The Quality of Mercy is Not Stained, If the Perpetrator Is Elite Enough

An important point from Adam Serwer about the sudden outbreak of “forgive and forget” attitudes among political and media elites:

Cohen’s argument simply reflects the consensus among certain journalistic and political elites that the powerful simply shouldn’t be held accountable when they make mistakes, because, after all, we all make mistakes. This compassionate attitude naturally doesn’t extend beyond this small group. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, fully 1% of the population. I’m sure there are millions of people currently incarcerated who would like it if Cohen’s policy of absolution for crimes was extended to them.

More importantly, this entire philosophy has it backwards. Accountability is the burden of the powerful in a democracy. Those who are responsible for upholding our laws shouldn’t get a pass when they break them, precisely because they have that responsibility. Power without accountability is, by definition, tyranny.

I would even take this beyond prison. The United States isn’t run along Social Darwinist lines, but we’re closer than any other major developed country. To an extent that I find frankly astounding — and certainly unseen in other wealthy nations — people from modest backgrounds are expected to suffer the economic consequences of poor decision-making or bad luck, all in the name of personal responsibility. But when someone really important screws up, either in terms of provoking a financial crisis or overseeing a policy disaster or breaking the law or whatever, well then it turns out that we have better things to do than “look backwards” at who deserves what.


It’s absurd and it’s unfair. Meanwhile, at the exact time I was writing this post, Pandora put “Cheat” on — “Don’t use the rules / They’re not for you, they’re for the fools / And you’re a fool if you don’t know that.”