Turning the table

Guilty pleasures are things we enjoy that we don't exactly want the whole world to know. Like horror novels, smoking cigars or Pirates games.

It's not that a guilty pleasure is wrong behavior in and of itself, though it might tiptoe on the edge. It's just that it can be a little embarrassing, or an insult to our vanity, for everyone to know about it. Like a classical pianist with a secret passion for the music of "The Partridge Family."

I've got a host of guilty pleasures. A recent one is the NBC television show "My Name Is Earl."

Generally speaking, I only use television as background noise when I'm reading or for sporting events while I'm napping. As a rule, I avoid first-run sitcoms like the plague and will only watch reruns from the Jurassic era, like "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

But somehow I got caught up in "My Name Is Earl." I think it is terribly funny and very often terribly sweet and utterly Catholic. Once you get past the sophomoric gags and a sexual morality too often stuck in neutral, at its heart it has a heart.

It's a show where very flawed people try to overcome their first instincts and do the right thing.

Quick summary of the hook: Earl is a former ne'er-do-well. He describes himself as the "kind of guy you wait to come out of a convenience store before you and your family go in."

After winning $100,000 in the lottery, Earl is hit by a car and ends in the hospital and divorced. While watching television, his epiphany takes place. Earl now believes in "karma," which he defines as "If you do good things, good things will happen to you."

As a result, he pledges to turn his life around. To do so, he has made a list of all the people he has hurt in the past and spends his time trying to make it up to them.

In one of my favorite episodes, Earl's ex-mother-in-law has faked kidney disease and the need for a wheelchair to wheedle unlimited cash from her husband to feed her gambling habit. Each time Earl inadvertently catches her in one of these moral horrors, her response is like a mantra: "Don't you judge me!"

She finally steals the new car that Earl got for her daughter as a Christmas gift to make up for all the Christmases he ruined in the past. The mother-in-law drives the car to a nearby casino and promptly loses it in a roulette wager.

"Don't you judge me!" she shouts when Earl catches her.

The very absurdity of her successfully turning the moral table with that line cracked me up. But it does make a weird kind of argument in our culture.

It might seem legitimate to judge someone negatively for faking a terminal kidney disease to extort money. Or stealing a daughter's car. But "Don't you judge me!" trumps that, since the only real sin today is an ill-defined "intolerance" that implies an objective response to wrong behavior.

We live in a world of "scientism," rationalist hokum that all our behavior is determined by morally neutral genetic forces. Therefore, there is no objective right or wrong, only choices. To judge the behavior of others -- or the behavior society chooses to bless -- as immoral, stupid and an insult to human dignity, makes us intolerant.

In other words, if the kid in the fable today points out now that the emperor has no clothes, rather than laughing at the emperor, the kid will get a spanking.

OK. I've only watched selected reruns and there's probably an awful lot represented on "My Name Is Earl" that doesn't hold moral water. But I like it.

So: "Don't you judge me!"

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.