What Should Vargas Have Done?

I spent nearly twenty years teaching a course on “professional standards for mental health workers,” which was essentially a course on professional ethics. While we spent a lot of time talking about medical ethics, because historically all professional ethics start with the Hippocratic Oath, we also looked at the ethics of other professions or quasi-professions. For some reason, we never got around to journalism. Which is just as well, because I would have been tempted to inquire about the ethical status of the age-old question, “How did you feel, Mrs. Jones, when you saw your baby eaten by the tiger?” (I did, at one point, ask a couple of faculty members at the local school of journalism, who said they always tell their students that no good reporter would ask such a question. Yeah. Right.)

But now we’re hearing a lot about the professional ethics of journalism, in the context of Jose Antonio Vargas, a respected reporter whose “coming out” as an undocumented alien was recently published in the NYT magazine. His parents sent him here when he was 12 years old; he was raised in California by his grandparents. He didn’t know he was illegal until he was 16, and used fake documents to survive after that. He published his story to contribute to the current debate about immigration. But in the course of doing that, he has raised some issues in a heretofore mostly dormant debate about journalistic ethics.

First, let’s talk about the basic ethical issues. “Vargas has been living a lie at least since he was 16. What does that do to his credibility, including his credibility as a journalist? How can we believe anything he says?” people are asking. Not unlike the people who asked how anybody could believe anything Bill Clinton said after he lied about having sex with Ms. Lewinsky. Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, as the Romans said. The Romans were pretty good liars themselves, probably including whoever coined that adage. (Not to be confused with my father, a strong believer in the professional ethics of his profession, accounting, who once told me “Schlock in uno, schlock in omnibus,” by which he meant that somebody who screws around with IRS is probably also violating OSHA, the Clean Air Act, the child labor laws, and the Ten Commandments. Which my own professional experience finds quite credible.)

“Living a lie.” Until recently, most homosexuals lived a lie, too. Before them, during the McCarthy era, many American leftists lived a lie. And before them, back into the earliest beginnings of recorded history, so did adulterers. At various times, the religiously heterodox have had to live as liars, in the face of the Inquisition or similar organizations. During the American Revolution, many patriotic colonials, on both sides, “lived a lie.” Possibly including many of our now-revered founding fathers. I doubt that we have become any more honest since then. What has changed are the penalties for homosexuality, leftist politics, unpopular religious and political beliefs, and adultery. At one time or another, all of them have been capital offenses. More recently, they have been grounds for being deprived of employability, social respect, love, friendship, and companionship. Whoever formulated these penalties probably wasn’t hoping to be able to eliminate homosexuality, adultery, wrong-headed religions, or leftist political thinking. They just wanted to make sure that anybody who engaged in them had to lie about it. Which made such people vulnerable to all kinds of blackmail, some of it quite lucrative for people “in the know.”

For an adolescent who has just discovered that his presence in the country he has lived in for most of his conscious life is illegal, the issues are more complicated. What should the kid have done? Turned himself in at the nearest INS office (as it was then designated)? I have no idea what its functionaries would have done, back then. Probably the local migra was as clueless as Vargas himself. They might just have sent him back to his grandparents, rather than deal with all the paperwork. Or they might have locked him up and sent him back to his native country (the Philippines, I think) without a word to his grandparents or anyone else who knew where he had been living. Either way, I have real trouble believing he had any ethical obligation to submit himself to the dubious attentions of INS or any other government agency.

But at some point, apparently, he did make a deliberate choice to remain in the US, go to college, and adopt a profession without first attempting to regularize his situation. I am willing to accept for the sake of argument the proposition that that particular profession required special attention to truthfulness, although you may imagine my skepticism. I am not willing to accept that the professional journalist is obliged as such to be more open about his personal life and circumstances than any of the rest of us. I assume that the profession includes as many adulterers, tax cheats, and guys who tell girls they meet in bars that they will call them in the morning, as any other occupation. I don’t recall hearing any of these nefarious propensities being punished or even deplored any more among journalists than among cops, trash collectors, bartenders, or janitors. I don’t recall any article in the Columbia Review of Journalism advocating that they should be. Am I missing something?

Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus is nonsense. We all know this. Every one of us has situationally relative standards of truthfulness. Most of us will lie about trivia, and about the details of our own personal lives and those of our near and dear. Some of us will embellish our resumes, and most of us in positions of responsibility in the business world will embellish the prospects of applicants for employment (“this job requires some typing, but you won’t just be a clerk…”) and virtually all of us will inflate our esteem for people we have just met. But we all know the difference between the level of veracity prevalent among ordinary reasonable persons and what we are likely to hear from real liars. We also know the difference between deliberate knowing falsehood and mere “reckless disregard” for the truthfulness of a particular statement (the difference, let us say, between Oliver North and Michelle Bachman.)

And most of us also know that society will cut some slack for the reformed sinner, or liar, who eventually comes clean, if only to encourage others to do the same. It’s sound social and moral policy. Some of us even realize that the immigration policy of the United States is more openly subject to the application of clout (in the form of private acts of Congress) than almost any other area of our government, and that Vargas, given his professional eminence, is very likely to benefit from such clout and be safely legalized by the time ICE (as it is now known) gets around to dealing with him. It would be nice if more of us were also aware that being in the United States illegally is not the same kind of violation as, say, mother-stabbing or father-raping, and should not subject those who commit it to the full penalties of outlawry in the original sense of the word. Enough already, let’s concentrate on real lying and real crime, especially among those who have had the benefit of being born in the USA.

Red Emma

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