Principle, expediency and hypocrisy: American values?

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist  |  Nov. 27, 2017 at 8:16 AM
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During their first year at the Naval Academy, midshipmen must memorize material contained in Reef Points. Reef Points is a manual for reinforcing naval values with fact and some history, including quotations from naval heroes such as John Paul Jones' "we have just begun to fight" and Commodore James Lawrence's "Don't give up the ship."

Perhaps the weightiest of these famous quotes is Commodore Matthew Maury's stricture: "When principle is involved, be deaf to expediency." Maury has been criticized for abandoning his pronouncement in joining his Southern confederates in the Civil War even though it could be argued that his was principle wrongly exercised.

Today, American politics and values have become even more contentious and squalid over sexual harassment and abuse. Perpetrators from New York to Hollywood are falling like rotted timber to accusations and allegations of wrongful sexual behavior, some of which are decades old. While such social upheaval is not new -- witches were burnt at the stake in Salem -- the current situation dramatizes deep cleavages in values over principle, expediency, free speech and the precept of innocence until proven otherwise mixed with massive doses of hypocrisy.

Roy Moore, an Alabama judge and senatorial candidate, sadly personifies the currently dismal state of American politics and values. Credible women have alleged his predatory and possibly illegal sexual conduct. Moore categorically denied all of these charges. President Donald Trump has defended Moore despite accusations of his own improper conduct made public on a TMZ tape in which Trump bragged about exploiting his celebrity status, groping and making sexual advances on women. The excuse that this was just "locker room" talk between boys was nonsensical.

The real issue for the president is not whether Moore is guilty or innocent. Trump cannot tolerate a liberal Democrat winning the Alabama senatorial election no matter how qualified. While presidential prerogative can be deaf to principle, surely, Moore's public remarks about homosexuals and other minority groups and his refusal to abide by the law as a judge surely are disqualifying factors for high office regardless of whether the charges are true. Hypocrisy 10, principle 0.

Trump is not alone. Bill Clinton was the poster child for sexual misconduct -- consensual or not. Yet, many forgave Clinton believing the president's stand on women's reproductive rights trumped any wrongdoing. Again, hypocrisy prevailed.

Despite the absence of no accepted definition of what constitutes sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior, mere allegations are often enough to convict. Whether Sen. Al Franken is a predator or not, the photograph of him appearing to touch a sleeping woman's breasts or patting another lady on the behind cannot be associated with abusing a minor or sexual assault. Yet in this environment, so far, the senator's relatively minor indiscretions can be politically fatal. And further abuses by other members of Congress have yet to run their course. More charges are likely.

Here free speech abuts against presumption of innocence. What a woman may rightly regard as unwanted behavior could be regarded by a man as entirely appropriate. But who is likely to win in the court of public opinion when it may be impossible to determine what actually happened? And workplace abuse with absolutely no sexual connotations -- for example, a tough, demanding and even unpleasant boss -- can potentially constitute grounds for legal action or dismissal.

Unfortunately, no easy policy or legislative solution exists. Nancy Reagan said just say no to drugs. Just saying no to unwanted sexual advances could be one answer. The flaw is that where the offender has particular power over the victim such as being a boss, celebrity or with other leverage, saying no will not always work. Worse, because of increasing polarization of society into "us and them" mentalities, compromise and civility become as victimized as those being sexually assaulted. Hypocrisy flourishes when advancing one's political agenda neutralizes principle.

Common sense should apply. It will not. As American politics become more pernicious and divided, allegations of wrongdoing will become more attractive and usable weapons to attack the other side, regardless of whomever the other side may be. Unless or until civility and compromise can be restored to the political dialogue, the contradictions among principle, expediency, free speech, presumption of innocence and hypocrisy will simply grow larger. That is not good for the health of the union and its values.

Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is senior adviser at Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His newest book, "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts," is just out. Follow him on Twitter@harlankullman.

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