New penance doesn’t off­set much

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - VIC­TOR DAVIS HAN­SON

What do left­ist, mostly sec­u­lar elites share with me­dieval sin­ners? They feel bad that their lives at times don’t quite com­port with their pro­fessed dogma.

Many in the me­dieval church were crit­i­cized by in­ter­nal re­form­ers and the pub­lic at large for their con­tro­ver­sial grant­ing of penance, es­pe­cially to the wealthy and in­flu­en­tial. Clergy in­creas­ingly of­fered ab­so­lu­tion of sins by or­der­ing the guilty to con­fess. Bet­ter yet, some­times the well-heeled sin­ners were told to pay money to the church or to do good works that could then be banked to off­set their bad.

Of course, crit­ics ar­gued that se­rial con­fes­sions sim­ply en­cour­aged se­rial sin­ning. The cal­cu­lat­ing sin­ner would do good things in one place to off­set his pre­med­i­tated bad in an­other. The cor­rup­tion sur­round­ing th­ese cyn­i­cal penances and in­dul­gences helped anger Martin Luther and cause the Ref­or­ma­tion.

Maybe it was in­evitable that the old prac­tice of paid ab­so­lu­tion would ap­peal to elite Baby Boomers — a class and gen­er­a­tion that al­ways seems to want it both ways by com­part­men­tal­iz­ing their lives. The only dif­fer­ence is that the new sin­ners are not so wor­ried about God’s wrath as they are about their rep­u­ta­tion among their judg­men­tal lib­eral gods.

Take the idea of “car­bon off­sets” made pop­u­lar by Al Gore. If well- mean­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist ac­tivists and celebri­ties ei­ther can­not or will not give up their private jets or huge en­ergy-hun­gry houses, they can still find a way to ex­cuse their il­lib­eral con­sump­tion.

In­stead of the lo­cal parish priest, green com­pa­nies ex­ist to take con­fes­sion and tab­u­late en­vi­ron­men­tal sins. Then they of­fer the of­fend­ers a way out of feel­ing bad while con­tin­u­ing their con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion.

You can give money to an ex­change ser­vice that does en­vi­ron­men­tal good in equal mea­sure to your bad. Or, in do-it-your­self fash­ion, you can cal­i­brate how much en­ergy you hog — and then do penance by plant­ing trees or set­ting up a wind gen­er­a­tor. Ei­ther way, your own high life stays un­in­ter­rupted.

Some prom­i­nent green ac­tivists pay their en­vi­ron­men­tal penance in cash, barter or sym­bol­ism to keep the good life. Al Gore, for ex­am­ple, still gets to use 20 times more elec­tric­ity in his Ten­nessee man­sion than the av­er­age house­hold uses.

Take also the case of Lau­rie David, the green ac­tivist and wife of “Se­in­feld” co-cre­ator Larry David. She has re­cently gen­er­ated plenty of pub­lic­ity for her bio­fuel-pow­ered bus tour to pro­mote en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism. But in other cir­cum­stances, Mrs. David still flies on gas-guz­zling private jets.

The best thing about this me- dieval idea of penance is that it can now be repack­aged as po­lit­i­cally cor­rect “off­sets.” Dur­ing the last few decades, the re­turn of th­ese mod­ern in­dul­gences has caught on in a variety of ways.

Lib­eral pres­i­den­tial can­di­date John Ed­wards, for ex­am­ple, lives in a 30,000-square-foot home, gets $400 hair­cuts and re­cently made a lot of cash by work­ing for a profit-driven, cut­throat hedge fund. How is he to al­le­vi­ate his guilt over this? He can lec­ture oth­ers about the in­equity of an Amer­i­can sys­tem that un­fairly cre­ated two un­equal so­ci­eties — his rich na­tion and many oth­ers’ poor one.


Don Imus was se­ri­ally warned that his foul and some­times racist ban­ter would even­tu­ally get him into big trou­ble. Still, as he kept up his trash talk­ing aimed at Jews, women and blacks, Mr. Imus also gen­er­ously do­nated to, and even set up char­i­ties for, wounded vet­er­ans and poor chil­dren.

Thus, when his slurs in­evitably crossed the line one too many times, Mr. Imus not only con­fessed and apol­o­gized, but, in­evitably, claimed his in­dul­gences of past good deeds in hopes of off­set­ting the present bad ones.

Th­ese va­ri­eties of con­tempo- rary off­sets could be ex­panded. But you get the pic­ture of the moral am­bi­gu­ity. Penance, an­cient and mod­ern, was thought cor­rupt be­cause it was not sin­cere apol­ogy nor gen­uine in its prom­ise to stop the sin.

Thanks to car­bon off­sets, Al Gore keeps his man­sion — and still feels good while warn­ing oth­ers we all can’t live as he does. John Ed­wards chooses to off­set his own priv­i­leges by ser­mo­niz­ing about un­fair­ness in Amer­ica.

And who can for­get Ge­orge Soros? The bil­lion­aire can lav­ishly fund lib­eral causes such as left-wing think tanks, Web sites and bal­lot ini­tia­tives — and thereby off­set his mil­lions made spec­u­lat­ing on ex­change rates and bankrupt­ing small de­pos­i­tors. He has be­come a hero to those who or­di­nar­ily de­mo­nize such fi­nan­cial piracy.

In other words, “off­sets” is merely a eu­phemism for words like cyn­i­cism and hypocrisy. So by all means help save the planet, worry about the poor, es­tab­lish char­i­ties. Just spare us the me­dieval idea such penance ex­cuses your own ex­cess.

Vic­tor Davis Han­son is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist, a clas­si­cist and his­to­rian at Stan­ford Univer­sity’s Hoover In­sti­tu­tion and au­thor of “A War Like No Other: How the Athe­ni­ans and Spar­tans Fought the Pelo­pon­nesian War.”

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