View Full Version : When politeness becomes vice

07-01-05, 12:20 PM
When politeness becomes vice
Selwyn Duke
July 1st, 2005

In New York for what has been billed as his last crusade in America, evangelist Billy Graham shared a stage with Bill Clinton this past Sunday. It was a dichotomous scene, the preacher and the lecher. Although, judging from Graham’s praise of the Great Pretender, you’d think they were two peas in a pod. Graham called the Clintons a “great couple” “and “wonderful friends.” Worse still, he intimated that Hillary Clinton might make a good president and related that he once quipped that Bill Clinton “should be an evangelist” and “leave his wife to run the country.”

The latter comment I’ll address in a moment, but Bill Clinton, the man who’s like the boy who cried wolf – only, he tells one less fact – as an evangelist? Well, maybe. We do need someone to fill Jim Bakker’s shoes, after all.

When pondering the event, I’m reminded of when Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the desert. It’s a powerful and profound part of the Gospels, and it sets a perfect example of how to resist the seductions of the world. We’re all subject to temptation and, although not all of us are aware of it, it’s a test of our character. Billy Graham failed that test.

Many have defended Graham by emphasizing that some of his comments were made in jest. That is true, but it doesn’t negate the fact that his compliments, friendly tone and, even his mere proximity to the Clintons, sent his flock the message that the ex-president and her husband had found favor with him. And make no mistake, the day when Billy met Bill witnessed a unique convergence of decrepitude and turpitude that brought Hillary Clinton a step closer to the White House.

So, since the Good Reverend saw fit to, at least tacitly, rubber-stamp the presidential aspirations of a woman who thinks the Ten Commandments are the Ten Amendments, and the Ten Amendments the ten suggestions, I have a few questions for him.

Reverend, please tell your flock what fruits of a Hillary Clinton presidency would appeal to you. Is it the reinstitution of the type of infanticide known as partial-birth abortion? Is it the appointment of justices who would rule to further denude our public landscape of the religious aspects of our culture? Is it the promotion of the perversion of marriage oxymoronically called “homosexual-marriage”? Is it the more intrusive government, reduced freedom and higher taxation? Inquiring minds want to know, Reverend, please advise.

While Graham is the hapless bad example in this piece, he is not the main topic. In truth, I do believe that he’s a good-hearted man who has only the best of intentions. However, he’s also fallen into a trap. It’s the trap of – as we say in Christian circles – being a creature of human respect. It’s the trap of bowing down at the altar of power. It’s the trap of that all too common frailty: not knowing when politeness becomes a vice.

I spent a good part of my life working with children, and I remember quite vividly a little incident involving two nine-year-old boys who attended a program I administered. I don’t know what infernal fib raised the ire in one of the little tykes, but I did hear what he said to his friend. “You’re such a liar!” he exclaimed.

I’ve often thought about that event when pondering the deceit and dishonesty that are often so accepted in our world. What childlike simplicity; there was no equivocation, no vacillation, no double-talk or euphemisms. Only the spontaneous and pure expression of what he believed was true. And it reminds me of something else, something that men of the cloth and all of us, for the matter, should bear in mind. Perhaps this is one reason why Jesus said, “If you want to enter the Kingdom of God, you must become like a little child.” No doubt, the innocence and purity of childhood are great virtues.

But then comes adulthood, with greater charm and grace, with polish and sophistication, all the social lubricants that allure and, sometimes, obscure. I look at politicians, infamous for writing the book on deceit and prevarication, and it strikes me that I never hear, no matter how egregious the lie, a politician label it as such. It’s always something to the effect of, “I don’t think that’s entirely accurate” or “That’s not my view.” It’s as if they have an unwritten contract: “You can tell your lies as long as you allow me to tell mine, and we just won’t say anything about it.”

What’s the matter with being unfailingly polite? Isn’t that the mark of a true lady or gentleman? Well, the problem with not calling a liar a liar is that you end up with more liars. The first step toward eliminating immoral behavior is labeling it as such. After all, imagine if we refused to call a rapist a rapist and simply said, “I don’t think the woman was entirely on board.” Or, it’s a bit like the all-too-common practice of calling illegal aliens “undocumented workers.” Why did the illegal alien apologists adopt this practice? It’s because words influence thoughts; the side that defines the vocabulary of a debate wins the debate. If you want to sanitize a behavior, you start by sanitizing the language you use to describe it.

But we humans have a very difficult time calling a scoundrel what he is when he has ingratiated himself to us, or when we benefit from his affection, or, when he’s powerful. Speaking truth to power isn’t easy, but here we can learn another lesson from the book with which a man of the cloth should be well acquainted. Listen closely, Reverend: when John the Baptist was brought before the monarch King Herod, he could have behaved like Billy Graham did. He could have obsequiously sought to ingratiate himself to the king, and if he had it might have saved his life. Instead, he spoke truth to power: “It is wrong for you to take your brother’s wife,” proclaimed he. Unfortunately for John the Baptist, Herod had his own Hillary, and due to her manipulation the great prophet’s head was chopped off. How brave he was to speak truth in the face of mortal danger; how our failure to do so at the mere prospect of losing popularity pales in comparison.

Now, I know that many will score me for chastising the Good Reverend. Am I rude or gratuitously harsh? Have I failed to show the expected reverence for a beloved man now in the twilight of a long and storied life? Well, that assessment I can shoulder without shedding too many tears. I only ask one favor: please take me out of the category in which we find “measured” social commentators, “sober” politicians and “scholarly” jurists. Please place me in that of honest nine-year-old boys.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sanctioning the matter-of-course coarseness that increasingly has come to characterize our society. I’m not saying that our politicians should take a leaf out of the Taiwanese Parliament’s book and let flaring tempers result in fisticuffs, or one out of the Founding Fathers’ book and settle disputes with pistols at dawn. What I am saying is that to bestow upon both sincere and lying lips the same kind of honored place at the table of reasoned discourse is folly. I am saying that to give a liar a forum in which to deceive and not do your utmost to unmask him makes you party to the deception. I am saying that bad manners can take many forms, and the worst form of impoliteness is insincerity in discourse. I am saying, one and all, that a man who is polite to a liar is worse that a man who won't defend his family from a bandit. For, he is refusing to defend the truth.

We should also be mindful of the fact that it’s often the most evil people who can enchant us so thoroughly that anything but polite responses becomes unthinkable. And they do this with a quality they often possess in abundance: charm. You see, if you want to succeed in the court of public opinion you need to sway others, and charm is a powerful tool for influencing people.

Of course, good people can be charming as well, but there’s a critical difference. Sometimes speaking the truth and being able to charm chicken off the bone are mutually exclusive, since the truth can hurt and ruffle feathers. Now, good people have both an incentive and obligation they know of to speak truth. Bad people have a disincentive against speaking truth, and an obligation to do so of which they’re unaware. For, good people know that a good agenda has a foundation in truth, so speaking truth can win it converts. They also know that they’ve been enjoined to be truthful, even when doing so may alienate some. Bad people, however, acknowledge no such moral imperative. Moreover, the whole truth never buttresses a bad agenda, so if they wish to prevail they must persuade by some other means. They don’t have the substance, only the packaging. So they know that the wrapper had better be so captivating that no one will wonder what lies within. Does it work? All too often, tragically. It’s a sad fact of human nature that people are more tolerant of clever lies than harshly spoken truths. The following speaks to this state of affairs.

The Charmer

The tyrant threw tantrums, but effective not was he.
Too diminutive he was, just nigh to a knee.
He grew and learned of graces, gentle persuasion and guile,
Smooth talk, sartorial splendor, and a twinkling smile.
Change had come upon him, so a tyrant he was no more,
He was a man among men, a charmer one could adore.
Taken people were with his words and noble bearing,
His earnestness, his charity, how he’d always be so caring.
His politeness was unfailing, and what he did find,
Is t’was his shield of armor, making others respond in kind.
They made the Charmer a leader of men, and as he rose through the ranks,
He abided by protocol and niceties, never failing to say “thanks.”
Finally he sat at the helm of his great nation,
His charm and others’ omission having won him his great station.
But even this lofty status satisfied not what lay beneath,
The Charmer wanted his birthright; it was time to bear his teeth.
Success was not denied him, and as he sat in the seat of power,
Absolute control was in his hands, and his greatest gift came to flower.
No more to pay homage to the traditions of men,
His will could be imposed with a stroke of his pen.
T’was then those who loved the Charmer could only gnash their teeth and cry,
As they were marched to lonely fields and camps, so soon they were to die.
Dumbfounded they were, not knowing what they did sow,
“What happened to the Charmer?” was all they wanted to know.
They pined after their great leader, who they held so dear,
And wondered, in disbelief, “How could this happen here?”
And uttering their last, as the executioner stood ready to wrack,
They exclaimed, “Our beloved Charmer has been deposed, and the tyrant has come back!”

A charmer can work his way into your heart. His dark gift is a magnetic personality that cloaks intentions, disarms even the iron-willed and blinds otherwise discerning eyes. How to avoid his snares? Perhaps we just have to know our limitations. Insofar as this goes, maybe we should ponder the words of Winston Churchill, a stout-hearted, passionate leader who never could be accused of being an appeaser. Alluding to how even he might have been seduced by the clever wiles of arch-enemy Adolph Hitler, he wisely said, “I’m glad I never met him, because he might have charmed me also.”

Selwyn Duke is a frequent contributor.