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Washington Diarist

Against Integrity

It took only a few days for the saga of Sarah Palin to go from Frank Capra to Preston Sturges to Judd Apatow, and then for the farce to stop being funny at all. These are not the times for right-wing screwball. The world is aflame and we have been pondering the knocked-up daughter of a pert and uncannily confident Alaskan mediocrity who was elevated to a national ticket for the purpose of changing the conversation. The Republicans wanted a new conversation, and they got one. Juno in Juneau! The anthropological harvest has been rich: what a carnival of double standards Palin provoked. I was unaware of the tender feelings of conservatives for sex outside of marriage. I thought that all the swingers in America lived in fleshpots such as this, my Beltway Babylon, where just this morning a vixen in pin-stripes walked over from K Street and dropped an expensed grape into my mouth, but I was wrong. I should not have scanted the libertine understanding of my Christian brothers and sisters. I am also happy to learn from them that pregnant teenagers are an American norm--"hardly shocking," as the Right Reverend Michael Gerson taught in The Washington Post. Some commentators have detected moral relativism in the untroubled, even edified conservative response to the obstetric developments in the McCain campaign; but I see something even more sinister. I see the teleological suspension of the ethical. You remember the teleological suspension of the ethical. It is the recognition that, whereas there is morality in religion, religion is not the same as morality, and may justify an exemption from morality. I know of no religion in which this handy power of extenuation is not used. The telos, in the case of Bristol Palin, is life; and a fine telos it is. The casuistry goes something like this: since there are no unwanted babies, there are no unwanted pregnancies. "It can sometimes result in the arrival of new life and a new family," Gerson cheered. For "evangelical Christianity (in most modern forms) is not about the achievement of perfection." If evangelicals are so exquisitely conscious of our creatureliness, why have they devoted so many decades to reviling the imperfections of others? If they are, as Gerson says, "about the acceptance of forgiveness," why do they diabolize difference? The fecundity of Bristol Palin is a windfall for Jesus, but the fecundity of black girls is the doom of the republic. Spiritually speaking, the forgiveness of oneself or of one's own is a smaller attainment than the forgiveness of the other or of all. My friends, the politics of virtue is a vice.

Sarah Palin was chosen not for what she has done but for what she is--for her value as an ideological illustration. Her distinction lies in her typicality, whereas the Democratic candidate is a monster of atypicality. She is, quite plainly, a stranger to skepticism. No McCain-like temperament here; only a vivacious dogmatism. As mayor of Wasilla she considered the banning of books from the town's library. Three of her five children exemplify articles of conservative faith. And she sees God in her own activities. "I think God's will has to be done in unifying people and companies to get that gas line built," she testified at a church in June about her big project as governor. For thine is the kingdom and the powerpoint! Certainly the politics of resentment have never before been expressed by the cute wrinkling of a nose. But the truth is that Sarah Palin is a woman of integrity. I do not say this sardonically. I find nothing phony in her, nothing cynical. She lacks the detachment from one's own purposes that phoniness and cynicism (and genuine thought) require. She is too immediately what she is. Palin is the sort of supporter of the war in Iraq whose son is shipping off to the war in Iraq. This I must respect. She is not a Palm conservative, pausing over the creamed spinach to raise another glass to the America in which she chooses not to dwell. Whatever the Christian conservative way of life is, Palin is living it. And so her grotesque and fascinating candidacy broaches an interesting subject, which is the moral insufficiency of integrity. In its etymological origins, integrity refers to wholeness, to a coherent arrangement of the parts into a whole, to the consistency of the parts with each other, to the harmony of a thing or a being with itself. Integrity is a formal property, a consideration of structure. It is, in other words, contentless. It is indifferent to the substance of the elements whose internal relations are its concern, and neutral about questions of truth and falsity, good and evil. False ideas often add up; evil individuals often add up. A unified identity is not for that reason an admirable identity. It is all very nice to have the courage of one's convictions, but the convictions matter as much as the courage.

The wrath in St. Paul was surprising. From the roars of the Republicans, from their elites' attack upon elites, you would have thought that for the last eight years we have been governed by Adlai Stevenson. By wiping George W. Bush away, the Republicans recovered their anger, which anyway they cherish. This poses strategic and even psychic challenges to the Democrats. Will they get angry at the anger? The problem with Barack Obama's dulcet call for a new politics is that it, too, is righteously contentless. Why is civility so essential? Is negativity not one of the conditions of criticism? The aim in politics is not to be sweet but to be right, and then to win. What is said counts more than how it is said. In the grammar of politics, the adverb is less significant than the direct object: not better politics, but better policies; not the form of politics, but the content. As for bipartisanship, it generally means your defection to my party. When a party stands for something, there is honor in belonging to it. And when the parties stand for antithetical conceptions of nation and government, bipartisanship is a dodger's daydream. Obama visits the low ground but he prefers the high ground. This may damage him. It leaves him more vulnerable to hypocrisy, as when he solemnly asked reporters to desist from covering Bristol Palin's big news. "I would strongly urge people to back off these kinds of stories," he said. "You know, my mother had me when she was 18." Yes, we know; and we know because he told us, again and again. His narrative of his own family is one of the foundations of his campaign. If Obama is elected president, his preference for the high ground may damage us, too. For the only way to provide security and health care for all Americans is ruthlessly.

By Leon Wieseltier