by Barry Edelson


The Puritans Win Again


The only time I was ever tempted to call in to a radio program was in 2000, when Hillary Clinton first ran for the Senate. Brian Lehrer, the host of a political talk show on New York's NPR affiliate, WNYC, posed this question to listeners: Which is more important to you when choosing a candidate, issues or character? Caller after caller took the opportunity to chime in on the Clintons' marriage, as if they were talking about a soap opera of no consequence, or worse, a couple with whom they were personally acquainted. The basic theme was, "I have no respect for Hillary because she stayed with Bill." And therefore, what? Will you vote instead for a callow Congressman from Long Island whose most important life achievement was getting chummy with his county's Republican chairman? Even those who supported Clinton felt compelled to comment on her personal life, as if it were necessary to convince themselves that her husband's infidelities didn't really matter. I wanted to call in and remind these people that they weren't voting for a friend or co-worker, and that none of us knows much of anything about our best friend's marriage, let alone one we see only through the grossly distorted lens of politics and the media. If you vote on any criterion other than whether you mostly agree with a candidate on the issues, and believe that candidate has demonstrated the political wherewithal to implement her ideas as public policy, you are out of your mind.

Whether you like Hillary Clinton and voted for her or not, it would be extremely difficult to make the case that she hasn't proven herself abundantly capable of serving as Senator and Secretary of State. If we had opted for the other guy in her first election on the basis of her marital problems, what exactly would we have accomplished? Exactly the same feat that was accomplished this week when Anthony Weiner was hounded out of office for his online communications with women. His immature sexual antics had been going on for several years, including the period during which he was one of the Democrats' most effective spokesperson on the issue of health care reform. What bearing did these indiscretions have on his ability to serve effectively? Apparently none. Do errors in judgment in his private life disqualify him on the grounds that his professional judgment is therefore impaired? By that logic, why would you not insist on learning everything you could about the private life of the surgeon to whom you submit your very life? Surely any distractions in his mind on the day of your operation, such as the affair he is carrying on with one of the nurses and the potential breakup of his marriage, has a more direct effect on your well-being than the online exposure of some Congressman from Buffalo or Brooklyn.

Holding politicians to a higher standard of conduct is an important social value, but only when such conduct is relevant to public business, or represents behavior of an undeniably criminal nature (for example, the sexual assault of a hotel chambermaid). The integrity of a Congressman who hides a large and unexplained stash of money in his freezer can be expected to lose his credibility as a trustee of the public treasury. But driving out of office every individual whose sexual tendencies don't perfectly match the fictional narrative to which candidates are expected to conform (faithful husband, dutiful wife, photogenic children) ipso facto disqualifies large numbers of talented individuals, and dooms us to be led by cardboard cutouts or, worse, charlatans posing as the genuine article. More fundamentally, America's adherence to sexual Puritanism in politics defies not only logic but the way we actually live. Any honest psychotherapist will tell you that sexual "deviancy" — loosely defined as anything other than Ozzie and Harriet's twin beds separated by a valley of wall-to-wall carpet — is by far the norm in human society. Even those who don't practice non-traditional sex, or have non-traditional (i.e., heterosexual) partners, are obviously interested in watching others do so, as evidenced by the vast proliferation of pornography posted on the Internet daily by legions of professionals and amateurs alike. Someone is making all of these videos, and, more to the point, an awful lot of people must be watching them. David Foster Wallace's hilarious essay, "Big Red Son", showed how the pornographic film industry in California dwarfs the "real" Hollywood, both in the number of films produced and the armies of actors and technicians employed to make them. Surely it must be profitable if such enormous expenditures of time and money are continuously being invested. And surely among the innumerable viewers of this salacious material, browsing on his computer in blissful anonymity, is some unsuspecting fool who will someday contemplate a run for elective office, at which time he will discover that privacy in one's personal affairs is as quaint a notion as the nuclear family.

If Puritanism were applied as self-righteously to the sorts of misdeeds that actually affected people's lives, as it is wielded against victimless sexual behavior, perhaps the sacrifice of a politician like Weiner would be the price we just have to pay for living in a moral society. But when not a single individual has been prosecuted in connection with the collapse of our financial system in 2008 — not because despicable behavior wasn't clearly in evidence, but because it turns out none of that behavior was actually against the law — then morality is turned on its head. The Puritan ethic no longer has any connection with any system of religious or moral law, but has devolved into a blunt instrument of social opprobrium, a cudgel with which political opponents bludgeon one another into characterological submission. Where is the Judeo-Christian morality in re-electing scores of members of the House and Senate, who accepted campaign contributions from Wall Street traders, mortgage lenders, bond rating agencies and insurance companies, and defended their depredations year after year even as they colluded in the demolition of our economy and the subsequent misery of millions? This is as clear an example of destructive self-delusion on a national scale as it is possible to find: a Congressman, by nearly universal consent, loses his seat merely for being an idiot about his private parts, while the criminals who were only a few days ago his colleagues manage to hold on to theirs, despite their complicity in the rape of their country. If you are looking for evidence of America's decline, look no further.

June 18, 2011


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