I’m a big fan of stand up comedy. I listen to XM 94, 95, 99, or 168 on the way to work each day. I don’t find Kathy Griffin funny. She’s a comedian for people who read celebrity gossip magazines.
But now she’s in news for this:
And of course everyone is outraged! OMG, how could she do that?!?! Griffin apologized and said she went too far.
I don’t get it. Donald Trump is fair game for pictures like this, as is every other president in my lifetime. Consider:
The ‘If You Blow Kids Up You’re Fair Game for Being Beheaded in Effigy’ Argument:
1. Donald Trump is responsible for blowing up at least one innocent kid in a way that cannot be justified according to just war theory.
2. If you are responsible for blowing up at least one innocent kid in a way that cannot be justified according to just war theory, then you are not entitled to much respect. You are fair game for being mocked, condemned, and burned/hanged/beheaded in effigy.
3. Therefore, Donald Trump is not entitled to much respect. He is fair game for being mocked, condemned, and burned/hanged/beheaded in effigy.
Premise 1 is true. Do you dispute premise 2? Are we supposed to treat people who blow up innocent children unjustly in a nice way?
One challenge to premise 2 holds that presidents are due greater respect in virtue of their office. But I don’t buy that. Consider this argument:
The Read a History Book Argument
1. Historically, pretty much every president (with a few exceptions) is responsible for a host of deeply unjust things, such as enforcing slavery, subjugating and slaughtering Native Americans, starting unjust wars, etc.
2. If an office is usually held by people who do evil things, then the office is not due much respect.
3. Therefore, the office of the presidency is not due much respect.
The American presidency is a parade of evil behavior. Trump, Obama, Bush II, Clinton, Bush I, etc., are each responsible for the mass murder of innocents, and so each of them is among the worst human beings who have ever lived. Now, I admit American presidents aren’t especially bad compared to many other historical world leaders, but as Acton said, “Great men are almost always bad men…”
One challenge to this whole line of reasoning holds that we cannot assess political leaders by normal moral standards. They take on great responsibility and have to make hard choices. It’s inappropriate to evaluate Trump and Obama as if they were civilians, because civilians don’t have to make these life and death hard choices. Etc.
In a forthcoming book, I’ll examine this argument at great length. I don’t think it works. But here I’ll just cite Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
That is, if anything, presidents and other leaders should be held to higher than normal moral standards. They have special obligations to discharge justice. If you voluntary take on the role of leading, you acquire a duty to behave better than normal, not a license to behave worse.
In Against Democracy, I criticize voters for their tendency to demonize everyone on the other side. But what’s especially strange about politics is that we demonize people over reasonable disagreements on hard problems (such as whether school vouchers work or whether the minimum wage helps or hurts the poor), yet we yawn and shrug at genuinely demonic behavior. Quoting Bryan Caplan:
Second, anyone in a position of political power has a greatly elevated moral obligation to perform…due diligence. Yes, with great power comes great responsibility. If you’re in a position to pass or enforce laws, lives and freedom are in your hands. Common decency requires you to act with extreme moral trepidation at all times, ever mindful of the possibility that you’re trampling the rights of the morally innocent.
In the end, the real problem with Griffin is that she’s a partisan hack. She’s doesn’t hold Obama to the same standards that she holds Trump.
Now, I’m not recommending that we routinely start beheading presidents in effigy. But the reason we shouldn’t is selfish: It’s not good for our psyches. A day spent in anger is a wasted day; a life spent in anger is a wasted life.