ROCKVILLE, MD. — This month, a politician showed backbone, something many of us believe no longer exists in politics. Ask Americans how they feel about politicians, and most will use words like "sleazy," "corrupt," and "liars." In the discussions that follow, an idea eventually emerges that captures it all: "They will say or do anything to get elected." Heads then nod agreement.
Maryland Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. fired an aide this month for spreading apparently unfounded - certainly mean-spirited - rumors about a political rival and possible 2006 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. In firing Joseph Steffen, who'd been with him since his days in Congress, Governor Ehrlich cut to the chase: "I don't put up with this, and I will not put up with this. Bottom line."
While Mayor O'Malley and his supporters may say the move doesn't go far enough (they want an apology directly from the governor as well as an independent investigation), it goes light-years beyond the norm. Typically, wagons would be circled, denials issued, and there would be a statement amounting to, "Well, where there's smoke there's fire - there must have been something to hide in the first place." But, standing on principle, Ehrlich made the point that, in fact, there are principles left to stand on. This is news that may come as a shock to an inured public.
On the same day O'Malley made his accusations of gossip, he delivered an address in the capital opposing the president's latest budget proposal, which appears to contain a $2 billion cut in aid to metro areas. O'Malley said the cuts are "attacking our metropolitan core," just as "back on Sept. 11, terrorists attacked our metropolitan cores, two of America's great cities."
Alarm bells went off in people's minds, and O'Malley was asked to explain himself. His fellow Democratic mayors distanced themselves from the rhetoric; the opposition engaged in chortling shock. O'Malley issued a clarification, saying he "in no way intended to equate these budget cuts, however bad, to a terrorist attack." In other words, he circled the wagons and issued a denial, even striking a version of the "where there's smoke there's fire" theme by repeating that two US cities had "already been attacked in this war."
There's a notion in moral philosophy called the "moral perimeter" - an imaginary circle within which we owe people ethical behavior. Outside that circle, our behavior doesn't matter so much, and we are free to behave badly. In war, for example, the enemy is outside the moral perimeter, so we're free to do to him what we wouldn't do to our own kin.
The march of civilization can be viewed through this lens. The moral perimeter - the definition of who is considered a person - has slowly yet inexorably expanded. Ancient Athens, seat of democracy, held women to be noncitizens. The US held at its founding that some humans could be kept as property. Our moral perimeter has expanded to include women and African-Americans within it. There are signs the US has begun to cross a similar threshold regarding sexual identity, though this battle remains pitched and the outcome uncertain.
Slowly, over time, we demand better behavior toward a broader variety of people. In part, this fuels the screaming headlines about the actions of public figures. "Where's the news?" yesteryear's editors might have asked. Infidelities and other such transgressions didn't seem so relevant then, in part because we tolerated such lapses more readily than now. But there's a hole in this. Just look around. Behavior is not any better today than it has been in the past. In fact, many people pine for a more straightforward time, when right was right, wrong was wrong, and people behaved.
Scandal fills the airwaves, and it's not just the fault of the media looking for sensational stories. Many of us are truly acting in ways that would have gotten us banished in other times. Spend just a few moments with your newspaper's "local" section and you, too, will be saddened by what ordinary people seem capable of: You'll see deaths that result from the most ludicrous of conflicts; formerly safe figures, such as grandmothers, falling victim to the violence of children; school administrators found to be key figures in drug rings.
It's a paradox. Stated standards are rising - yet personal behavior seems to be in a death spiral. It's as if there's an ethics-free zone around many of us. Some of us are like moral doughnuts, demanding an ever-wider moral perimeter, yet demanding little when it comes to our own behavior.
It's one thing to know that one always ought to strive for better behavior on a personal level. We can all use that advice. But it's another thing when public life seems filled with moral doughnuts around people demanding apologies and expressing shocked dismay while behaving badly themselves in some other area. One of the tests of that is what one does when confronted with poor behavior from one's own organization, or even oneself. The adage that urges those who live in glass houses to throw no stones is becoming more apt. Today, when news stories circle the globe with increasing speed, the total effect is to confirm what so many seem to believe: "These guys will do anything to get elected."
And so, we ought to applaud instances of moral backbone. Not only do they seem increasingly rare, but they're precisely the antidote we need if public life is going to plug its leaky holes.
• Brad Rourke is a consultant who works on ethics and civic issues.