Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sex and Politics--America's "Jerry Springer" Moment

"This is my Jerry Springer moment. I don't want this moment to die." (This is My Jerry Springer Moment, Jerry Springer, The Opera, Act. 1, No. 14 ). So goes politics in the United States. The American public reveled in its political bathos recently with the sexual voyeurism among the political classes in New York. First Eliot Spitzer, the great reformer, resigned amid allegations that he was a great fan of a 2 diamond hooker from an exclusive stable of call girls with a worldwide power clientèle. "Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who gained national prominence relentlessly pursuing Wall Street wrongdoing, has been caught on a federal wiretap arranging to meet with a high-priced prostitute at a Washington hotel last month, according to a law enforcement official and a person briefed on the investigation." Danny Hakim and William K. Rashbaum, Spitzer Is Linked to Prostitution Ring, The New York Times, March 10, 2008. Mr. Spitzer was a client of The Emperor's Club. The value of the product offered included both its physical gratification services and the knowledge that hardly anyone on Earth could afford them.

The club's Web site shows a fee schedule of $1,000 per hour for a three-diamond prostitute and $3,100 per hour for a seven-diamond prostitute. Members of the exclusive Icon Club could reach restricted areas of the Web site and schedule appointments with the highest prostitutes, whose fees started at $5,500 per hour, the press release reads. The New York Sun reports that the investigation was run by U.S. attorneys who not only were probing individuals linked to the ring, but who are part of the federal public corruption unit that investigates wrongdoing by elected and unelected officials.

Sources: Spitzer to Resign Following Reports of 'Involvement' With Prostitution Ring, Fox News, March 10, 2008.

All of the legalities were observed. Spitzer resigned after his political enemies threatened to drag him through impeachment proceedings. Daniel Nasaw, Spitzer Given Two Days to Resign, The Guardian, March 11, 2008 (""He has to step down. No one will stand with him," said congressman Peter King, a Republican from Long Island. "I never try to take advantage or gloat over a personal tragedy. However, this is different. This is a guy who is so self-righteous, and so unforgiving."" Id.).

His successor, David Paterson was first hailed as a great token--the first blind African American governor of New York. For those who whom these sort of statistics provide an adequate substitute for the character of an individual, there was much to rejoice. But then, in Jerry Springer style, the new Governor decided that his new office provided a great opportunity to confess: to drug use (many years before) and infidelity (somewhat later). But mercifully no sex for money (illegal). "On the day he took office last week, David Paterson unburdened himself about his own marital infidelities, and he was at it again in a television interview on Monday, describing how he had dabbled with cocaine and marijuana some 30 years ago." Stephen Foley, Spitzer Successor Admits Drug Use, The Independent (March 26, 2008). But this story is just beginning. The Governor will have to explain the lingering effects of infidelity and the use of state funds in a context with big stakes--the American presidential election. N.Y. Gov. Paterson Spokesman Refutes He Used $$ for Travel, Fox News, March 25, 2008 ("Speaking with FOX News, Cockfield said Tuesday that while Paterson made two trips related to the Clinton campaign, neither was to South Carolina last October. Cockfield said Paterson made a trip in December to Iowa, and to South Carolina last month. Cockfield said the Clinton campaign paid for both trips.").

The most interesting lessons from these shenanigans--from the political classes, the hypocritical and manipulative press, the holier than thou electorate, and the increasing Victorian moralization that harbingers a great and somewhat lamentable change in the cultural --is the continued critical connection between sexual, moral and political corruption. I have written about this before, especially in connection with the political transitions in Zimbabwe and Malaysia. See Larry Catá Backer, Emasculated Men, Effeminate Law in the United States, Zimbabwe and Malaysia, 17 YALE JOURNAL OF LAW & FEMINISM 1 (2005) (abstract). Consider the way in which the opposition early on sought to challenge now ex-Governor Spitzer when the news of his sexual transactions were published:
"The Republican state party and a leading Republican legislator called for the governor to step down. James Tedisco, a Republican Assemblyman from Schenectady who has clashed loudly and publicly with Mr. Spitzer, called on the governor to step down if the allegations are true. “The governor who was going to bring ethics back to New York State, if he was involved insomething like this,” Mr. Tedisco said, “he’s got to leave. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”"

Danny Hakim and William K. Rashbaum, Spitzer Is Linked to Prostitution Ring, The New York Times, March 10, 2008. And, indeed, sex served as a pretext, or better put, as a proxy, for the difficulties of the governor.
Sex for hire might not be the end of every politician. Louisiana senator David Vitter, whose phone number turned up in the records of the famous D.C. Madam, is testament to that. Other politicians have survived sex scandals, too, most notably Rudy Giuliani and Idaho senator Larry Craig. But Spitzer made his career on being Mr. Clean. He used his moral authority to fix a lot of things that were wrong with corporate America. As a result, this hypocrisy will be his undoing.
Eliot Spitzer: Screwed, Mother Jones, March 25, 2008.

But more than that--and Spitzer's successor is the key. Like Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia and Canaan Banana in Zimbabwe, Eliot Spitzer (and perhaps David Paterson) suffered from the Jerry Springer syndrome: an obsession with the most prurient aspects of sexual conduct, and the willingness of an audience to conflate the sexual with the political, economic and other aspects of life. That conflation is essentially conservative. Consider the usual pattern of a Jerry Springer show--a group of extraordinarily aberrational people are produced to confess their activities or desires. Their partners express their anger, and the audience expresses its disapproval. Sex is the coin of the realm. But the real conversation involves corruption, of one form or another, and the Divine. The authors of Jerry Springer: The Opera, Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas, got it right, I think. Sex serves as the veil in front of the real conversation. And the political class has been reduced to the guests on the political version of the Jerry Springer Show. And ultimately, the language of public sex is religion. The use of sex and religion to brew up a political corruption concoction to poison Anwar Ibrahim and Canaan Banana are well enough understood. Americans continue to delude themselves that we do not play by similar rules.

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