MY VIEW • A 'whatever' approach to morals renders right, wrong irrelevant

The worst-kept secret in town is that the annual Fourth of July blues festival down at Waterfront Park brings out the potheads. Listening to Etta James this year, I saw several seniors lighting joints, enjoying the wonderful music and the spectacular scenery that, arguably, makes Portland the best place in the nation to spend the summer. Even as I left, the marijuana legalization advocates were seeking signatures, and getting them.

Weed is no big deal here in Oregon. When I first arrived about eight years ago, I recall a colleague telling me that she had received a marijuana plant as a housewarming gift. Unbelievable? Not to many young people who think of an occasional toke as nothing more significant than a swig of a beer or a friendly back rub. It makes you feel good, so one can, to use the local saying, just do it.

Yet the latest Damon Stoudamire scandal has confounded even the locals. Stoudamire's most recent run-in with the law reveals a growing trend in American politics: Some people do not consider rules, laws and authority as important. They appear to be embracing a laissez-faire moralism in which privacy rules supreme, and right and wrong are considered both relative and dubiously defined.

To many of us, I suspect that Stoudamire is considered a fool for having been caught. Why smoke weed while riding in a bright yellow Hummer, and why drive beyond the speed limit? Why carry pot to the airport? Why wrap it in aluminum foil, knowing that one must pass through a metal detector?

Smoking weed Ñ that is, committing a crime Ñ is not the issue. The conventional wisdom here seems to be that what Stoudamire does is his business, but he should know how to circumvent the law, or how to keep his private world private.

This ostensible disregard for the law has nothing to do with Stoudamire as a role model. I sense that it has to do with appreciating the role of the government as a legal authority.

When asked if they would turn in a fellow student who was caught stealing from a store, many students anecdotally respond in the negative, stating quite candidly that 'ratting out' is unacceptable behavior or that the store management should be in charge of enforcement, not an accidental bystander.

Even when they are asked if they would contact the police if they knew a neighbor was dealing hard drugs to minors, many bright, intelligent students answer that they would not. While inflicting harm to others is wrong, so, too, they believe, is the act of playing moral cop.

Repeatedly, my college students speak about a variety of moral misdemeanors as 'victimless acts.' Infidelity, for example, is not a crime, so it is therefore 'none of your business what someone does in the bedroom.'

The wisdom underlying this remark and others like it should be good news to civil libertarians, who have made privacy a paramount right. Simultaneously, we should be a bit weary of living in a civil society in which interaction is never confrontational, and in which right and wrong are never debated or discussed.

One should not limit this worldview of not wanting to engage in others' wrongful behavior to college students. Preliminary research among senior citizens indicates that the reluctance to confront, implicate or contact the authorities is real and pervasive among that sector of the population too.

Perhaps the hoopla about Damon Stoudamire tells us more about ourselves than we realize. Once someone gets caught, we ridicule his stupidity or reckless behavior. Until he does, we quietly and strategically decide when to get involved and when to look the other way.

Robert Eisinger is chairman of the political science department at Lewis & Clark College; he also works as a political analyst for KPAM (860 AM). He lives in Lake Oswego.

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