The Christie Dilemma

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during a town hall at the Bedford Event Center on December 19, 2023, in Bedford, New Hampshire. (Photo by Sophie Park/Getty Images)

One thing that distinguishes adults from children is our ability to manage our emotions. The desirable course isn’t always the sensible course: Adults understand that in a way children don’t.

In theory. Less so in practice.

For instance, once it became clear that former Harvard President Claudine Gay had plagiarized passages in some of her work, the plainly sensible course for her peers was to stop defending her. Preserving public faith in academia and the integrity of scholarship, especially at an institution as august as Harvard, should have mattered more than saving Gay’s job. “Zero tolerance for unethical behavior, no matter who does it” was the obvious position.

The problem for Gay’s colleagues and their ideological allies in American media is that they despise the right-wing activists who exposed Gay’s plagiarism, particularly culture warrior extraordinaire Christopher Rufo. The sensible course was to cut Gay loose but the desirable course, which these alleged adults couldn’t resist, was to grasp for excuses to spite their political enemies by denying them a coveted scalp.

They couldn’t manage their emotions. And because they couldn’t, they’ve made a pitiful spectacle of themselves following Gay’s resignation. Bad-faith allegations of racism, idiotic complaints about conservatives weaponizing plagiarism against, er, plagiarists—it’s a juvenile temper tantrum by some of the luminaries of American intellectual life. In the end, not only did they fail to save Gay, they revealed that their actual unspoken ethical standard for plagiarism is “lots of tolerance for unethical behavior depending on who does it.” Adults nowadays actually aren’t very good at separating what’s sensible from what’s desirable, particularly when political passions are inflamed. That’s the story of Gay’s resignation. 

And it’s the story of this year’s Republican presidential primary, too. 

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