had changed? Where did this “non-fact” come from? And why was he so susceptible to embracing it? And more importantly, what does it mean for the future. I have no idea what Robert Mueller’s final report will reveal. If it says there was no conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians, I may disagree with his interpretation of the evidence but I will not question the facts he lays out to make his case. But what if it goes the other way. This week you had Congressman Devin Nunes, who already tried to “cook the books” with false information about FISA, claiming to have evidence of an FBI plot to stage a coup against Trump, despite Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd warning Nunes the release of such unsubstantiated allegations would be “extraordinarily reckless.” And Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson then claimed to have an informant telling him there is a cabal of FBI officials holding “secret meetings” to plan Trump’s take-down. When pressed for evidence of this conspiracy theory, Johnson backed off, saying he had no idea what his “informant” meant by the term “secret society.” To make matters worse, House Speaker Paul Ryan has refused to step in and stop rogue Republicans from spreading such tripe. Given a choice between supporting the Justice Department and FBI or the Freedom Caucus, he spinelessly passed on the question.
One more example. Earlier this week I was walking the dog when I came upon an elderly gentleman wearing an Air Force cap. I asked him about his service. Then, without any coaxing from me, he volunteered how upset it was that the Democratic party was holding the military budget hostage over undocumented immigrants. I asked him, “Were you aware Democratic Senator McCaskill of Missouri, immediately following the failed budget vote Friday night, introduced a resolution to exempt the military from the government shutdown and Mitch McConnell refused to bring her motion to the floor for a vote?” He replied, “I don’t believe it.” At which point, I told him, if that’s the case, there’s no reason to continue the conversation and walked away.
As the late U.S. Senator from New York Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” As was the case with academic misconduct at the university, the Trump administration concept of “alternate facts” also started small, i.e. the crowd size at the inauguration. But once it becomes the norm, there are no barriers to the use of larger and larger “non-facts” to disrupt and undercut the basic foundations of our government and the Constitution. The Nation survived Nixon and I still believe we will survive Trump. Unfortunately, faux patriots like Devin Nunes, Ron Johnson, and increasingly, Paul Ryan are making it much harder.
For what it’s worth.