When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?

When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 11 1999 10:30 PM

When Is It OK To Betray a Friend?

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I like your phrase "the commodification of candor" a lot. I only wish you'd coined it years ago when O.J.'s girlfriend, Ms. Paula Barbieri, was given a book advance of $3 million--more, even, than Mr. Stephanopoulos' $2.85 million. (And thanks to the alert Slate reader who corrected my figure of $2.4 million.)

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Now that you've weighed in on the "commentraitors" issue, let me toss in my two cents. I admire Mr. Stephanopoulos' candor. I've read the excerpts in Newsweek, and despite the jingling of the cash register in the background, the loudest sound was that of a soul in torment. This is a guy who believed, and whose belief was debased and dishonored. To his credit, Mr. Stephanopoulos rose above the politics of the situation--unlike his fellow "War Room"-er Mr. Carville, who has managed of late to reduce himself to the role of official Clinton Gargoyle. (With apologies to the ones on Notre Dame.) Prize loyalty as one might, it is difficult, for me at any rate, to value Mr. Carville's continuing loyalty to Mr. Clinton. It is undeserved. But for people like him, all considerations are tactical; there are no overarching considerations. Mr. Stephanopoulos proved that though he may be a political creature, for him there are higher considerations. Whether this stems from his Greek Orthodox faith, I can't say. I have no window into his soul. But his pain is there for us to feel and it is cleansing and restorative, and I say let's have more of it. It's not really his fault if the culture stands ready with bags of cash to strew in his path. Would it make it all better if he announced that he was donating the $2.85 mil to the Foundation for the Detection and Prevention of Bimbo Eruptions? Well, "over to you, George."

So where does all this leave us? Being more selective in our friends, I suppose. If we choose them wisely, then we won't have to decide down the line whether to snitch on them.

Thanks for the dialogue.

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.