AUSTIN, Texas -- When in the course of the usual reasoned, civil debate on public affairs -- conducted always with courtesy and good cheer -- one finds one's self snarling, "Oh, shut up!" one has, I fear, been reading too much George Will.

Being instructed what to think by the peerlessly pompous Mr. Will, perched upon his superiority and apparently in a permanent state of dudgeon over everybody else's stupidity, is reminiscent of being bullied by a snotty teacher. One is tempted to respond with the classic, frozen-faced Texas inquiry, "No bull?"

Will is often worth reading if only so you can figure out why you disagree with him. Lately, he has been leading an entire phalanx of right-wing commentators in full cry over President Bush's loss of "moral clarity" in the Middle East. The sheer implausibility of finding moral clarity in the Middle East does not deter them. Better minds than Bush's are defeated by that challenge, but the moral-certainty crowd admits no shades of gray.

Since Bush himself is fond of moral certainty -- it's good-doers versus evildoers in BushWorld -- he must be uncomfortable with what Will magisterially dismisses in a recent Newsweek essay as the "intellectual confusion and moral miasma ... that now permeate U.S. policy and media coverage concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Personally, I think Ariel Sharon is a continuing, shattering disaster for Israel. If it is not clear to all by now that his policies -- leaving aside their morality -- don't work worth a damn, how much more evidence is needed?

Ah, but the Middle East is so notoriously slippery -- except to those with the moral clarity of Will -- so let's leave it and skip to a place where everything is crystal clear. Latin America ... a simple place.

Regard the 18-hour coup that took place last weekend in Venezuela. The elected president, Hugo Chavez, was overthrown by a military coup, and a new president representing the plutocrats of the nation promptly issued a decree ordering the closure of the country's Congress, the suspension of its Supreme Court and the dismissal of all locally elected government officials.

Bad nooz: Every other country in the hemisphere, as per our treaties, promptly denounced the undemocratic takeover. But the United States kind of lost its grip on moral clarity on account of we don't like Chavez, who likes Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein, for pity's sake. And who is he to like people we don't like? The elected president of an independent country or something? And besides, he was about to mess with the national oil company, which happens to be our biggest foreign supplier.

Since the coup failed, the Bushies have been disowning it as fast as they can, even though "senior members of the Bush administration met several times in recent months with leaders of the coalition that ousted ... Chavez, and agreed with them that he should be removed from office," according to The New York Times. And it turns out that our own assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, Otto Reich, was on the phone with the head plutocrat during the coup, giving him advice.

Reich is an interesting study in moral clarity himself. He was a recess appointee by President Bush for the simple reason that he could not get confirmed by the Senate. Reich, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, is an anti-Castro zealot. While heading a State Department office in the 1980s, Reich ran covert propaganda effort against he Sandinistas. Before his latest government appointment, Reich was a lobbyist and right-wing television commentator.

He is also believed to have helped get Orlando Bosch, a known terrorist, asylum in the United States. Bosch, himself a study in moral clarity, now resides peacefully in Miami after being convicted of terrorism in both the United States and Venezuela. Among his other acts was blowing up a civilian Cuban airliner with 73 people on it. Bosch was pardoned by Big George Bush -- I suppose indicating some lack of moral clarity there, too.

Columnist Paul Krugman found irony in Condoleezza Rice's post-coup advice to the restored President Chavez to "respect constitutional processes." That would be the same constitution Chavez's opponents had tried to throw out, of course. But my favorite quote of the Venezuelan coup is in this passage from The New York Times: "Asked whether the administration now recognizes Mr. Chavez as Venezuela's legitimate president, one administration official replied, 'He was democratically elected,' then added, "Legitimacy is something that is conferred not just by a majority of the voters, however."

How true. Sometimes a majority of the voters lose out to a five-to-four vote on the Supreme Court.

Are we all morally clear now?

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2002 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.