Friday, May 2, 2003

On Bennett

1. Is it "hypocrisy" at work?

I don't think so. As many have pointed out, Bennett has never condemned gambling in his catalogue of vices, although his organization stands in opposition to state-supported gambling. Now, I say this as a person who really believes that casino gambling is a bane on society. I've been to casinos - in Biloxi, Montreal, Niagara Falls and Atlantic City - and those few minutes that we spend walking through and playing a few nickel slots are, to me, like some cacaphonic vision of hell. I do think casinos are some of the most depressing places on the planet: caverns illuminated by artificial light, no windows, filled with the constant dings of the slots with row upon row of mostly older women slouched at the machines, staring and alone. I remember reading an article about the casinos in Biloxi, and descriptions of how the waterfront area had changed since they opened, and it wasn't for the better. Besides the casinos themselves, the most visible new structures were, of course, pawnshops. Dreadful.

(And by the way, those of you have been with this blog for a year know that the Atlantic City trip was during last year's National Catholic Education Association meeting. Imagine that. It was really awful, and I've talked to a couple of people since then who also happened to attend the convention, and they all had the same reaction to the NCEA's choice: What were they thinking?) point was. Ah, yes. I guess gambling isn't, per se, inherently a sinful activity. I guess. And since Bennett clearly doesn't consider it so, the use of the word "hypocrite" here would be misplaced.

Although, as I've pointed out, evangelicals thinking about the "virtues" about which Bennett writes would probably assume that he included gambling in the "vices," and I will be quite interested to see the reactions of folks like Cal Thomas and the editors of Christianity Today to this.

2. But is it, as some are suggesting, a non-story?

I don't think so. I tend to agree with commentor Liam, who remarked that the gambling industry is not pristine, and that gambling inherently exploits human weakness. That is its whole raison d'etre. Anyone who participates supports this industry, and the high rollers, in particular, it seems to me, are implicated and involved in a particularly damning fashion. Sure, we are all responsible for our own actions, and a high roller is not responsible for Mrs. Smith's choice to cash in her Social Security so she can keep playing. But there is nothing ennobling about gambling, and it seems strange to me that one who makes a career out of preaching character and virtue would participate, at such an intense level, in such an industry. To look at it in our most charitable light, as Mike Petrik has done in the comments, we can speculate that perhaps the man has a problem. If so, we can hope and pray that he gets help.

As I indicated below, the crux of the matter is not that a rich guy is gambling. The crux of the matter is that a guy who has gotten rich and famous telling the rest of us that we need more character and virtue in our lives is pissing away gobs of the money we've given him in the name of virtue and character on slot machines and video poker. $500 bucks a pull.

Does that make you take Bennett more or less seriously as an expert on virtue and character?

Sure, everything is relative. In the context of his income, maybe him losing 8 million over ten years on slots is the equivalent of me losing 50 cents every two years or so, so who the hell am I to judge? Futher, no one who speaks on moral issues is morally flawless. Everyone knows that, and if that were what we expected, all the preachers would be tongue - tied (well...maybe...)

But this kind of thing does strike me as slightly different from say, being prone to ill-temper or selfishness. You can't quantify vice or sinfulness, but, this level of spending in a business that has such unseemly qualities does, as they say, cast a pall on a career dedicated to promoting virtue and good character, both of which presumably involve qualities of moderation, self-restraint and good stewardship.

But again....who are the rest of us, with our own sins, to judge? You could ask that, I guess, and the one thing I want to make very clear, is that this situation, like every other morally-challenged dillemma we deal with here, leads me to first of all look in the mirror. Those of you who have followed my thoughts here for a while know that. I may look at what Bennett is purported to have done and say, "What a waste. How many kids could he be putting through private schools? (as one commentor pointed out) How many college scholarships could he have endowed?"

But really, I could say the same about myself, and a story like this leads me to that place, inevitably. How do I use my resources? Am I doing all I could for others? Of course not...what can I do to walk that walk more faithfully?

So, is a story, because any story about human weakness is worth hearing, if it leads us to deeper self-examination, rather than easy, snide judgments on others. And,'s not pure and simple "hypocrisy." But deeply unimpressive, nonetheless.

"We should know that too much of anything, even a good thing, may prove to be our undoing … [We] need to set definite boundaries on our appetites.”

William Bennett, The Book of Virtues

(As quoted in this Newsweek article)