Upping our room-reading game
Gov. Jim Pillen holds a 5-day-old newborn beside his two oldest granddaughters, moments after signing LB 574 into law on Monday, May 22, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. Pillen is joined by State Sens. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, at left, and Kathleen Kauth, at center, who led the restrictions on abortion and gender-affirming care this session. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)
They — or lack of them — came to mind when I read that Italian authorities found the young British tourist who carved “Ivan +Haley 23” into the wall of Rome’s 2,000-year-old Colosseum. Pro tip, Ivan: Love may conquer all, make the world go round and find a way, but even so, the Carabinieri would like a word.
My guess (and hope) is that most people would be appalled at Ivan’s do-the-right-thing failure. Indeed, another tourist, an American from California, took a video of the ill-mannered etching. After a tepid response from Colosseum security, he posted the footage on social media.
For those keeping score at home, they take cultural history vandalism seriously in Italy. If you’re out of scruples — or perhaps never had any — a pinch for defacing the Colosseum can run you up to $15,000 in fines and five years in prison.
Ivan’s smitten-driven unscrupulousness reminded me of the first time I read of people taking selfies at Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp where over a million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. A brief photo search found visitors there mugging and posing and frolicking on the railroad tracks that carried death trains filled with humans on their way to slaughter. Criticism was swift and widespread, but some defended the photos, arguing that for young people especially, selfies are how the “digital generation” relates to the physical world, thus mitigating disrespect others saw in the photos.
That would be me … and my father, who was big on scruples. More often than I care to remember, he asked me if I had any. His definition ran something along the lines of “the right thing at the right time for the right reason, no matter what.”
Webster describes scruples as “moral or ethical considerations or standards that act as a restraining force or inhibit certain actions.” In public life, which, in the smartphone universe, is everywhere all the time, those actions run the gamut from telling the truth to having good manners to not carving my initials into priceless antiquities.
Of course the modern meaning of scruples is encapsulated in the following, highly technical phrase: “Dude, read the room.”
Scruples convey a sense of consistent behavior, too, an ethical infrastructure that steadies the tiller when one’s seas turn to chop. That said, the element of scruples I miss most is the honest sense of self-awareness they bring, especially in leaders.
Self-awareness for public figures should mean a seasoned sense that their actions are being closely watched. It’s part of the process of politics because when you spend the public’s money and make the public’s rules, you should expect the public to monitor closely its scruples meter. Or, I suppose, a public figure can just ignore what seems apparent to others … no defense needed.
So when Supreme Court justices insist that lavish, expensive gifts from people with matters before the high court are either business-as-usual or not our business, a large public eye roll is in order. Scruples resemble ethics: hard to define but obvious when they are absent.
When U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama took to social media to praise funds for broadband being released as part of the infrastructure law, he was taken to the online woodshed because he voted against it. Others in Congress, too, were ready to enjoy what former President Barack Obama called “having their cake and voting against it, too.”
When yea or nay time arrived for the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, Texas Rep. Kay Granger called it a “socialist plan full of crushing taxes and radical spending.” But when she realized the Army Corps of Engineers would get funds for a flood control project in her district, she called it a “great day for Fort Worth.”
Sometimes the self-awareness of scrupledom is more subtle. When Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen was candidate Pillen, he refused to debate his opponent, calling such forums “political theater.”
Yet, when he inked a new law further restricting abortion rights for Nebraska women at a signing ceremony, he did so with great flourish and while holding a baby, the theatrics of politics at its finest.
Public figures — indeed all of us — would do well to up our room-reading game.
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