As a product of my generation and my geography, my conscience is often guided by a particular pair of moral exemplars. Who didn’t like each other. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.
(Well, OK, more my parents’ generation. But I haven’t been able to do better.)
When facing a moral dilemma, you can ask yourself, “What would Ike do?”
Obvious good answers: Play golf. Liberate France. Send Gen. Patton to rescue the 101st Airborne in Bastogne. Send the 101st Airborne to enforce Brown vs the Board in Little Rock. (Obvious bad answer: Hire Richard Nixon.)
And here’s one for our time: Know the difference between an SOB and a British SOB.
When Ike was holding down his job of Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force, his enemies were sometimes less of a headache than his allies. Keeping the massive egos of Roosevelt, Churchill, DeGaulle, Patton, Montgomery, etc., in the same harness was essential, and rough.
When it reached his ear that an American officer and a British officer had gotten into a heated argument, and that the Yank had insulted the Brit, Eisenhower dismissed the American officer and sent him home.
The British officer, having calmed down, thought that punishment was a bit much and sought clemency for his rival.
“All he did was call me a son of a bitch,” the British officer explained. “Nothing wrong with that.”
“Yes,” Ike replied, “but he called you a British son of a bitch, and that’s unforgivable. My ruling stands.”
The difference, as Eisenhower knew, was that insulting an individual, even with vulgar language, is one thing. Insulting a nationality — or a race or a faith — is another. The animosity can only escalate as tribes form and wagons are circled. People fall into a trap of judging one another, not by the content of their character, but the color of their skin. Or uniform. Or money. Or passport.
That thinking made the difference between one of the stupidest things Western Civilization ever did — punishing the whole of the German people for World War I — and one of the smartest — punishing only culpable individuals among the German people for World War II.
Last week, national attention that should have been focused on Puerto Rico or immigration or education was riveted on the question of whether Roseanne is worse than Samantha.
It might seem like a close call. But I think Ike would find Roseanne Barr’s racist attack on a woman who wasn’t even doing anything newsworthy at the time, comparing her to both a terrorist and an ape, was indeed a firing offense.
Samantha Bee’s crime was to use of one of the few dirty words that we had thought you still couldn’t say on TV (unless you are watching Ricky Gervais on Netflix) to attack an individual (Ivanka Trump) for holding herself up as an example of motherhood while ignoring what is happening to mothers and children at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Bee apologized. And her punishment is what it should be for someone who uses the wrong word. Nobody remembers the important stuff you said. They only remember the bad word.
You don’t deserve to lose your job. But you can’t avoid the fact that, at least today, you lost the argument.
George Pyle, The Tribune’s editorial page editor, has lost a great many arguments over the years. Even without resorting to vulgar language. email@example.com