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Our zero-tolerance society

A strain of vengefulness has spread throughout our culture, but the vilification is often out of proportion to the wrongdoing.

April 22, 2007|David Greenberg | DAVID GREENBERG, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University, is the author of books about Richard Nixon and Calvin Coolidge.

That's because the impeachment was about more than Clinton. It was, I think, an effort to symbolically overturn the 1960s revolution in manners and morals that, in the mental universe of the political right, Clinton appeared to embody. The Republican pundit William J. Bennett published a book that year titled "The Death of Outrage," suggesting that the public's capacity for empathy in cases like Clinton's had risen to dangerous levels, requiring a reversion to earlier, less sophisticated codes of conduct.

If only we had lacked for outrage during Clinton's presidency! The impeachment debacle, as has become increasingly clear in retrospect, was caused not by a dearth of indignation but a surplus of it -- a spilling over of resentment and moralism. Although public majorities insisted that Clinton deserved no great rebuke, their voices were drowned out by the Inquisition.

Before Clinton, of course, there had been scandals aplenty; it was in the 1980s, after all, that the term "feeding frenzy" was first applied to journalists instead of sharks. But in the 1990s, a mix of factors came together to create our zero-tolerance scandal culture.

The left, displaying what soon came to be called political correctness, ceased forgiving even unintentional slights toward historically oppressed groups. The right -- grappling with the stark reality that many values of the 1960s were probably here to stay -- began seeking scapegoats.

Meanwhile, the advent of the Internet, talk radio and rival all-day cable news stations spawned what critic Frank Rich dubbed "mediathons": days-long orgies of nonstop, trivializing coverage of sensational events. When centered on personal scandals, logic dictated that they should end with someone's head on a stick.

Our current zeal to punish may also be related to the terrorist assault of Sept. 11. After that grisly and humiliating day, we all felt a natural desire to strike back and show America's might. And while in some respects we channeled those feelings into a commensurate response, in the form of the attack on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, in another respect we let our hunger for retaliation countenance a largely unrelated invasion of Iraq. We've seen the toll taken by our angry, ill-considered lashing out abroad. There's still time to see the damage being wrought by our lashing out at home as well.

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