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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

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Drinking and Driving, Drinking and Governing, Drinking and Sleeping Around, Drinking and…

Vancouver–Here on the Left Coast, we’re temporarily inundated by a small tidal wave that washed in from Maui the other night. A tsunami of sanctimony, that is. Yes, we’re talking–as is everyone else within shouting and radiowave distance around here–about B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, his drunk driving arrest on a Hawaiian resort island over the weekend, his subsequent acts of press conference contrition, and the loud debate about whether or not he should resign from office.

We can cut straight to the moral chase, since all the background information was repeated ten times over within 24 hours, and they’re already selling T-shirts with Campbell’s police mug shot. My only assumption in sorting this out will be the truisms of the day: drinking and driving is wrong; politicians, for better or worse, have some role model obligations; and hypocrisy is bad. I’ll also argue that all those truisms are easily overblown and too quickly turned into sanctimonious absolutes. It’s the last point that seems to me the only idea that hasn’t been talked to death in the initial phase of this affair.

But first, resignation. No, Premier Campbell should not resign. Why not? Because a) his crime is not serious enough to warrant removal from office, and b) his offence has little connection to his ability to perform the duties of his office.

At his press conference, Campbell attempted to draw a distinction between "personal mistakes," however "horrible" and "stupid," and public malfeasance, arguing that he was on his own time, his own vacation, his own responsibility, and that his acts had "nothing to do with the discharge of his duties." Well, maybe not quite "nothing," but he’s got the right idea, I think. The B.C. premier was also a bit resistent when the baying press pack tried to get him to admit that there’s a big difference between a "misjudgment" and a "crime," and that his acts fell clearly into the latter category. Again, Campbell is mostly right, the 4th and 5th Estates a little bit over the top.

I don’t know why there’s so much difficulty in recognizing that many activities of public figures are essentially private, and that such people are not their public personnae 24/7. One of the few interesting things about former U.S. president Bill Clinton’s string of sordid sexual peccadillos is how clearly and quickly the American public, despite its reputation for born-again puritanism, recognized that Clinton’s moral failings had very little to do with his abilities as president. Almost everyone disapproved of Clinton’s erotic shenanigans and at the same time thought he was an okay president. The famous "wisdom of the people" was that Bill oughta stop sinning, but that he also ought to continue commanding the troops.

It was Citizen Campbell rather than Premier Campbell who was doing the drunk driving–at least on Maui. We’ll leave aside the debate on the sobriety of his political policies in B.C. Campbell’s drinking-and-driving offence was primarily an action by someone who should be regarded as a private citizen in the circumstances, as long as we remember that as soon as an inebriated private citizen is pressing the pedal to the metal on a public road, the citizen is private, but the act is public.

The decibel level of noise and blather that confuses partisan politics and ethics on this one is already off the measuring scale. I suppose Campbell has himself to blame, at least in part, for that one, too, given his own past sanctimonious utterances about standards of public probity. But just because he was himself wrong about how seriously to take the faults of his political opponents, that doesn’t mean we’re required to hold his conduct to his own mistaken standards. To do so would be to forget that foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, to cite an old moral saw. And at least Campbell’s mirthless sanctimony about his political opponents was aimed at alleged indignities to office.

Misjudgment or crime? This is where the Catholic Church’s distinction between mortal and venial sins comes in handy. Yes, sure, technically a "crime," according to the law books (even if it’s only a "petty misdemeanour" under Hawaii state law). One of Campbell’s political opponents was quick to pontificate, "In B.C., impaired driving is not just a personal mistake, it is a criminal act." But in the more important metaphoric sense, drunk driving is bad judgment rather than "crime." The bad judgment is engaging in the potential endangerment of others; when the potential becomes actual, well, the bad judgment becomes a crime. Campbell, as he himself noted, was lucky. No one got hurt.

I’m not very thrilled by role models. The idea is usually hauled out by guardians of decency whenever they get the chance to rake someone over the coals. Ok, so public figures make private mistakes. As long as the mistakes are within bounds–he wasn’t "privately" sticking up credit unions and banks on his days off–there are appropriate modes of redress for role models. You apologise, you show contrition, you do acts of repentence. Why isn’t that good enough?

Leave aside the bafflegab about maintaining "credibility" and regaining the "trust of the public," most of which is tiresome political spin and manipulation. I understand how a politician who says he can cut taxes, maintain public services, and balance the budget can lose public credibility when it turns out he can’t. It’s harder to understand how a first offence drunk driver loses the trust of the public.

The thing that morally interests me in all this is how certain wrongdoings become mortal sins. We used to be way too cavalier about drinking and driving. About 25 years ago, somebody came up with a good idea. We ought to take drinking and driving more seriously. It was a good idea whose time had come. Guess what? We did take it more seriously, we sent out more police to increase vigilance, we stiffened sentences, we drove down the rates of road mayhem caused by drinking and driving. All to the good.

Then, somewhere along the way, we went overboard. Suddenly, drinking and driving–potential endangerment of others–became one of the worst things a human being could do. It was a crime requiring "zero tolerance." It became an occasion for pontification and social therapy.

This has happened to various other good ideas, from recognizing the harmful effects of smoking to taking action to prevent child abuse. Along the way the importance of the idea is overinflated, the gravity of the miscreance made too heavy, the "seriousness" of it all gets out of hand. We seem incapable of judging something wrong without being required to assent to an exaggerated notion that the something is the greatest wrong. It seems like an affliction of the Zeitgeist.

Drinking and driving is a wrong, but not–especially as a first offence–such a "big" wrong that a premier must resign. Venial means "pardonable."

Jan. 13, 2003

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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