When the last Puritans unlocked a local miscreant from the town stocks for a final time, my guess is they probably thought, “You know, we’re going to miss this simple device–nothing like a little public humiliation to set people on the straight and narrow!”
I doubt anyone in colonial Massachusetts envisioned the punishment of a formal Congressional censure. But had they seen one–as delivered to Rep. Charles Rangel on Thursday–they would have recognized the idea behind the stocks, writ very large and bold. Mr. Rangel, a 40-year veteran of the House of Representatives, had to appear among his 400-some fellows while House Leader Nancy Pelosi confronted him with his transgressions, reading aloud the findings of the House Ethics Committee.
I know, plenty of people–in the news media and out–think Rangel simply got greedy. The ethics violations of which he was accused, after all, mainly did concern issues of unreported income and unpaid taxes.
But that’s not the real problem here. As any medieval monk–or, for that matter, moral theologian of any age–could tell us, Rangel’s failing was pride, the deadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins. Yes, greed (or avarice) makes that select list, too, but pride is its mother, the first failing that permits the other six.
It’s also the easiest to commit, perhaps the most human of them all. All it takes is thinking, “Well, you know, I could just do [fill in blank here] because I’ve earned it, am entitled to it, etc.”
Once that thought arises, that you are somehow privileged above all others, then pride’s got its teeth into you. And, like a bulldog, it doesn’t tend to let go, not until it’s wrestled you into a unique, self-referential reality that can only be shattered when your clearer-eyed peers bring you to your senses by slapping you into the stocks or marching you down to the House floor.
It ain’t a pretty spectacle. Mr. Rangel may stand as its object lesson, but he can take a tiny bit of comfort in knowing he will never be alone.