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Opening Arguments

Evolving decency

Last week, a U.S. senator's life fell apart in public, and there was hardly a shred of sympathy for him. An 18-year-old beauthy pageant contestant was savaged to the nation's great flee. The U.S. attorney general gave a resignation speech in which he felt compelled to disparage his father's whole life. GeorgeWill:

In 1972, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wanted to declare the death penalty unconstitutional as a violation of the Eighth Amendment's proscription of "cruel and unusual" punishments. But the Constitution's Framers clearly considered it constitutional. So Brennan simply asserted—against considerable evidence, such as public-opinion surveys and actions of state legislatures supporting capital punishment—that America's "evolving standards of decency" had rendered the death penalty unconstitutional. Brennan's reasoning was dubious, but standards of decency do evolve. Evolution is not, however, always elevating.

Last week, there was nationwide merriment at the expense of an 18-year-old participant in a South Carolina beauty pageant. Asked a question about why many Americans might lack elementary knowledge about the world, she got lost in syntactical tangles and spoke nonsense. Although there was not a shred of news value in it, Fox News and CNN played the tape of her mortification, and by last Friday YouTube's presentation of it had generated more than 10 million hits. The casual cruelty of publicizing her discomfort, and the widespread entertainment pleasure derived from it, is evidence that standards of decency are evolving in the wrong direction.