In his new book White Guilt, Shelby Steele describes listening to early reports on his car radio about the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal and feeling certain that the president was finished. He reflects that, when he was a boy, if President Eisenhower had done something like this, he would have had to resign immediately. He remembers also that Eisenhower was rumored to use a racial epithet to refer to blacks when he played golf, but doing so (if in fact Eisenhower had) was not seen as a major sin then. Yet if Clinton had been caught out using a racial epithet in 1998, he would probably have been destroyed. Realizing that Clinton’s sexual transgression was no longer viewed in the same way as it had once been, Steele writes that “it was the good luck of each president to sin into the moral relativism of his era rather than into its puritanism.”
The accuracy of Steele’s observations is well demonstrated in the recent flap over derogatory comments made by Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen regarding a Chicago columnist, Jay Mariotti. In an obscenity-laced tirade, Guillen referred to Mariotti as a “fag.” Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who took nearly ten years to investigate the rather obvious doping that was going on in baseball, pounced instantly on Guillen, ordering him to sensitivity training.
Guillen is a vulgarian who, as others have pointed out (see especially here), would have been taken to the woodshed long before now if he had been a non-Hispanic white man. His use of a derogatory term that is unfortunately a staple of locker rooms and playgrounds hardly required bureaucratic intervention. Where was Mariotti with a combative or colorful riposte? Mariotti claimed that “people call me worse when I’m ordering coffee in the morning at Starbucks,” but in the next breath he called for Guillen’s suspension.
If we were back in the Eisenhower 1950s that Shelby Steele remembers, we would find it hard to believe that Ozzie Guillen was in more trouble than, say, someone who had repeatedly insulted the U.S. military. Yet that is the situation: Guillen is in the doghouse, while the New York Mets’ Carlos Delgado is a figure of moral integrity.
Until his arrival in New York this season, Delgado had refused to stand to honor American troops overseas in the seventh inning of games because he objects to the war in Iraq. He has consented to do so this year at the request of the Mets, who do not engage in the ritual for every home game, as their crosstown rivals the Yankees do. Delgado has been for the most part celebrated by the media for his supposedly courageous stand. Selig has never ordered Delgado to sensitivity training so that he could better appreciate the effects of his behavior on grieving military families. To borrow Steele’s terms, Delgado has sinned into the moral relativism of his time.
It’s a time in which patriotism is a subjective virtue at best, always flexible enough to be redefined by whoever is rejecting its most elemental requirements. Hence Delgado’s protest has been lauded by more than one sportswriter as a demonstration of what America is all about.
A different kind of man than Delgado could have reasoned that it really didn’t matter what his opinion was about a particular military conflict when he was merely being asked to honor those fighting in it. He might even have reasoned that he owed such individuals his respect all the more, given his view of the conflict in which they were engaged.
And, finally, he might have realized that, being a citizen (Delgado is Puerto Rican) of a country that has made him rich, the decent thing to do would be to go along and bow his head and keep his addled thoughts about American foreign policy to himself. That would require humility, though, and humility is always in conflict with the demands of an overdeveloped ego.
Like Clinton’s affairs, Delgado’s pompous display of ingratitude is just a matter of opinion, an issue about which we are not permitted to pronounce definitive judgment. This same subjectivity is absent when it comes to Ozzie Guillen’s language for people he dislikes. Ozzie didn’t have the good sense to thumb his nose at men and women who die for the country that has enriched him. Instead, he called a reporter a bad name. He should have picked his fights better.
Guillen could still redeem himself, though: he could call President Bush a fag. That would build some bridges for him. But he’d still be a long way from playing in Carlos Delgado’s league.