For the second time in 18 months Republicans have needed to make use of the distinction between ephebophilia and pedophilia while defending one of their own.
The fact that we are here may well say all that needs saying about our political moment.
But on the chance that it does not, let’s venture another word.
To whatever extent we are having a debate right now over whether or not Tucker Carlson should face stern public condemnation from his fellow conservatives and should issue a public apology for his remarks before making a permanent retreat from public life it is because we have come to believe that the worst thing that can happen to a person is that they would lose power.
Power, by which we mean the ability to shape and influence reality, is the all-consuming good currently pursued with reckless abandon by virtually everyone in our republic. And, of course, as Andy Crouch reminded his readers sometime ago, power can be a great good.
The difficulty, of course, is that power without a telos, without a good it hopes to actualize, is a monkey with a bazooka. And so it is with us today.
Carlson, when confronted over his horrifying words—and we should be clear: he joked about his daughter’s underage classmates sexually experimenting with one another, said a humiliated beauty pageant contest was vulnerable to sexual advances and was like “a wounded gazelle separated from its herd,” and referred to Iraqis as monkeys—refused to apologize. And we should note his reasons for not apologizing:
“There’s really not that much you can do to respond. It’s pointless to try to explain how the words were spoken in jest, or taken out of context, or in any case bear no resemblance to what you actually think, or would want for the country. None of that matters. Nobody cares. You know the role you’re required to play: You are a sinner, begging the forgiveness of Twitter.
Carlson refuses to apologize because to apologize is to make oneself weak. It is to cede power to one’s rival. Whether or not one has need to apologize is, in this account, wholly irrelevant. The jockeying for power is all that matters and morality is simply a game we take up when doing so is useful to ourselves.
Certainly, it is true that public apologies have been weaponized. So it must be in a world increasingly captive to the norms of online shaming. Because of this, people involved in public life must understand the rhetorical significance of apologizing and make wise decisions about how to respond when called to give an account of themselves.
Those observations, however, are hardly relevant to the issue at hand. The issue at hand is that Carlson joked about his daughter’s friends sexually experimenting with each other.
It may well be the case that public apologies are weaponized in the culture wars. But that has no bearing on the fact that a man who made such awful remarks ought to apologize for making them. To suggest otherwise is merely to engage in a slightly more clever form of rationalizing sin.
But, of course, the bigger story here isn’t just about Tucker Carlson; the story is about power and specifically about things greater and higher than power.
Literature is filled with people like Carlson, people who think the only question in life is who has the power to exert their will over others. Tolkien works with this vice, a mixture of greed and cynicism, in various ways with both Saruman and Sauron. Saruman rejects being “the white” because white, as a color, can be broken. (“In which case it is no longer white,” Gandalf astutely replied.)
More recently, Voldemort, the villain in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books is similar—he breaks his soul seven times, doing irreparable damage to it in the process because he cannot imagine anything worse than physical death, which is the loss of power. And, of course, Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker is completely obsessed with this question: Do people actually have beliefs that run deeper than the desire for self-preservation… or is human morality just a bad joke to be set aside the moment the self is threatened?
In From Dawn to Decadence Jacques Barzun says that the decadent culture is the one that no longer knows why it exists. Though, “it is a very active time, full of deep concerns,” it is also “peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance.” Barzun continues, “the loss it faces is that of Possibility (sic). The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through.” In such a regime, all that is left is, as Schaeffer said decades ago, personal peace and affluence. And we struggle to imagine pains greater than the loss of those things.
This is why our stories of moral failure never terminate on the question of apologizing for the wrongs done and making restitution with those affected. They always escalate up to power and, specifically, to whose quest for personal peace and affluence will be aided by this failure and whose will be hurt. Our imaginations have become constrained. We do not see any broader horizons.
And so a man speculates about his daughter’s friends sexually experimenting with one another and, when called to account, his concern is not with his daughters’ friends, how his daughter feels about his words, the evil things he said, or with what state his soul must be in to willingly give voice to such things publicly. Rather, his concern is with protecting his status, avoiding any sign of weakness.
But, of course, there is another possibility. There are, it turns out, things greater and higher and nobler than mere power. And such is the greatness of these things that one can, when one has sinned, acknowledge that sin and ask forgiveness. It is better to be on your knees in a cathedral than proudly on one’s feet in a Fox News studio.
These greater beauties not only free us to apologize. They also open us to the radical idea that moral ends cannot be advanced by immoral means, that it is better to die a martyr than live as a villain. An openness to martyrdom expands the imagination. It gives back to the lost, decadent soul the possibility of something better.