Womanizing vs. the “N” Word

Chronological smugness is the feeling that we have advanced to a moral condition higher than the generations before us. Shelby Steele has a good warning for us. We may not be advancing, but only reshuffling the vices about which we want to be relativistic or absolutistic.

I wondered if President Clinton would be defended with relativism if he had done what, according to gossip, Eisenhower was said to have done.

Suppose that in a light moment he had slipped into a parody of an old Arkansas buddy from childhood and, to get the voice right, used the word “n-” a few times. Suppose further that a tape of this came to light so that all day long in the media—from the unctuous morning shows to the freewheeling late-night shows to the news every half hour on radio—we would hear the unmistakable presidential voice saying, “Take your average n- . . . .”

Today in America there is no moral relativism around racism, no sophisticated public sentiment that recasts racism a mere quirk of character. Today America is puritanical rather than relativistic around racism, and if Clinton had been caught in this way, it is very likely that nothing would have saved him. . . .

The point is that President Clinton survived what would certainly have destroyed President Eisenhower, and Eisenhower could easily have survived what would almost certainly have destroyed Clinton. Each man, finally, was no more than indiscreet within the moral landscape of his era (again, Eisenhower's indiscretion is hypothetical here for purposes of discussion).

Neither racism in the fifties nor womanizing in the nineties was a profound enough sin to undermine completely the moral authority of a president. So it was the good luck of each president to sin into the moral relativism of his era rather than into its Puritanism.

And, interestingly, the moral relativism of one era was the Puritanism of the other. Race simply replaced sex as the primary focus of America’s moral seriousness.
(Shelby Steele, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era [New York: HarperCollins, 2006], pp. 5–6)

This is a sobering warning for all of us, lest we mount our self-righteous soapbox and condemn the sins of one generation while glossing the sins of our own.