Why the moral majority is more forgiving than we thought

Bill Clinton's let-off by the voters reveals a new tolerance, argues Fintan O'Toole
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The Independent Online
BILL CLINTON has been accused of many things, but revealing awkward truths is not one of them. Whether answering questions about his private life or explaining his public policies, his instinct has always been to tell people what he thinks they want to hear. And yet, without meaning to, he has just challenged some powerful assumptions. He has forced Americans to admit, as they did in last week's mid-term elections, that they are not as righteous as conservatives like to think they are. He has revealed that the real moral majority is made up, not of religious zealots but of confused people doing their best to come to terms with the perplexing diversity of human desires. He has brought into the open the dark secret of modern morality: that people are not all that anxious to be scandalised.

Most commentators agree that Clinton was not the issue in the elections. That is in itself astounding. Since January, his affair with Monica Lewinsky has dominated the news. He has suffered personal disgrace on an unprecedented scale. His nasty little secrets have been magnified into affairs of state. His most embarrassing moments have been fed into the all-devouring maw of the worldwide web. He has been the victim of an attempted coup d'etat conducted not with tanks and helicopters but the more devastating weapons of shame and humiliation.

Accepted logic suggested that this coup must succeed. That was based on certain assumptions about the feelings of "ordinary people" out there somewhere beyond the reaches of the political and media establishments. Whatever these ordinary people might feel and believe, they surely could not bear to think of Clinton's pathetic need for gratification, or to picture their president as an overgrown schoolboy pleasuring himself in the White House toilets. They could not help being so disgusted that their sheer revulsion would overwhelm all political judgement.

Clearly, however, they can help it. While much of the media and the political elite continues to work from a narrow notion of what is and is not acceptable to the general public, a new moral majority has been emerging, not just in the US but in most western democracies. It is not, as conservatives would characterise it, decadent, amoral or so mesmerised by consumerism that it can't be bothered to distinguish right from wrong. But it has lost faith in saints and heroes. It has given up on the illusion that there is such a thing as a perfect human being and that if we can only find these people and elect them to office, everything will be okay. It hopes for moral rectitude but doesn't necessarily expect it. It is glad of goodness, but is not automatically contemptuous of failure. It is, oddly enough, rather taken with the old religious ideal of hating the sin but loving the sinner. And it has somehow concluded that morality is not the same as self-righteousness, that tolerance and compassion are moral virtues too.

Consider, for a moment, the following scenario. A Labour minister, regarded as a happily married man, visits a part of a public park that is known as a gay pick-up spot. The police get involved. Confused, enigmatic accounts of the event become public knowledge. The minister, looking haggard and hollow-eyed, appears on television, barely able to mumble his way though a rehearsed statement. He resigns and his public career is effectively over.

This happened - four years ago in holy Catholic Ireland. Except that the minister in question, Emmett Stagg, did not resign and was not forced out. In a country which is still the most religious in western Europe, there was a feeling that he should not be destroyed. He stayed in office. Two years later his rural and small-town constituents re-elected him.

Ireland is a small and relatively unimportant place and it is likely that Ron Davies and Tony Blair had never heard of Mr Stagg. If they had, they might not have been so quick to presume on the intolerance of ordinary people in the 1990s. They might have considered the possibility that the British public, no less than the Irish, could actually live with the knowledge that a government minister was having trouble with his sexuality.

What is happening throughout the West is simply that people have been exposed to a much broader range of human behaviour than before. We used to carry in our heads a rough-and-ready distinction. There were normal people and weirdos. The normal people got married, had children and kept their problems to themselves. The weirdos appeared to the normal people only in the law courts and the scandal sheets. Most of what they did was criminal; the rest was so wonderfully strange that it merited banner headlines in the News of the World. By definition, normal people were not weirdos and weirdos were not normal. But it hasn't been like that for a long time now. On the one hand, because we now talk about child abuse, for instance, we have learnt to question the appearance of normality. On the other, the law no longer automatically defines sexual behaviour that departs from the supposed norm as criminal perversion. Popular culture, in the US and elsewhere, has become wildly confessional. Every variety of sexuality is displayed in the endless carnival of daytime TV. Yesterday's weirdos are today's guests on Oprah.

Millions of ordinary parents have discovered that their nice, caring son or smart, respectable daughter is homosexual. Millions have lived through adultery, separation and divorce. People still experience pain and disillusion through all the vagaries of sexual desire. But the sky has not fallen in. Even those who regard homosexuality, for instance, as a grave sin have noticed that fire and brimstone are not raining down on Greenwich Village. A minority of religious obsessives may think of all this as the end of the world, but most people have concluded that even if they don't like what other people do with each other's bodies, they can live with it. It's not that the citizens are now less moral, merely that they are less gullible and less hypocritical. They have revised their expectations of leadership downwards, from exemplary goodness to an acceptable levels of badness. They have concluded that morality is seldom plain and never simple and indecent things are often done by decent people.

Even for the Christian right in the US, the really outrageous thing about Clinton is not that he commits adultery; it is that, because he persists in getting caught and yet surviving, he has destroyed the pleasant fiction that respectable people would never tolerate a known sinner in the highest office. He has reminded us that these days a lot of sinners are respectable people.

Fintan O'Toole is a columnist with the Irish Times, drama critic of the New York Daily News, and author of 'A Traitor's Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan', just published in paperback by Granta.