At least once a year I like to engage my fifth and sixth graders in a thought experiment that has led year after year to passionate discussions involving ALL of my students. Sometimes it grows out of a lesson on the role of slavery in the writing of the United States Constitution. Sometimes it comes from a study of gender roles in ancient China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. Invariably, it turns into a discussion of how context-dependent ethical issues can be.
I start by making an outrageous statement to the class. I shocked this year’s class by telling them that if I had grown up in South Carolina in the 1770s, I am certain I would have been a staunch supporter of both slavery and the Three-Fifths Compromise. In other years I have said things like, “Of course women should not have the right to vote,” Or, “It is only right that the United States took the land from the Indians.”
I then back up and lead the class into a discussion of context. We talk about how hard it is to be different from the society that surrounds you. We discuss the bravery needed to stand up and point out how wrong something is if everybody is doing that thing. I then ask the students to project themselves two hundred years into the future and to predict what those future people will look back on and say, “Holy cow—it is so clear that that thing was evil and just plain wrong—how could they have done that?” This year’s group came up with three big future indictments of modern American society:
• our attitude toward homosexuality,
• our treatment of animals, and
• our treatment of the environment.
They may be right about all three. Or maybe there is some other cultural activity or attitude to which we are all blind yet which will be glaringly immoral to our great-great grandchildren. Time will tell.
Oddly enough, it was the media hubbub over Scott McClellan’s new book, What Happened, that got me thinking about this thought experiment today. I read blogs and political websites from all across the ideological spectrum—from Free Republic to Democratic Underground. And for the first time ever I have noticed an alarming consensus among commentators of all stripes. No matter what the leanings of the writer, they just about all are ripping into Scott McClellan.
The right-wingers are up in arms about Mr. McClellan’s disloyalty. They are horrified by his willingness to bite the hand that raised him up out of Texas and put him in the national spotlight. I expected these conservative commentators to tear into poor Scott and their collective assault is not at all surprising.
It is the venom spewing from the left that has taken me by surprise. Many lefty blogging heads are saying, more or less, what Arianna Huffington said on her site The Huffington Post:
“How many times are we going to have a key Bush administration official try to wash the blood off his hands -- and add a chunk of change to his bank account -- by writing a come-clean book years after the fact, pointing the finger at everyone else while painting himself as an innocent bystander to history who saw all the horrible things that were happening but, somehow, had no choice but to go along?”
To me, this is a lot like my fifth- and sixth-grade students saying of the ancient Egyptians, “How could they ever have had slaves?” Context is important. In fact, much more important than people are willing to admit when it comes to judging the behaviors of others.
I am glad Scott McClellan has written this book. Nothing I have read about the actual content of the book has surprised me. Nor does the lag time between Mr. McClellan leaving the Bush administration and the publication of his memoir. Scott McClellan was paid a lot of money for several years to work as a spokesman for a good friend whom he admired. His disillusionment took a while. His making sense of his experience took even longer. And his record of that process is an invaluable piece of history penned by a man who has shown himself to be utterly human.
Of course I wish he had stood in front of the national press corps and the people of America in the days before George Bush launched America’s misguided and unnecessary war-of-choice against Saddam Hussein and said what he is now saying. But he didn’t because he could not have. His realizations have taken a while and I am glad that when he did see what really happened that he stepped forward and told the world. With the publication of his book, Scott McClellan has gained my grudging respect and the liberal commentariat has dropped a notch or two in my estimation.