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October 08, 2006

Supplemental Sunday Sermonette: Being Duke Cunningham


Like a fish out of water, originally uploaded by colodio.

Yesterday I blogged about Duke Cunningham's irate letter to the reporter who exposed his crimes.

The letter was simultaneously outrageous and heart-wrenching.

At first, I gave the Sunday Sermonette to Duke because of his bizarre religious hypocrisy, detailed in the previous post. Then, it occurred to me that this was a good object lesson for a constructive humanist sermonette--Cunningham's letter says a lot about why the unexamined life sucks.

Cunningham says he hurts worse than anyone can imagine. Reading the letter, I believe it. The interesting thing is that he's suffering much more because of his failures of self-reflection than he would if he just admitted to himself that he did something wrong.

The former Republican congressman is now serving time in federal prison for taking $2.4 million in bribes, including $1 million from his best friend of 16 years, defense contractor Mitchell Wade.

Cunningham doesn't see any contradiction between his Christian faith and his refusal to accept responsibility for his actions. I'm not even sure Cunningham is capable of accepting responsibility at this point. He just can't believe that he's anything except a victim.

Ironically, by casting himself as the victim, Cunningham is torturing himself. Perhaps the saddest part of the letter is when Duke denounces his former best friend:

“Wade is the absolute devil and his lawyer is trying to save his donkey,” wrote Cunningham, reflecting his bitterness at what Wade has been telling federal investigators and the U.S. Attorney's Office. “I should have said no to the gifts. For that, I am truly sorry.”

[...]

In the letter, Cunningham clearly blames Wade for those transgressions. And, 16 months after insisting that he was not a personal friend of Wade's, Cunningham's letter describes what was once a close relationship.

“He showers you with gifts, he pretended to be my best friend for 16 years. Taking me to his wifes parents home many times. Taking Nancy and I to Sunday brunches with his wife, hunting together at his father in laws Eastern Shore place. Me taking him to a place where I hunt. When I was in town we were together,” he wrote.

If Cunningham were a more reflective person, he might not be writing off his entire friendship as a betrayal. If he could come to terms with his own culpability, he could acknowledge that he and his buddy got busted for crimes they committed together.

In the letter, Cunningham comes across as a quivering ball of inchoate suffering. He feels bad about everything--his crime, his punishment, even his closest relationships. If he thought more clearly and settled on a defensible interpretation of his predicament, he'd eliminate several sources of misery immediately. Sure, if he took responsibility, he'd have to cope with being a bribe-taking Congressman, but at least he wouldn't have to deal with surges of indignant fury and the agony of imaginary betrayal.



Update: Elsewhere in the freethinking blogosphere, Revere offers a an excellent humanist meditation on what we can all learn from the Amish about rationality and forgiveness.

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Comments

Long, long ago, during the first Reagan administration, I used to know a proud member of the Moral Majority (sic) who was, to put it lightly, a massive scumbag - spent every night out looking for someone to cheat on his wife with, carried an unregistered gun in his glove compartment in case a cocaine deal went bad, frequently left his wife for the mistress du jour - and I asked him once how it was that he could call for his religious values to be imposed by law on the rest of the world when he, who actually claimed to believe in them, couldn't be bothered with them.

He told me that his misbehavior was due to all the temptations available out there in society, and if we legislated those temptations away, he wouldn't have them available and his weakness wouldn't lead him into slipping.

It was, truly, an article of faith with him. He wasn't consciously making excuses. He believed that if somehow he could force society to straighten up and fly right (although how one might manage that when existing laws don't deter the righteous-but-tempted I can't imagine) he wouldn't be Bad any more.

Like burqas, the point of which is that men can't be expected to behave like thinking and moral beings when tempted, laws that attempt to codify morality are, I think, intended to protect people who posit themselves as fallen and values as non-secular and who are waiting to do the right thing until everyone else is and they don't have a choice.

Convenient, that. And counterintuitive in a world where children and eighty year olds get raped.

Some people out there really embody Plato's thesis that it is worse to commit injustice than to suffer it, people who cause a lot of damage, and still manage to cause more damage to themselves. Roy Cohn sticks out in this vein. I find their stories morbidly comforting.

More Sermonettes on such themes would be most welcome, especially in an cultural environment in which both the sermon and morality as a concept are abandoned to often not only to the religious world, but its most extreme elements.

BTW have you ever read the Big Domino in the Sky? I ask because the Sermonette is reminiscent slightly of the words of the Preacher with No Name.

Thanks, Bruce. I haven't read Big Domino in the Sky. Sounds like something I should check out. Is it a blog?

He’s pitiable alright. Even if he’s paroled early he’ll be a frail old man when or if he gets out. A competent prison chaplain or psychologist is what he needs.

On the other hand, considering what corruption can do to a democracy, a congressman who peddles influence is only a hair’s breadth away from being a traitor. His crime is far more grave than that of punks who steal cars or sell bags of dope and get harder time. Punks who, as a rule, have none of the advantages and privileges Cunningham had. He was smart enough to line his pockets, he should be smart enough to figure out that minimum security prison isn’t the end of the world and that no one likes to hear crybabies bawl.

Big Domino in the Sky is a short book of humanist/atheist "parables" by Michael Martin, published I think by Prometheus Books. Like the Hebrew or Christian Bibles, the stories are of a variety of formats and styles, but with common humanist themes.

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