Think Again: Beware of the ‘Goodists’

The new nuclear posture announced last week by the Obama administration provides a classic example of a preference for good intentions over results.

April 16, 2010 16:11
Obama greets Sarkozy during the official arrivals

Sarkozy Obama nuke Summit 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

Psychologists Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong of Toronto University recently reported a startling discovery in the journal Psychological Science: those who purchased a “morally virtuous” product, like organic baby food, were less likely to be charitable and more likely to lie and steal than those who purchased conventional products.

The Guardian summarized the findings: “[T]hose . . . who bought green products appeared less willing to share with others a set amount of money than those who bought conventional products. When the green consumers were given the chance to boost their money by cheating on a computer game and then given the opportunity to lie about it – in other words, steal – they did, while the conventional consumers did not.”  Those findings confirmed previous observations of patterns of “moral balancing,” whereby people who have proven their credentials as moral people in one area allow themselves to stray in other areas. Apparently, relatively minor acts that confer some sort of “moral halo” have the effect of licensing subsequent asocial and unethical behavior.

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Word that a “moral halo” often rests uneasily on the heads of those who claim it is not by itself big news. Historian Paul Johnson’s The Intellectuals details at great length the sordid private lives of many figures who presented themselves as paragons of the most advanced morality – such as Karl Marx, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Bertolt Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre, Noam Chomsky.

Al Gore Jr., who won the Nobel Prize for his role as High Priest of global warming alarmism, is a case in point. The carbon footprint of his private jet and huge home is many times over what he would like to impose on the rest of mankind. Despite being a multimillionaire, his tax returns when he was running for president revealed charitable contributions of $250 per annum – less than every kollel student I know. Gore’s charitable giving was consistent with the findings of Professor Albert Brooks’s 2006 book Who Really Gives: America’s Charity Divide. Brooks found that 24 of the 25 states with above average rates of charitable giving were carried by George W. Bush in the 2004 election. In those states where Bush drew over 60% of the vote, the average family gave 3.5% of its income to charity, as opposed to barely half that, 1.9%, in states where John Kerry drew 60% of the vote. Espousing left-wing positions, Brooks found, appears to exempt from giving either of one’s money or self.

J Street godfather and inveterate supporter of left-wing causes George Soros is another nice piece of work. In 1992, Soros made a billion dollars in a single day shorting the British pound, and secured in the process the title “the man who broke the Bank of England.” Many economists credit Soros’s currency manipulations with helping to trigger a recession in Britain. But if the tens of thousands of workers who lost their jobs as a consequence troubled his conscience, Soros never let on.

Hypocrisy is well-represented across the political and religious spectrum. No less an authority than the Vilna Gaon warned of a type of moral balancing to which religious Jews can be susceptible: The evil inclination attacks those who are punctilious in their observance of the mitzvot between man and G-d in the area of mitzvot between man and his fellow.

GREATER THAN the danger of hypocrisy is that of politics as a form of emotional compensation. Moral balancing doubtless contributes to the uneasy fit between “high” political ideals and low personal behavior. But the causation runs just as often in the opposite direction. Those who are aware of the selfishness of their lives adopt political positions for their perceived high-mindedness to reassure themselves that they are good people. Theirs is the politics of gestures.

The late Oriana Fallaci coined the term “Goodists” for such people. In a Wall Street Journal piece on President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, Bret Stephens described the Goodists: “They are people who believe all conflict stems from avoidable misunderstandings. . . . Who mistake wishes for possibilities. Who put a higher premium on their moral intentions than on the efficacy of their actions. . . . Above all, the Goodists are people who like to be seen to be good.” 

The new nuclear posture announced last week by the Obama administration provides a classic example of a preference for good intentions over beneficial results. What could be more noble sounding than eschewing a nuclear response to the employment of biological or chemical weapons of mass destruction against one’s country, as long as the aggressor is up-to-date on its International Atomic Energy Agency inspections? But by what possible calculus is that stance likely to make potential aggressors or their terrorist proxies less likely to attack? Ahmadinejad’s mocking response to Obama – “Wait until your sweat dries and you get a little experience” – reflects the growing disdain of America’s enemies caused by such gestures.

Already last September French President Sarkozy warned Obama against this kumbaya approach, at a Security Council summit organized around the latter’s dream of a nuclear free world. “We live in a real world, not a virtual one,” Sarkozy said, and a reduction in American and Russian nuclear arsenals would have zero impact on the real “crises” of Iran and North Korea’s imminent nuclear status.

Thomas Wolfe mordantly captured the politics of noble gestures in “Radical Chic,” his ‘70s account of an elegant dinner party hosted by conductor Leonard Bernstein to raise money for the Black Panthers. Though President Obama portrays himself as the scourge of Wall Street bankers and their obscene bonuses, he raised more money on Wall Street than any other senator, save perhaps the disgraced Thomas Dodd. And he enjoyed an overwhelming Wall Street fundraising advantage over John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign. For those who spend their days in the single-minded pursuit of money, large contributions to Obama were a small price to pay for being able to look at themselves in the mirror.

Israel particularly suffers greatly from the politics of noble gestures. Those totally ignorant of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict automatically support the “down-trodden” Palestinians to prove their goodness. Their virtue is cheap. Cheap because they will not be the ones blown up by suicide bombers when checkpoints are removed or security barriers taken down; cheap because it will not be their children under rocket fire in the wake of the latest territorial withdrawal.

American Jews are not immune to the temptation to purchase moral virtue on the cheap. Attacking Israel and joining hands with the Palestinians is often a face-saving gesture for Jewish students on campuses where anti-Israel propaganda runs rampant. Taking up the Palestinian cause removes the taint of being one of those nationalistic, racist Jews, concerned only with advancing the interests of other Jews. (Intermarrying achieves the same result.)

Such Jews are mistakenly described as self-hating. Quite the contrary. Their actions are carefully chosen to fill them with pleasant feelings of their own virtue.

Today Israel is threatened more directly by the Goodist impulse. That impulse is most dangerous in its coercive form. “Liberalism lets you force people to buy health insurance and feel morally superior as you do it,” writes Shelby Steele; Left totalitarianism, like that of President Obama’s rich kid friend William Ayres II, in his Weatherman Underground days, lets you kill people and feel good about it.

The Obama administration’s contemplation of imposing its diktat to settle the Palestinian-Israel conflict, according to the solution allegedly long known to all rational men, is but another form of coercive Goodism.

The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources. He has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.

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