Which of these does not belong:
Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Stewart, Rod Blagojevich?
If you answered Jimmy Stewart, as the only non-political official or activist, guess again. And if you’re from Chicago, I apologize for bewildering you with a trick question. If you haven’t been keeping up with the story that has turned political scandal into raw entertainment, the first five names are figures to whom soon-to-be-former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has recently compared himself.
Rather than fight the charges against him in the courtroom, Blagojevich is attempting to fight them in the court of public opinion. Probably not the best strategy for the politician who has already achieved the distinction of casting himself as the slimiest creature in the political swamp. Refusing to call witnesses or face his accusers is unlikely to endear Blagojevich to an electorate long-sickened by bipartisan graft and greed and moral bankruptcy. It’s more likely that Blagojevich hopes to manipulate his own exoneration by threatening — openly or tacitly — to bring others down with him.
However, Blagojevich’s farcical comparison of himself to every modern hero short of Mother Theresa is really just the flip side of a trend that’s been going on for a while.
Remember the Bush-haters who compared the former president to Hitler and his administration to the Third Reich? Remember Jimmy Carter’s outrageous condemnation of Israel as an apartheid state? This kind of over-the-top rhetoric transcends the merely offensive, the merely ludicrous, and the merely absurd. It’s effect on democratic culture over time is far more pernicious, for it blurs the lines between difference of opinion and true moral corruption, between poor judgment and criminal incompetance, between flawed planning and authentic evil.
The Blagojevich comic tragedy is the logical next step. If we live in a society where people truly cannot recognize the difference between an attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein and the German invasion of Poland, why should we not expect a similar confusion between Nelson Mandela and Rod Blagojevich? If we hear from the international community cries for prosecution against Israeli soldiers as war criminals (from the same people who have remained resolutely silent while Palestinian bombs rained down unprovoked on Israeli civilians), why should the indicted governor not compare himself to Gandhi from the tallest soapbox he can find?
As long as our society descends ever deeper into the sinkhole of moral equivalence, the Blagojeviches of the world will multiply — literally and figuratively — like the proverbial can of worms.
But then again, perhaps I’m being too hard on the governor. After all, the occasion of his impeachment has been to him, by his own reckoning, like Pearl Harbor Day.