The Quality of Mercy

When Rush Limbaugh's drug problem first surfaced in various Web site chatter, I was intrigued. When it made the evening news, I admit I felt a moment of joy. Limbaugh is the icon of brutish, cheap-shot conservatism and his entertaining style has spawned a vast legion of broadcast talkers even nastier than he. How could one not find some pleasure in his fall from grace? As we learned from the unmasking of other righteously destructive rightwingers, hypocrisy is their middle name.

My feeling passed and the story disappeared from the news (at least for now). But I was led to reconsider my reactions to Limbaugh's troubles by a surprisingly compassionate editorial in the Wall Street Journal. The WSJ is a leading purveyor of brittle condescension and scorn, the first apostle of hard-ass conservatism. But the Journal asked its readers to feel human sympathy.

What an odd suggestion from that source. American culture has been severely coarsened during the last generation, not so much by the rightwing talkers, but by the brutish practices of modern capitalism and by institutions like the Journal who lead cheers for the ideology of take no prisoners, throw the losers over the side. Winners and losers are the natural order in life, winners should merely push them aside and get on with it.

The anger and shame that now permeate this society were planted in large part by the callousness of Wall Street finance and major corporations. They routinely pursue self-interest by trampling others and call it "efficiency." The victims are often their own employees or shareholders (not to mention welfare mothers and people too weak and poor even to afford shelter). The right embraces this new definition of manliness (even the so-called Christian right). Liberals who hold back are ridiculed as bleeding-heart sissies.

Business is business. The dominant culture tells young people their only choice in life is between hard or soft. Despite what they are taught, a lot of young people reject that choice, but many also succumb. Who wants to be a loser?

Repairing our damaged culture is a difficult and longterm task, but maybe social change can start in odd places like the Wall Street Journal's editorial page. Their Limbaugh editorial cited the New Testament parable of the adulterous woman -- he who is without sin may cast the first stone -- "to remind us that we are all human, failed creatures." President Bush, it added, responded compassionately to Rush's troubles, perhaps because he himself fought a drinking problem not too long ago. Yes, indeed, we are all human, failed creatures.

We are not all compassionate beings, however. The Wall Street Journal and right-wingers in general are very selective in where they choose to bestow human sympathy. Usually, it is reserved for other rightwingers or for business guys who find themselves in trouble with the law. When the WSJ recently reviewed my new book, it peppered it and me with the usual disparaging wisecracks. That's expected. I don't go to their church and, indeed, I regularly attack their religion.

But what really angered me were the scornful wisecracks the review directed at the organization called Solidarity described in my book. It is a temp agency in Baltimore owned and run by the temp workers themselves in cooperative fashion. They earn a dollar or two more per hour than other temp workers, they have health-care coverage, they share the profits. And nearly all of them are recovering narcotics addicts and/or former prison inmates. I explained how their mutual struggles with addiction give them a shared sense of self-discipline (no one can con a fellow member of Narcotics Anonymous who's been through the same fire). The reviewer quipped: "Apparently, being stoned together breeds camarderie." Yuk, yuk.

The Solidarity workers are of course black. The WSJ would not make drug jokes about white guys in suits -- corporate executives struggling to overcome alcoholism or the bond traders afflicted by cocaine habits (indeed, it seldom writes about these addicts). The Journal needs to work on its own human sympathy. "The quality of mercy is not strain'd," Shakespeare taught us. "It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven..."

Maybe, when the full story becomes known, Rush Limbaugh will find the courage to express a more encompassing sympathy for other human beings. No one should expect Rush to change his politics or eschew cheap-shot jokes (he would be boring without them). But, the next time someone has stumbled and fallen, either wrestling with personal demons or crushed by error and ill fortune, the first question Limbaugh (and the rest of us) might ask is: Doesn't anybody feel sorry for the poor bastard?

William Greider is the author of "The Soul of Capitalism."

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