21st Century Character Studies, Part I

Ryan Zinke — and the horse he rode in on — are finally on their way out of Washington. In the Trump era his resignation surprises no one, and bothers no one much except his erstwhile supporters at Breitbart and the Washington Times. Most of us expect these paragons of Western libertarianism to get caught with their hands in the public till from time to time — and to be unrepentant about it when they do — because we know that in Washington, if not yet in the rest of the country, the performance of virtue has come to be indistinguishable from virtue itself.

When asked by the press to react to his downfall, Secretary Zinke did what is now customary for embarrassed Trumpistas. He blamed the irrational partisanship of his political enemies, and assured everyone that he nevertheless remained steadfast and undaunted. There’s an old saying, he reminded us, that a man should do right and fear no one. That’s what he’d always done, and what he planned to do in the future, come what may.

There’s an old saying. Yes, there is — a very old saying, as it turns out. Like so many other ancient proverbs brandished by the right wing, it sounds more authentic in the original German. Here’s one of the earliest recorded examples, from 1592:

Fürcht Got, Thue recht, Schew niemandt

Fear God, do the right thing, and stand in awe of no one. Fearing God has gone by the wayside over the years, even among Christian fundamentalists, but the rest has apparently carried a whiff of Lutheran rectitude across the centuries and continents all the way to present-day Montana, and to Ryan Zinke. Given that Zinke is actually a German name, it isn’t such a stretch to imagine a Zinke great-grandfather’s words of wisdom detached from their original context and turned into a utilitarian political bumpersticker by a descendant who has no real idea who he is, or where he came from. It’s a common American story, this. From Saint Patrick’s Day parades to mariachi concerts in the park on Cinco de Mayo, we both are, and are not, who we think we are.

Is Secretary Zinke who he thinks he is? Does he really embody this ancient teutonic motto that he’s so fond of quoting, or is he simply a hypocrite? The truth is that we have no reliable way of knowing. In a media environment which seems to evaluate politicians in the same way it does film stars, it’s all too easy to confuse performance with reality. For those of us who actually want to distinguish between the two, and who are continually tormented by that sinking feeling that we’ve seen this film before, context is everything. Fortunately for us, there’s a scene in a film — the classic German film, Der Blaue Engel — which illustrates almost too precisely the context at issue here.

The plot of the film is well known: a bourgeois professor is seduced, humiliated, and destroyed by a bohemian showgirl who doesn’t share his supposed values, but understands his suppressed passions all too well. The famous scene in which Professor Rath first awakens to Lola’s seductive charms, and the farce first begins its turn toward tragedy, is followed directly by a closeup of the painted motto above the now empty bed in the professor’s flat, which reads:

Tue Recht und scheue Niemand

The German is more modern than the Sixteenth Century version, and the fear of God is already long gone, but the motto is the same as the one Secretary Zinke is so fond of repeating. The problem with his use of it is that, just as in the case of Professor Rath, the moral of his personal story isn’t at all the one that he’s trying to sell us. It’s actually irrelevant to our interest as citizens, and as voters, whether or not he believes it himself.

Professor Rath was undone by lust, Secretary Zinke by greed. Both are human failings, to which every one of us is susceptible. It’s not that doing right and fearing no one is per se a bad ideal of personal conduct, especially in a democracy, it’s that when one can’t manage to live up to such ideals, a confession is in order, not least of all to oneself. What Secretary Zinke doesn’t get — or doesn’t think that we’ll get — is that ideals must always of necessity be leavened with a little humility. In a just society, or more to the point, a society in which every public figure’s conduct is under surveillance 24/7/365, setting oneself up as a paragon of virtue is not just a bad defense for influence peddling, it’s a ticket to social and political oblivion.

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