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OnWords: How Scandals Keep The Irrelevant Relevant

Espen Moe
flickr Creative Commons

Aside from being the name of a long-forgotten New Wave band, scandal has become the primary means for the party out of power to stay relevant on the political scene.

As one of my brothers seldom fails to mention when the word comes up for discussion, “scandal” derives from a Greek term for a literal stumbling block. If you are the subject of a scandal, then you are falling on your face.

As we use the word, scandal arises from the social contexts that create shame. If you can expose a situation that would cause another person shame, then you can put a stumbling block in front of that person's career, social life, or personal advancement. This leads to the sort of scandal arising from exposure of embarrassing personal affairs, and it's a common-enough one in politics: think Mark Sanford “walking the Appalachian Trail” or Bill Clinton's game of slap and tickle with Monica Lewinski.

But if you really have it out for someone, you can create the scandal, through blaming people for a tragedy or accident or inflating an error far beyond reasonable proportions through hyperbole, repetition, and insinuation. This is how the tragedy of Benghazi got blown into a 'round the clock media circus.

Notice, though, that the manufactured Benghazi scandal did not prevent the president from getting re-elected, but the recent scandal of the IRS targeting Tea Party groups actually caused people to lose their jobs.

The difference is the sense of shame: many reasonable people understood that what happened at Benghazi was an unprovoked attack, and its victims had nothing to be ashamed about. But reasonable people on both sides of the political spectrum agree that the IRS should be an equitable arbiter of a group's tax status, that there was something to be ashamed about.

The opposite is also true, of course: no scandal stands in the way of the shameless.