According to Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, a sense of fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth. He may be right. But if you decide to go into politics, you have no choice but to develop that sense. It is a political virtue that one day may save your ass as well as your job.
That, in short, is the object lesson of the oath-taking saga that resulted in two pro-independence lawmakers being kicked out of the Legislative Council.
Hong Kong people are not known for their accommodation to the wishes of the Chinese government.
We are so used to taking a cynical, Machiavellian view of power that we have seriously underestimated decency as a political virtue. Politics, we are told time and again, is not a game for straight arrows. That is not always true. The unscrupulous Donald Trump may have won the top job in the US, but recent American history still holds valuable lessons on how public disgust can change the course of events.
Bully, witch-hunter and one of the most iconic figures of the cold war, Senator Joseph McCarthy used trumped-up, fabricated charges of communism, communist sympathies, disloyalty and sex crimes to attack his enemies inside and outside of government. What precipitated his downfall was a highly publicised appeal to the American people’s sense of decency he had so unthinkingly and violently offended.
Joseph Welch was the chief counsel for the United States Army while it was under investigation for communist activities by McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
At one of the subcommittee hearings in June 1954, as McCarthy deployed his usual tactic to assassinate characters, spread rumours and make false accusations, Welch stopped him and said to him in front of a nationwide television audience: “Senator, you’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
That marked the beginning of the end of McCarthy’s political career. A disgusted, morally outraged public decided that enough was enough. The senator’s support and popularity plummeted. Six months later, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy. The disgraced, suddenly diminished senator slipped further into alcoholism and died less than three years later.
Perry Lam is a local cultural critic