More than two centuries ago, Jeremy Bentham explained the virtues of moderation. If you cut off people’s heads for the most minor infraction, you encourage the petty thief to kill. Criminal sentencing needs to be graduated. Pure vengeance puts society more, not less, at risk.

Decades after the Rockefeller Drug Laws were past, we seem to have learned that lesson with regard to sentencing for minor drug crimes. But now apparently we need other villains whom we can punish without restraint.

One such villain we label sexual offenders. We make it almost impossible for an offender who has served his sentence to find a place to live or work, virtually guaranteeing that they will join the ranks of the underworld. They have no choice. And we label people sexual offenders whose crime was to open the pages of the wrong magazine. Our punishments are so out of proportion that finding ways for people to reintegrate into society, and live productive lives, is now a major issue.

Of course we don’t just do it with drug crimes and sexual offenders. Cigarettes are clearly bad for the health of all those who breathe the smoke. So we give ourselves the privilege of constantly heaping more restrictions. But it’s not OK to encourage a black market, with all their criminal trappings. And I’m not thrilled at turning on the Native Americans every time they get their hands on something that makes them any cash, casinos, now cigarettes, and saying sorry we want that. There is such a thing as going too far.

Of course the newest villain is BP. They certainly are blameworthy. But the pleasure at having a whipping boy is blinding too many people to the larger issues, the larger record of spills from off-shore wells and the transportation of petroleum by ships, trucks and pipes, and the larger record of global damage from hydrocarbons. No it’s not the case that heaping enough penalties on BP will solve our problems with off-shore drilling or any drilling for oil.

The larger issue seems to be that we have lost the politics of proportion. It’s all or nothing. The tea-party movement can’t think of anything worth paying taxes for or any government regulation worth having. Vocal business interests shout shrill slogans about squelching innovation – as if innovation was the same thing as good and didn’t also come as clothing for fraud, foul play and dangerous products. And no you can’t count on the fact that most people are decent because in too many areas of life, the bad drives out the good unless we have watchdogs who are able to stop it.

The tea party makes a tea party of the Constitution. They see a clarity to two century old text that just skips over all the complex questions of meaning and intention and how the founders and the Constitution they wrote adapts to new problems in new situations – and conclude that they wrote a Constitution designed to keep us in the 18th century and unable to adapt to the 21st or to govern ourselves democratically in response to our current problems and issues. It must be nice to see things so clearly, so simplistically, that the Founders would not recognize those who claim to be their accolytes.

All or nothing is easy. Good or bad. One or the other. Moderation takes more sophisticated thought. There are more things to think about. Problems aren’t so easy and answers aren’t so clear cut. But we have lost the politics of moderation. Some people call that moral clarity. But attaining clarity by driving blind is immoral. Woe be to us.


One Response to Overkill

  1. Cynthia M Suprenant says:

    We have lost the politics of moderation, indeed. Or are the moderate voices lost in the terrible noise at each end of an issue’s continuum?

    Now, granted, there’s a lot of sample bias here. But most of the people I know are reasonable and moderate. Perhaps they want the right to bear arms, but they recognize that nobody other than a soldier needs an automatic or even semi-automatic weapon. Or they value self-reliance, but acknowledge that our pathetic health care safety net is no safety net at all. Or they decry abortion, but firmly object only to late-term abortions where the health of the mother is not at stake and the pregnancy could have been terminated at an earlier and less “human” stage.

    That’s not how it’s served up to us, ‘though. It also doesn’t appear to be how our leaders frame the arguments. Is it unfettered capitalism and the media’s need to attract viewers and readers with the most controversial viewpoints? Is it the campaign finance system? I have to think that in America, it’s about money.

    I miss Sen. Ted Kennedy. For all the unfavorable things people could say about his personal history, and for all his government-expanding initiatives, the man was a statesman. He knew what was really important, and he would work to compromise with other reasonable people to get the right thing done. I don’t think he’d be happy with the details of the health care reform law, because the economics of it aren’t reasonable, and because it was both blocked and pushed through based on the worst politics. I think he appealed to others’ best intentions. Where is the next Sen. Kennedy from either of the major political parties? Where is a stateman who puts what is best for the country ahead of his or her own interests?

    Woe be to us, indeed.

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