Victor Davis Hanson

What do leftist, mostly secular elites share with medieval sinners?

They feel bad that the way they live sometimes doesn't quite match their professed dogma.

Many in the medieval church were criticized by internal reformers and the public at large for their controversial granting of penance, especially to the wealthy and influential. Clergy increasingly offered absolution of sins by ordering the guilty to confess. Better yet, sometimes the well-heeled sinners were told to pay money to the church, or to do good works that could then be banked to offset their bad.

Of course, critics of the practice argued that serial confessions simply encouraged serial sinning. The calculating sinner would do good things in one place to offset his premeditated bad in another. The corruption surrounding these cynical penances and indulgences helped anger Martin Luther and cause the Reformation.

Maybe it was inevitable that the old practice of paid absolution would appeal to elite baby boomers -- a class and generation that always seems to want it both ways by compartmentalizing their lives. The only difference is that the new sinners are not so worried about God's wrath as they are about their reputation among their judgmental liberal gods.

Take the idea of "carbon offsets" made popular by Al Gore. If well-meaning environmentalist activists and celebrities either cannot or will not give up their private jets or huge energy-hungry houses, they can still find a way to excuse their illiberal consumption.

Instead of the local parish priest, green companies exist to take confession and tabulate environmental sins. Then they offer the offenders a way out of feeling bad while continuing their conspicuous consumption.

You can give money to an exchange service that does environmental good in equal measure to your bad. Or, in do-it-yourself fashion, you can calibrate how much energy you hog -- and then do penance by planting trees or setting up a wind generator.

Either way, your own high life stays uninterrupted.

Some prominent green activists pay their environmental penance in cash, barter or symbolism to keep the good life. Al Gore, for example, still gets to use 20 times more electricity in his Tennessee mansion than the average household.

Take also the case of Laurie David, the green activist and wife of "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David. She has recently generated plenty of publicity for her biofuel-powered bus tour to promote environmentalism. But in other circumstances, David still flies on gas-guzzling private jets.


Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.