When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?

When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 9 1999 10:30 PM

When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?


I think you're on to something where you say, "even where the right course is to reveal the truth that hurts the friend, we should admire people who feel torn about it." This is what has been so missing--among other things--in the case of the unfortunate Ms. Tripp, some element of interior agony: "This was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I hated having to do it, but I had no other choice." But there is no trace of the noble Dane in her. Instead, she is serially adamant that a) she did it to protect herself (the basest of motivations!), b) for Monica ("Thanks a lot," Monica replies), and finally c) for the country. Thanks. As for her insistence that we are no different from her, I hear America demurring, Walt Whitman might say.


In the case, say, of David Kaczynski, brother of Unabomber Ted, one could in a palpable Clintonian way, feel the pain he went through during the Gethsemane leading up to his telling the FBI, "He ain't heavy, he's my brother." Here one saw a soul in agony, even though there could never be one second's honest debate as to the merits of what he was doing. (Note that in the recent newspaper story in which Ted, demanding a new trial on the grounds that he is not, after all, crazy, called his brother "Judas." It was encouraging that he added, "I do not intend by this any comparison of myself to Jesus Christ." Thanks for clearing up our confusion.) David's torment, and his subsequent donating the reward money to his brother's victims, completed the purity--might Emerson have called it the transparency? You can tell I'm no philosophy major--of his act of fraternal betrayal.

You ask what it is that makes our public life so inhospitable to loyalty. At the risk of glibness, I'd venture: money, at least for starters. That and the celebrity imperative. Joe DiMaggio, may he rest in peace, never wrote a book about his nine-month marriage to Marilyn Monroe; never said a word. Instead, he sent flowers to her grave three times a week for 20 years, and they'd been long divorced when she died. Had Barbara Walters and the whole modern media apparatus been around in 1954, would he have been permitted that silence and dignity? "All right, we'll give you an advance of six million."

Thomas Merton, monk of Gethsemane Abbey, the most famous American religious figure of the 20th century (after Richard Gere), apparently had an affair with a woman while he was a monk. She still lives. She is married. Her name is known to the press. And she refuses to talk, or have a hack British writer ghostwrite for her. Where, as James Michener once asked in a different context, do we find such people?

These examples are from a different age. In the tell-all, buy-all, sell-all culture that we inhabit, where absolution and closure are offered not in private but on prime-time television, where 48 million people tune in to watch a giggling, weeping girl discuss her betrayal by the president of the United States, surely the ultimate loyalty is to--oneself. Alas.

Christopher Buckley is a novelist and editor of Forbes FYI magazine. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children and dog, Duck. Michael Sandel is a professor of government at Harvard University, where he teaches political philosophy.  He is the author ofDemocracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy.

When is it OK to betray a friend? The news these days offers many case studies. Linda Tripp taped her girl-talk with Monica for the special prosecutor. Christopher Hitchens swore an affidavit that fingered his friend Sid Blumenthal for possible perjury. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is giving a Lifetime Achievement Oscar to Elia Kazan, who famously "named names" to the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy era.

One extreme position was staked out by E.M. Forster, who famously said, "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." What if Forster's friend had a bomb and was on his way to a day care center? Does anyone believe that snitching is always wrong? At the other extreme, does anyone believe that friendship has no claims over the truth? There are highway signs around Seattle urging people to snitch on carpool lane cheaters by calling the number 764-HERO. Would it be heroic to pick up your cell phone and report to the police that your friend was driving in the carpool lane with only herself and you in the car?

Presumably the morally correct place to be is somewhere between these extremes. Sometimes ratting on friends is good, sometimes it is bad. But when? Tripp and Hitchens both felt they were helping to bring a bad person (President Clinton) to justice. Is that a good enough reason? Does it hurt Tripp's case that destroying Clinton might also serve her ideological beliefs? Or does it hurt Hitchens' case that his action might have done harm to political values he claims to believe in? There are friends and close friends and best friends: Does that make a difference?

Beyond the issue of snitching, when, in general, should friendship trump principles, and vice versa? Norman Podhoretz has just published a memoir titled Ex-Friends about losing or abandoning old friendships as his political values changed. Podhoretz himself seems uncharacteristically ambivalent about this. On the one hand, it is arid and bloodless to let politics infect all spheres of life. On the other hand, it trivializes both politics and friendship to say you should be friends with people whose values you deplore. So how should you decide?

And what if the trade-off involves not friends but family? Next month Tony Hiss will publish a memoir of his father, Alger Hiss, describing him as being "honest to a fault." Are you morally required to face the truth about your dad?

--Michael Kinsley

Reading Material: Catch up on Slate's excessive coverage of the Sid-Hitch, and read Jacob Weisberg's "Browser" column about the Elia Kazan controversy. Order Norman Podhoretz's book and Tony Hiss' from barnesandnoble.com. While you're at it, pick up Christopher Buckley's new novel, Little Green Men, and Michael Sandel's Liberalism and the Limits of Justice.