It was early in the new millennium. I was working for a state-based think tank and desperately wanted to make a name as a political commentator. Looking back from 2019, I’ve had a lot of opportunities and scratched the itch pretty thoroughly, but in those days I was palpably hungry.
I was just beginning to write for the new political websites that were popping up and eagerly sought each opportunity to get something else out into the stream. Every new posting meant two things. First, I would be able to say what I was thinking and have large audiences take notice. Second, I’d get my name out there. The point is that my radar was active. I was ready to move.
I saw a story about Bill Bennett in the news. He had been a hero of mine. I loved his promotion of virtue through his books and appearances. According to the report, Bennett was big on playing slot machines. As a righteous young person attentive to even the whiff of hypocrisy, I felt outrage. How could it be that the preacher of virtue and moderation took his speaking fees from evangelizing those good things and fed the money into slots???
As upset as I was, I saw opportunity, too, though. I quickly wrote up a column-sized lament about conservative heroes having feet of clay. I can no longer recall who published it, but I went further in this case. I realized that I could gain a greater audience and perhaps make a name for myself by promoting the piece further. I wrote to the publishers of Real Clear Politics and to Andrew Sullivan. Why did I choose Andrew Sullivan? Because he was a well-known gay writer who would surely appreciate a piece criticizing a lion of the right like Bennett. I cringe now at my opportunism then.
Even though I was a nobody with very few bylines to my name, I got the treatment from Sullivan and from Real Clear Politics. Had Twitter and Facebook been available at the time, I’m sure I would have gone viral with my howl of despair and betrayal. At the time, I was pleased with myself and counted my achievement to be quite a coup.
In retrospect, I regret the whole thing. What did I achieve by participating in the shaming of one of my own heroes? Was I angry? Yes. But I cannot avoid the fact that my own desire for advancement and reputation was at least as important as my moral outrage.
Why do I mention it now? The episode is well forgotten almost two decades later. It’s just that I’ve been noticing something, lately. People at the New York Times and the Washington Post do occasionally publish columns by people in my community (meaning conservative evangelicals). But it should not escape anyone that the pieces by people in my tribe that make it to those august pages are almost always of a particular type. The Times and the Post are game to publish earnest writing from conservative evangelicals criticizing their own people for moral cowardice, for hypocrisy, etc.
Now, it is important to call a spade a spade and to face up to the truth, but we may need to exercise a little discernment in realizing that the elites only want us when we are attacking our own. Further, we should ask ourselves what our motives really are. Maybe our laments should go elsewhere than to those who wish to weaponize them.