The talk-radio host Chris Plante of WMAL in Washington, D.C., is fond of saying that “were it not for double standards, the Left would have no standards at all.” But I wonder if all those who appreciate the joke quite “get” its real point—which is that double standards are “no standards at all.” A standard that applies to your enemy but not to yourself is not a standard but the absence of standards, in the sense that we have understood the word since the Enlightenment, and a return to an earlier time when standards only applied within a favored community and not at all outside of it. But it’s also true to say that the pre-Enlightenment standard, or lack of standards, has never really gone away for those in power. In fact, you might almost lay it down as a rule of thumb that those who really exercise power in any society are those who are immune from any accountability for not following the rules that apply to everyone else.
The British government scientist Neil Ferguson obviously thought that he enjoyed an unassailable position of power when he had a rendezvous with his mistress in violation of his own rules for social distancing. According to the London Daily Telegraph, Professor Ferguson “said he broke lockdown rules because he thought he was immune”—a statement which can be read in more ways than one. Whether or not he was immune to the virus, however, he turned out not to be immune to reproach and pressure to resign from a government team which may have been wearying of his alarmist prophecies in any case. Is it possible that he risked his position deliberately in an effort to prove to himself and/or others that he really was powerful enough to ignore his own rules?
A standard that applies to your enemy but not to yourself is not a standard but the absence of standards.
A similar thought comes to mind to account for the irony of Tara Reade’s allegations against Joe Biden, who is the man more responsible than anyone else for making unsubstantiated charges of sexual harassment a permanent feature of the American political landscape. You could say that he, too, wrote the rules that he himself is now alleged to have violated when, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he admitted the testimony of Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas in 1991. That he broke the rules, if he did break them with Ms. Reade, in 1993 when they must have been still fresh in his mind also suggests that the act amounted to what Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character in the 1988 film La Petite Voleuse calls a “fate-bet”—daring the gods to punish one for usurping their privileges as a proof of one’s own power.
Sheer speculation, I agree, but it’s interesting to see how, were such a thing to have been the case, Mr. Biden seems to be winning his fate-bet. Particularly revealing to me has been a column for The Washington Post by Megan McArdle, whom I know slightly and respect deeply. Here is how her column ends:
Republicans are hoping that Democrats will make their hypocrisy explicit; in fact, they believe Democrats already have. That’s probably a fair accusation in many cases. But Republicans who are certain they’ve caught Democrats in a double standard should ask whether normal standards really should apply during a dire crisis such as the current pandemic. For even if I didn’t believe in a mercy standard for decades-old crimes, I’d still argue that however important it is to protect victims of abuse, protecting them very much includes getting the Republic out of the hands of our current fool of a president.
Bingo! There, I feel sure, we see exactly the reasoning of James Comey and his merry band of outlaws at the FBI when they framed Michael Flynn and attempted to frame the President on charges of “Russian collusion.” Like the crisis then, in view of which “normal standards” did not apply, the real crisis now is not the pandemic but Mr. Trump himself, or rather the old ruling class’s view of the danger he poses to people like themselves, which danger therefore had to be exaggerated into a danger to the country in order to justify their suspension of “normal standards.”
I happen to know that Ms. McArdle is far too intelligent a woman really to believe that the President is a fool, but she, too, must exaggerate his foolishness and bring it together with the putative danger it poses to the country and, indeed, the world on account of the coronavirus in order to justify her claim that “normal standards” have to be suspended. What is really at stake both for her and for the Obama Justice Department (not to mention President Obama himself) is that Mr. Trump offends their highly refined sense of decency and decorum. I believe that it is in order to demonstrate that highly refined sense of decency and decorum that they make the extraordinary effort they do to bring the man down.
Also note that Ms. McArdle’s slur against the President’s intelligence is thought by her to be more telling, more of a reason for the viewers-with-alarm to throw aside their own principles, than a slur against his character or principles. Intelligence trumps everything, it seems, in the new decency—which is another reason why “Science” itself is now routinely enlisted in the ongoing struggle against Mr. Trump’s presumptively illegitimate authority. The power to apply a double standard and not to be embarrassed by it, let alone punished, must apply to those who can claim to speak for Science, if anyone. No doubt that’s what Professor Ferguson thought too.