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A Nation of Consenting Adults

The Democrats are the party of moral laxity, and the Republicans are the party of moral--what?

11:00 PM, Nov 15, 1998 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Heterosexuals are often married; so a spouse, a third party, is involved when a married person has a liaison. Is the spouse's consent to be invited? Obviously not. And with heterosexuals, children may be around. The phrase "consenting adults" applied to homosexuals denies legitimacy to homosexual behavior by those not of age, but when applied to heterosexuals, it does the opposite: It denies legitimacy to the interests of children. And what about the qualification "in private," which is now omitted from the formula? Now it has become the duty of the public to avert its gaze from sex between consenting adults, replacing the duty of the parties involved to be discreet, stay private, and not get caught.


Above all, those who are to be tolerant of consenting adults are now expected to wipe away their frowns and adopt a mellow attitude. The Wolfenden Report, a liberal document in its time, said on its first page: "Prostitution and homosexuality rank high in the kingdom of evils." Amazing! Today this would be regarded as proof of intolerance. But today the tolerant are expected not merely to tolerate evil but also to stop thinking of it as evil. You are not tolerant, we think, if you can be accused of "homophobia" (a phony clinical term invented to awe the ignorant and put an end to argument).


Of course a single phrase sent across the ocean to us by our revered mother country would have had little effect here if it had not ridden to power with our home-grown sexual revolution. We cannot much blame the Wolfenden Report for the way it has been misinterpreted today. Still, there's a connection between the original and our imitation. The doctrine of consenting adults, originally targeted to the proclivities of one group, is now generalized to all and extended to every practice that might gain the consent of an adult. In its logic the doctrine denies any reason why one should not consent, and in particular, denies any relation between sex and shame. This is the idea to which the American people have been led by their president to consent.


Yet things have not gone so far, one could say. Almost everyone still feels obliged to repeat that what President Clinton did is wrong or deplorable or at least "inappropriate," as he admitted. But most people add, and in the election they made clear, that his misconduct does not rise to the level required for impeachment, even when combined with lying. So they want to "move on." To move on means not to make an issue of it. It means lowering the standard as to sex and lying both.


The president is an accomplished liar in a certain sense. No one who saw the videotape of his grand-jury testimony could fail to be impressed by his artistry. It is not that he appears trustworthy; you know he's lying. But you can't catch him at it, or, like the frustrated Republicans, you watch him getting away with lying to others. His kind of lying depends on being in a context where lying is expected and cleverness is admired. When his kind of lying goes unopposed, and is not made an issue of, it helps to create and confirm the context in which it thrives. Some might call the context a growing maturity in the American people. Others would more reasonably call it corruption.


So there is a general tendency in our liberal politics to privatize the issues, to remove them from public argument. Not to make an issue of something is just what toleration means. But toleration has a general tendency too, that goes from withholding punishment while disapproving to giving approval after forsaking censure -- from frown to smile. The president's strong job-approval rating is distinct from his moral standing, but in a sense they are together precisely because of the difference. Job approval has been drained of its moral content with regard to sex and diminished as to lying. Toleration is not neutral. Whatever is tolerated in our politics tends to gain ground as the exercise of a right. If we don't keep up the standard of morality we will bring it down. Already those who defend the president have felt obliged to demean and defame other presidents to make their false point that everybody does it.


Soon we are likely to think that there was little or nothing to deplore in the president's misconduct. Not to be impeached will be a victory for him; victory brings vindication; and with vindication comes absolution -- nay, a certain admiration. What a man! In his shallow, ambitious soul, President Clinton combines the sensitive male wished for by feminists and the lowdown reaction to that type. Women sympathize with him, and males chuckle. What a rogue!