One of my favorite columnists/bloggers/ whatever-you-want-to-call-hims, Andrew Sullivan, has been on an extended rant, raising questions as to whether Sarah Palin is the legitimate birth parent of her now three-year-old son Trig.
A conspiracy theory, formerly consigned to the ranks of far-far-left bitter partisans, is being very seriously and very publicly scrutinized by an often-conservative, almost-always-thoughftul member of the media Establishment.
Of course, sensing an opportunity to rile up the far right, Andrew Breirbart has joined the fray, attacking Sullivan for his “disgusting, ends-justify-the-means obsession with the personal family life of Sarah Palin.”
While generally speaking, I will side with Sullivan over Breitbart 102 times out of every 100, and while I certainly dispute Breitbart’s characterization of Sullivan’s motives, I rise to defend Sarah Palin in this instance.
Let’s suppose the accusations are true — that Palin is lying about the baby’s maternity. And let’s make an even bigger leap of credulity: that Sarah Palin could turn around her disastrous — and sinking — poll numbers and emerge as a legitimate contender for the White House.
I believe that even in the most powerful position in the world; even with someone who has voluntarily subjected herself to the ultimate measure of public scrutiny; and, yes, even with an individual who has pushed her family out front and center in an effort to win voter sympathy — I still believe that a public official should retain a limited, but still discrete, zone of privacy.
I argued here that politicians, celebrities, or anyone else for that matter, should not be sentenced to jail when they have lied about a non-criminal matter, fabricating with the simple intent to preserve their reputations or protect themselves from embarrassment.
I extend that same principle of forgiveness — in an extra-legal sense — to politicians who lie about non-criminal matters to protect their family members, particularly their young children.
I can’t imagine how this potential fabrication bears any reflection upon Sarah Palin’s fitness to be President. It’s not like this is the only case upon which we can judge her credibility. (Remember “death panels”?)
If a public official commits a crime, misuses public resources, or engages in behavior that significantly impacts job performance; then of course he or she is free game for public discussion, media examination, and potentially judicial punishment. But just as Sullivan and I would agree that it is none of the government’s business to intervene in matters of individual, private morality; it is also not the public’s business to pry open every crook and cranny of an elected official’s personal life.
Sullivan has argued that since Palin has repeatedly claimed that Trig is her son — and even discussed the details of her pregnancy and his childbirth — she has transformed the issue from private to public, thereby making this a legitimate topic for scrutiny. I disagree. Even if there were a big lie hiding under the surface, the societal benefits for exposing it (very little, in my judgment) are far outweighed by the potential harm done to innocent, minor children.
I wrote in The Compassionate Community about the distinction between private and public morality, using the case of one of my heroes, Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Too often, a discussion of moral values is limited to personal, private behavior. But morality means so much more. As the respected psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg has argued, the highest stage of moral development of when an individual accepts universal principles of justice, the reciprocity and equality of human rights, and respect for the dignity of human beings. In this context, Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of the greatest moral leaders of the twentieth century: His willingness to sacrifice his life to pursue justice for all overwhelms any personal, human faults that have been exposed in recent years.
The primary focus of public policy, therefore, should not be the private morality of individuals. It should instead be the public morality of the nation. Taken individually, each of us is a flawed work in progress.
Of course, I personally don’t think that Sarah Palin remotely approaches King as a moral leader. But we must apply the same standards of judgment to each. Let’s judge Palin on her qualifications and her policy pronouncements. And let’s leave her minor kids out of it.
What say you, RP nation?