Some people think hypocrisy is not a sin in politics. Indeed, some people think one is so integral to the other that they can’t imagine what would be left if you took the hypocrisy out of politics.
I’m not one of them. In fact, I’d have to say that I think hypocrisy is one of the greater political crimes. Not because I particularly think that politicians are more upstanding than the rest of the public, though I wish they were.
The reason that I find hypocrisy in politics to be particularly offensive is because it inherently implies a double-standard. It means that there is one morality for elites, and a whole other one for the rest of us chumps.
That sort of society is not only ugly, more importantly it is fundamentally corrosive of democracy. If we are not all equal politically and legally, if ours is not a republic of laws instead of men (or people, in this century), then we can throw out democratic notions altogether.
And therein, in my judgement, is the principal–and principled–case for Eliot Spitzer’s resignation. Spitzer has been, to say the least, a zealous advocate for law enforcement. That can certainly be a good thing, done in the right way for the right purposes. But incumbent on such a vocation–especially when carried out as Spitzer did, with a broad and vociferous streak of moralizing–is the necessity for the prosecutor himself to be squeaky clean. No political or justice system can long expect to last with a widespread perception of dual standards based on social status. Spitzer doesn’t seem to have believed that his own rules for everyone else also applied to him. That’s hypocrisy, and I have a problem with that.
Moreover, not only was Mr. Spitzer a zealous and highly moralizing prosecutor, he actually broke up at least one sophisticated and elite prostitution ring, precisely like the one he appears to have patronized himself. And, of course, in the process of doing so he publicly derided the defendants for their lack of moral rectitude. That attitude alone is somewhat off-putting, but it certainly becomes a bigger issue when he then indulges in nearly the same behavior himself, by patronizing such an organization.
Because of his hypocrisy, it was right that Eliot Spitzer should have had to resign as governor of New York.
Just the same, part of me wishes he didn’t. And that’s because this is fundamentally yet another American sex scandal, based yet again on our absurd and doomed-to-fail, puritanical sexual morality.
My heart certainly goes out to Spitzer’s wife and three daughters for the public humiliation they are suffering and probably will for a very long time to come. In that respect, I actually feel bad for Spitzer himself, as well. He messed up, but–like Clinton’s impeachment–this is hardly the appropriate punishment.
Not that what he did paints a pretty picture, and not that he was kind to his family in doing it. But this is, first of all, a personal matter. Is it really necessary that the entire state of New York, the entire country, and much of the rest of the world be involved in this man’s sex life? Does it really effect the public trust or his capacity to govern effectively? If Spitzer was into some other forms of ‘sordid’ sexual practice, but it was all done only with his wife, by what logic would that be more acceptable, as conventional morality suggests?
More importantly, though, America keeps experiencing sex scandals in large part because we continue to embrace an unrealistic and even unhealthy code of sexual morality. Fundamentally, we like to pretend that humans aren’t actually sexual beings except when they’re in bed with their heterosexual spouse. And therein lies the, er, rub.
For starters, anyone who’s been through puberty knows the absurdity of this pretense. Imagine waiting from age twelve or so until your marriage at age thirty or so for any sort of sexual satisfaction whatsoever, including even the personal kind. You ought to get an Olympic medal, a Nobel Prize and a winning lottery ticket–combined–for pulling that one off. Not that even those would be a good trade, anyhow. What a ridiculous concept. At some level, we might as well expect people not to desire food, and then prosecute them for gluttony. One might predict approximately the same results from such equally thoughtful public policy.
Or perhaps avarice is the more appropriate analogy. Some humans desire material goods in extreme quantities, just as some people (and, very often, many of the very same folks in the first category) have a rapacious appetite for sex. Funny, isn’t it, that this society praises the former–even when their behaviors can cause harm to thousands of other people–but ridicules, humiliates and criminalizes the latter?
Personally, I think that closing down factories in order to buy yourself that third yacht is rather a larger crime than hooking up with a prostitute for an hour or two of hanky-panky. But what do I know? Obviously not much, since the first guy gets some art museum wing named for him and the other guy gets a healthy dose of public humiliation and the opportunity to stand before a nice man with a gavel and black robes.
You know, I’m as sorry as the next guy that Augustine was riddled with lustful thoughts, and that he was freaked out by that fact. I’m sure it was all very traumatic for him. Meanwhile, though, I think perhaps it’s finally about time that modern society ceases to have its sexual morality disastrously dictated by the particular obsessions and compulsions of some twisted bishop who was traipsing around North Africa during the fourth and fifth centuries.
Call me pollyannaish if you must, but I think we can handle it on our own (pardon the pun) from now on. I think we’re grown up enough now to make our own rules for our own sexual conduct, without the guidance of some misogynistic monk whose greatest claim to fame was helping to launch the Dark Ages. I suspect perhaps that even god has grown tired of it all, and no longer particularly cares to monitor what each and every one of us does in bed, and with whom we do it. Six-and-a-half billion people is a lot of sinners to keep your eye on, you know! Probably she’s got enough other things to worry about these days, anyhow, just figuring out how to undo the damage caused by an American president chosen while she was off taking a little nap in 2000. And then there’s that famine sweeping the Gamma Quadrant.
Once we were told that masturbation was a sin, and yet we as a society seem to have grown up enough to transcend that one. (Or mostly, anyhow. The website Bible.com reports that “What does the bible say about masturbation?” is one of their most frequently asked questions. Don’t even get me started on the implications of that. Anyhow, they go on to explain that, yes, in fact, it is a sin.) I guess we’re each on our own to deal with the hairy palm issue (hint: try Windex), but at least American society seems to have largely outgrown the absurdity of viewing jerking-off as a sin. What an accomplishment, eh? No wonder we’re the greatest power in the world.
We also seem to have largely managed to transcend prohibitions on married couples using birth control, people engaging in premarital sex, and now even homosexual relations. It took us a very, very long time, and by no means are we entirely there yet. But American attitudes toward sexuality are certainly more mature today than they were a generation or two ago.
Most people get that these are private matters, subject to private morality. And, almost without exception, the ones that don’t–from Swaggart to Haggard–are the very same people who are personally engaged in the most twisted stuff, as they alternate between repressing and expressing their sexual urges. Preaching to you about how you’re going to rot in hell is no doubt a way for them to grapple with the bundle of massive internal fears driven by their own continually resurfacing proclivities. So maybe if we stop filling people up with biblical scare stories concerning their basic human instincts, we can stop reproducing this madness on TV sets and in pulpits. Hey, America, this memo’s for you: Birds do it. Bees do it. So do, gulp, humans.
A mature society would realize that sexual mores need to be defined by individuals, within limits dictated by real physical or psychological harm. A good place to start is by emphasizing the ‘consenting’ and ‘adult’ parts of that eponymous formula. If consenting adults want to do it, and no one is harmed, there is little reason to imagine why it should be outlawed or even morally suspect (raised eyebrows or the occasional whispered snicker would still be permitted, however, at least where the kinkiest stuff is concerned). Look, some people like to have sex in beds, others in airplane restrooms. Some people like to wear Bozo costumes while doing it, others like to sing Broadway show tunes. Unless you desperately need to go potty at 30,000 feet and all the toilets are occupied, or you happen to be Secretary-Treasurer of the Anti-Clown Discrimination Association, who cares?
Similarly, partners need to negotiate what works best for them in their sexual relations, and that is just not a matter of the public interest. Some couples might be happiest in non-exclusive relationships. That should be their prerogative, without legal or moral penalty. If Eliot Spitzer promised his wife he’d be faithful to her alone, then she absolutely deserves a giant apology and more from him. But it’s really not our business. It’s bad enough for her that she has had to live through this personal ordeal. But the additional shame and public humiliation is only there because of our society’s warped sexual morality.
With luck, someday we’ll be able to look back at that set of morals, and their consequences, with a cringe and a groan. Europeans largely do. When former French president François Mitterrand died in 1996, his wife invited the old codger’s mistress and his daughter by her to the funeral. Nobody blinked too much, and afterwards Mrs. Mitterrand received letters from other ‘illegitimate’ children, thanking her for helping to bring them out of the closet of social disrespect.
Perhaps the point is now moot where Eliot Spitzer is concerned. He threw in the towel as New York governor, consigning himself to a lifetime of his name being used as a Jay Leno punch-line, along with the likes of Larry Craig and Bill Clinton. And, anyhow, his case is complicated by the not inconsequential matter of his hypocrisy, his arrogance, and his altogether-too-gleeful profiting from the mistakes of others.
But just the same, isn’t it time that this country grows up a little and stops obsessing about other people’s rather basic human behaviors?
Wouldn’t we have all been better off in a world where Spitzer had apologized profusely–but privately–to his wife, and then gone back to work improving the lives of the people of New York?
DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.