Friday, May 2

On Bennett

1. Is it "hypocrisy" at work?

I don't think so. As many have pointed out, Bennett has never condemned gambling in his catalogue of vices, although his organization stands in opposition to state-supported gambling. Now, I say this as a person who really believes that casino gambling is a bane on society. I've been to casinos - in Biloxi, Montreal, Niagara Falls and Atlantic City - and those few minutes that we spend walking through and playing a few nickel slots are, to me, like some cacaphonic vision of hell. I do think casinos are some of the most depressing places on the planet: caverns illuminated by artificial light, no windows, filled with the constant dings of the slots with row upon row of mostly older women slouched at the machines, staring and alone. I remember reading an article about the casinos in Biloxi, and descriptions of how the waterfront area had changed since they opened, and it wasn't for the better. Besides the casinos themselves, the most visible new structures were, of course, pawnshops. Dreadful.

(And by the way, those of you have been with this blog for a year know that the Atlantic City trip was during last year's National Catholic Education Association meeting. Imagine that. It was really awful, and I've talked to a couple of people since then who also happened to attend the convention, and they all had the same reaction to the NCEA's choice: What were they thinking?) point was. Ah, yes. I guess gambling isn't, per se, inherently a sinful activity. I guess. And since Bennett clearly doesn't consider it so, the use of the word "hypocrite" here would be misplaced.

Although, as I've pointed out, evangelicals thinking about the "virtues" about which Bennett writes would probably assume that he included gambling in the "vices," and I will be quite interested to see the reactions of folks like Cal Thomas and the editors of Christianity Today to this.

2. But is it, as some are suggesting, a non-story?

I don't think so. I tend to agree with commentor Liam, who remarked that the gambling industry is not pristine, and that gambling inherently exploits human weakness. That is its whole raison d'etre. Anyone who participates supports this industry, and the high rollers, in particular, it seems to me, are implicated and involved in a particularly damning fashion. Sure, we are all responsible for our own actions, and a high roller is not responsible for Mrs. Smith's choice to cash in her Social Security so she can keep playing. But there is nothing ennobling about gambling, and it seems strange to me that one who makes a career out of preaching character and virtue would participate, at such an intense level, in such an industry. To look at it in our most charitable light, as Mike Petrik has done in the comments, we can speculate that perhaps the man has a problem. If so, we can hope and pray that he gets help.

As I indicated below, the crux of the matter is not that a rich guy is gambling. The crux of the matter is that a guy who has gotten rich and famous telling the rest of us that we need more character and virtue in our lives is pissing away gobs of the money we've given him in the name of virtue and character on slot machines and video poker. $500 bucks a pull.

Does that make you take Bennett more or less seriously as an expert on virtue and character?

Sure, everything is relative. In the context of his income, maybe him losing 8 million over ten years on slots is the equivalent of me losing 50 cents every two years or so, so who the hell am I to judge? Futher, no one who speaks on moral issues is morally flawless. Everyone knows that, and if that were what we expected, all the preachers would be tongue - tied (well...maybe...)

But this kind of thing does strike me as slightly different from say, being prone to ill-temper or selfishness. You can't quantify vice or sinfulness, but, this level of spending in a business that has such unseemly qualities does, as they say, cast a pall on a career dedicated to promoting virtue and good character, both of which presumably involve qualities of moderation, self-restraint and good stewardship.

But again....who are the rest of us, with our own sins, to judge? You could ask that, I guess, and the one thing I want to make very clear, is that this situation, like every other morally-challenged dillemma we deal with here, leads me to first of all look in the mirror. Those of you who have followed my thoughts here for a while know that. I may look at what Bennett is purported to have done and say, "What a waste. How many kids could he be putting through private schools? (as one commentor pointed out) How many college scholarships could he have endowed?"

But really, I could say the same about myself, and a story like this leads me to that place, inevitably. How do I use my resources? Am I doing all I could for others? Of course not...what can I do to walk that walk more faithfully?

So, is a story, because any story about human weakness is worth hearing, if it leads us to deeper self-examination, rather than easy, snide judgments on others. And,'s not pure and simple "hypocrisy." But deeply unimpressive, nonetheless.

"We should know that too much of anything, even a good thing, may prove to be our undoing … [We] need to set definite boundaries on our appetites.”

William Bennett, The Book of Virtues

(As quoted in this Newsweek article)

From Liam:

There is another issue to consider in general, which is how such a scale of gambling supports the gambling industry; this is not penny bingo.

While it would be wrong to equate the gambling industry with La Cosa Nostra, and while gambling does provide honest and gainful employment for many, as an industry, it has significant negative externalities that need to be factored in the moral analysis. That is Mr. Bennett's job, not mine, but I note from personal experience that hard gamblers tend as a group to avoid candid moral analysis of such things. Not all forms of legal recreation are morally equal

Interesting discussions going on re/Bennett. I'm going to tease out a couple of the questions posed and give you a chance to discuss them in separate posts.

CMuncey asks:

Here's an open question (honest) for those with a deeper knowledge of Catholic moral theology than I (which is probably most people). Is there an clearly defined equivalent for Catholics to the Buddhist precept of right livelihood? As a Catholic, does Bennett have a moral responsibility in regard to how he spends his money, beyond simly not reducing his family to beggary? How do we interpret the blblical statement "to whom much is given, much will be required" in this case?

You might want to read what Cal Thomas said about Pat Robertson's racehorse last year.

My point? Evangelicals, a big part of the Virtue Market, don't like this kind of thing. At. All.

William Bennett, High Roller

Bennett has been a high-roller since at least the early 1990s. A review of one 18-month stretch of gambling showed him visiting casinos, often for two or three days at a time (and enjoying a line of credit of at least $200,000 at several of them). Bennett likes to be discreet. "He'll usually call a host and let us know when he's coming," says one source. "We can limo him in. He prefers the high-limit room, where he's less likely to be seen and where he can play the $500-a-pull slots. He usually plays very late at night or early in the morning--usually between midnight and 6 a.m." The documents show that in one two-month period, Bennett wired more than $1.4 million to cover losses. His desire for privacy is evident in his customer profile at one casino, which lists as his residence the address for (the Web site of Empower America, the non-profit group Bennett co-chairs). Typed across the form are the words: "NO CONTACT AT RES OR BIZ!!!"

Bennett's gambling has not totally escaped public notice. In 1998, The Washington Times reported in a light-hearted front-page feature story that he plays low-stakes poker with a group of prominent conservatives, including Robert Bork, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist. A year later, the same paper reported that Bennett had been spotted at the new Mirage Resorts Bellagio casino in Las Vegas, where he was reputed to have won a $200,000 jackpot. Bennett admitted to the Times that he had visited the casino, but denied winning $200,000. Documents show that, in fact, he won a $25,000 jackpot on that visit--but left the casino down $625,000.

Bennett--who gambled throughout Clinton's impeachment--has continued this pattern in subsequent years. On July 12 of last year, for instance, Bennett lost $340,000 at Caesar's Boardwalk Regency in Atlantic City. And just three weeks ago, on April 5 and 6, he lost more than $500,000 at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. "There's a term in the trade for this kind of gambler," says a casino source who has witnessed Bennett at the high-limit slots in the wee hours. "We call them losers."

Asked by Newsweek columnist and Washington Monthly contributing editor Jonathan Alter to comment on the reports, Bennett admitted that he gambles but not that he has ended up behind. "I play fairly high stakes. I adhere to the law. I don't play the 'milk money.' I don't put my family at risk, and I don't owe anyone anything." The documents offer no reason to contradict Bennett on these points. Bennett claims he's beaten the odds: "Over 10 years, I'd say I've come out pretty close to even."

....When reminded of studies that link heavy gambling to divorce, bankruptcy, domestic abuse, and other family problems he has widely decried, Bennett compared the situation to alcohol.

"I view it as drinking," Bennett says. "If you can't handle it, don't do it."

Well, I'm sure you will have something to say about this (and do read the entire article.), but of course Bennett justifies the amounts he wagers and loses in the context of his income and wealth. But then...what is the source of much of that income and wealth? Books on morality, and it's safe to say that many of those who purchased these books for their families and children do not share Bennett's benign view of gambling. I wonder what they think of how he uses the money they hand over to him....not that authors have a responsibility to use their income in a way that would suit all their readers. But it's...interesting when the author of the Book of Virtue is a high-stakes gambler. Doesn't quite fit, but maybe that's just me, because I despise gambling and casinos (the state-run kind, incidentally, Bennett's organization has come out against)

Good piece on the context of "Old Europe's" view on the morality of war from the NCRegister via NRO:

Rising Up From Flanders Fields

While Canadians visit Juno Beach at Normandy with pride and Americans visit Omaha and Utah Beach, there are no such places of unalloyed national pride associated with the Second World War for the French, the Germans, the Austrians, or the Italians.

George Weigel, the papal biographer, once asked his subject what he learned from the Second World War. Pope John Paul II answered instantly: "I learned the experience of my contemporaries: humiliation at the hands of evil."

The moral of the war story for so much of Europe is just that: humiliation and evil.

When a German thinks about World War II, he does not think about the "finest hour" but of national shame. A Frenchman does not think of triumph in a noble cause but of defeat and collaboration. Austrians bought their safety at the price of their honor; Italians needed, as it is wickedly observed, to "be liberated from their allies." The low countries were crushed; the Iberians and the Swiss declined to participate. Russia suffered terribly to win the war and then inflicted further suffering on her own people and throughout her empire during the peace.

The Holy See, too, felt the pain of humiliation, with the tiny Vatican City State surrounded. The Church felt compelled to moderate her voice to preserve the neutrality upon which her freedom depended. It was a defensible policy but there was no glory in it — there was only humiliation in the face of evil.

Indeed, with the exception of Poland — which fought bravely and lost — and Britain — which fought bravely and won — the moral of the war story for Europe was that, as John Paul is fond of saying, "nothing is solved by war." The subsequent Cold War only reinforced the view that war brings more evils in its wake and further underscored the impotence of free Europe to combat evil in its own neighborhood.


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