Privacy, Politicians, and Moral Consensus

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Ross Douthat’s latest column reflects on commentary and controversy around the decisions of the Santorum family and the Palin family regarding infant death and special needs. An excerpt:

In a sense, one could say that these kinds of invasive debates become inevitable once the traditional zone of privacy around public figures collapses. But it would be more accurate to say that the zone of privacy has collapsed precisely because of the deep moral divisions that these kinds of controversies reveal.

Privacy is a luxury of moral consensus. Nobody would have thought to politicize the premature birth and death of John F. Kennedy’s son Patrick, because abortion wasn’t a polarizing issue in the America of 1963. But if a white politician in the Jim Crow South had married a black woman, the relationship would inevitably have been seen as a political gesture as well a personal decision.

Today, we are less divided over race, but more divided over sex and reproduction. In a country that cannot agree whether fetuses are human beings, even questions like how to mourn and bury a miscarried child are inevitably freighted with ideological significance. Likewise, in a country where the majority of Down syndrome fetuses are aborted, the mere act of carrying a child with a genetic disorder to term — as both the Palins and the Santorums, whose daughter Bella has Trisomy 18, have done — feels like a political statement.

The same pattern holds with respect to politicians and their marriage vows. In an era that had a clear and stable understanding of marriage, it was easier to treat politicians’ adulteries as a private matter between a husband and a wife. But hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, and a society that can’t agree on the definition of sexual virtue inevitably takes a stronger interest in whether a politician actually lives up to the definition of marriage he defends.

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