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Bah, Humbug | The Nation

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Bah, Humbug

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I wish it had been sex, maybe some of that hot "man on dog" action that Senator Rick Santorum is so keen on chatting about. But let me not be picky. Since we are talking about that thundering sultan of sanctimony Bill Bennett, high-stakes gambling will do quite nicely. In eleven books, including the mega-selling Book of Virtues, a PBS cartoon series on morality for kids, countless speeches at $50,000 a pop, a slew of op-eds and more face time on TV than the man who squeezes the Charmin, Bennett has made himself our Cato, inveighing against everyone else's licentious, addicted, family-destroying ways. Abortion!, he growled. Drugs! Rap! Adultery! Homosexuality! Divorce! Single moms! The Simpsons! To the wall with you, feminists, gay priests and fornicating Democrats Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson and Gary Condit! To prison, not rehab, any of you who've so much as looked hopefully at a nickel bag of weed! He's expatiated upon the joys of teenage shotgun marriages and the selfishness of having fewer than "six or seven" kids. (Bennett himself married at 38 and has two children--a hypocrisy tip-off right there, for those who were paying attention.)

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Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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The law, passed in 1993 with near-unanimous support, has become an excuse for bigotry, superstition and sectarianism.

Bashing moral laxity--and blaming it on liberals--was a popular and very profitable line of tripe that made Reagan's Education Secretary and Bush Sr.'s drug czar a millionaire many times over. Is it any wonder that honest sinners are rising as one to cheer now that Newsweek and Washington Monthly report that he plowed a staggering eight of those millions right back into the vice economy as fast as he could pull the handle of the $500 slot machines that were his favored mode of "relaxation"?

Bill Kristol, Jonah Goldberg and other conservatives maintain that Bennett has done nothing wrong. Gambling is, after all, legal, and Bennett says he never gambled "the milk money." Unfortunately, Bennett sandbagged his defenders by admitting that he had "done too much gambling" and vowing to quit. In any case, the legality defense won't wash. Except for drugs and, in some states, homosexuality and (nominally) adultery, most of the things Bennett inveighed against are legal. Complaining about that sorry fact was part of his shtick.

Bennett's point was never just that people ought to obey the law: Sure, drink yourself into a daily stupor, as long as you're not driving. No, The Book of Virtues evoked the old Aristotelian/ Stoic/Christian/Early American civic values: piety, sobriety, temperance, honesty, prudence, self-control, setting an example. It's hard to imagine John Bunyan or George Washington giving Bennett a high five on his way to private rooms at various Las Vegas casinos, where he was such a loyal and lavish customer he was comped for limos, rooms and Lord knows what else.

Bennett's defense that his family didn't suffer may be true, or it may be denial, but it misses the point. As Michael Kinsley observes in the Washington Post, Bennett has always argued that being good is a form of noblesse oblige; even minor vices indulged in by the privilege-cushioned elite corrupt those lower down the social scale, who have less to fall back on. Let Muffy toke up on some hydro at Harvard, and before you know it Charlene is on crack in the projects. Let same-sex love flourish, and by some mysterious process, it will wreak havoc on heterosexual marriage.

But gambling is a perfect example of a trickle-down vice: A multimillionaire can afford to lose an amount that would send most Americans to the poorhouse. By his own lights, Bennett has failed the truckers, waitresses and retirees who, faced with continuous temptation and omnipresent opportunities to gamble, end up betting the Christmas money at Foxwoods or blowing the phone bill on the lotto.

"Pathological" or "problem" gambling is a serious social malady that, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling, affects some 6 million Americans. It destroys and impoverishes families and, like all obsessive behavior, makes practitioners and those who love them miserable. But don't take my word for it. Just ask the folks at Empower America, of which Bennett is chairman. Empower America opposes the expansion of legalized gambling and lists problem gambling as a leading indicator of America's cultural decline. In fact, widespread conservative disapproval of Bennett's open secret is part of why the story got leaked.

It's debatable whether decriminalizing marijuana would increase its use--and whether that would be so very awful. But there's no doubt that the widespread legalization of gambling, or "gaming" as the industry prefers we call it, has boosted it into the mainstream. Moreover, where you have gambling you also tend to find organized crime, prostitution, political corruption and the illusion of a budgetary free lunch--as when legislators use lottery profits or gambling taxes to substitute for regular funding of education. As a pseudolibertarian tax on the poor, gambling is the perfect Republican revenue stream. Even as I write, George Pataki is proposing to cure New York's budget woes by installing 4,500 video lottery terminals--anything but raise taxes on the wealthy!

Bennett's defenders make much of the fact that he never condemned gambling and so was not actually a hypocrite. Leaving your own pet vice off a long, long list of sins, and then, when you are found out, exempting that vice as practiced by you but not as practiced by others--that's not exculpation from charges of hypocrisy, that's what hypocrisy is.

If Bennett were a jolly, modest fellow, full of love for fallen humanity and the first to admit he was just another sinner like the rest of us--if he were less quick to impute the worst motives to perfectly ordinary behavior, like having two kids; if he spent less time promoting rigid, puritanical morals and more time promoting, oh, kindness and tolerance and looking into your own heart and cutting other people some slack because you never really know what demons they're contending with--no one would be piling on now.

But then, with a message like that, no one would have heard of him in the first place. You don't get to play Christian on TV, or amass real political power along with your millions, by urging people not to throw the first stone, especially if they live in a glass house. Jesus tried that, and look what happened to him.

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