Keywords for the Age of Austerity 14.5: Errors in Judgment

Steve Scalise, the ranking member of Congress exposed this week as a white supremacist, made an “error in judgment” in speaking to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization in 2002 (also known as EURO—what kind of amateur-hour nativists are these, anyway?) What’s more, it was “inappropriate.”

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“Errors in judgment” abound in mainstream politics. Pronouncing some sort of embarrassing misconduct this way is a speciously vague way to acknowledge wrongdoing without having to admit culpability. Whether you are, say, a U.S. Olympic Committee official implicated in a corruption scandal, a basketball player with guns in your locker, a member of Congress who may have laundered a little drug money once, a Senator who rewards his campaign contributors, or a white supremacist, you admit “errors in judgment” when it’s too late to deny anything, but still too early to face meaningful consequences. What’s more, treating unethical practices as “errors” reduces them to mere mistakes, like misplacing the decimal point or leaving your keys in the door. An error of “judgment” makes it a little more serious, but only in the same way that a disappointed teacher might describe a child who played outside instead of studying for her math test. Thus the anti-gay congressman Mark Foley was not sanctioned by the House for sexually harassing male teenage interns because it was a mere “error in judgment.”

This is what is so laughable about describing Scalise’s apparent white-supremacist sympathies this way—he’s a politician, and attending a white-nationalist conference is an actual political decision, taken deliberately by a state congressman, not some impulsive act by a wayward youth.

What makes it stranger is that Boehner’s full statement of support for his comrade in the Congress also describes his attendance as “inappropriate,” which is the vocabulary usually reserved in political journalism and public relations for sexual indiscretions. “Errors” that are “inappropriate” are usually sexual in nature: the euphemism is often used by moralistic politicians and puritanical preachers who admit to extramarital affairs, sexual harassment, and so on. It is particularly useful for homophobic politicians, like Larry Craig, who are caught in sex acts with men. Craig, the right-wing Idaho U.S. Senator, initially responded to reports that he solicited sex in an airport men’s room by insisting that he “was not involved in any inappropriate conduct,” denying the conduct by daring not to speak its name. The term “inappropriate” is also adopted by victims and by journalists speaking and writing publicly about abuse and harassment, either because its clinical and legal-ish detachment make it sound either less painful or more “objective.” 

The personal terms in which Boehner both criticized and defended Scalise—as a man who has made “inappropriate” “errors,” but is yet a man of “integrity” and “good character”—make clear that his offense is not just personal, but ephemeral. An enthusiasm for Nazis is less scandalous, in fact, then enthusiasm for sex in a bathroom. So, if we hope to hold our political leaders accountable for attending white-supremacist conventions, we better hope they have sex with a prostitute while they’re there. Otherwise, who cares?

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