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Corrosive celebrity culture

The thirst to see people in public life humiliated for their ‘sins’ is doing more harm than good
Naomi Wolf

Naomi Wolf
Naomi Wolf

I was recently seated in the stunning offices of Eliot Spitzer, former Governor of New York State. The entire sweep of Central Park South lay before us. Spitzer is the promising young pol who had been a crusader against the excesses of a deregulated Wall Street. A year before the bailout, he had been warning about the dangers to consumers and to the economy of the no-holds-barred practices of the banks that would soon be identified as “too big to fail”. He had scored one success after another, going after corporate wrongdoers, and he had had a bright future. But Spitzer had been brought down low, shockingly quickly and dramatically, by a sex scandale involving a luscious brunette rent girl whom he had paid by traceable credit cards. A federal probe into an ‘unrelated’ investigation had turned up the suspicious charges and, after the white-hot conflagration of publicity, Spitzer had resigned, his tense and lovely wife Silda standing beside him.

On the very day of my interview, the New York Post had run on its cover an excruciating cartoon of Spitzer as cupid, wearing black socks (the young lady’s assertion that the politician had kept his black socks on in bed was the all-too-memorable tag line that would haunt the man in cyberspace forever). Spitzer had been in political purgatory, and was clearly now preparing himself for a rehabilitation lap. I could tell because, while I kept trying to ask him about his victories against unregulated banking practices, he kept apologising for his sexual folly. “I am so truly not interested in that”, I assured him. “That is not what I think is important about what you have done. Everyone has secrets, everyone makes mistakes. Your having taken on the big interests is what I am here to hear about”. He acknowledged my question, but soon returned to his mea culpa. “I don’t know what led me to be so thoughtless. You are in a bubble…the adrenaline rush…”. “Really”, I kept insisting, “I am totally not wanting to hear about this. Do you think that you were a target for an investigation because you were making so many powerful enemies?”. Spitzer did not confirm this directly, though walked me through some of the powerful interests he had challenged – entities as corrupted and entrenched as the insurance mega giant AIG. But still we had one more iteration. “I need to examine my actions with an Old Testament kind of self-scrutiny…”, he mused. This was clearly a kind of speech he had made many times before and would have to make many times again – surely sincerely felt, but also part of what he surely understood as being the price you pay for readmission into public life – once a sex scandal has brought you down.

I felt sad for him when I left, but sadder still for the rest of us. Here were were – post-crash, post-bailout, post-Madoff, deep in a recession – but with the same unregulated practices reasserting themselves in the banking world. We NEEDED people like Eliot Spitzer, and this talented and courageous leader’s enemies were focused, by social necessity, on having a conversation with the world of journalism and the world of politics that he really should be having only with one person – his wife. Because of a sexual act that affected no one else in New York State except Spitzer, the sex worker and his own family, all the citizens of that state had lost an unusually qualified and dedicated champion. It was a stupid trade in which we lost.

I flashed on the many public servants, in the US especially, who have been brought down by sex scandals: Dick Morris, Bill Clinton’s brilliant but complicated alter ego in the 1996 race, caught through what was surely a set-up situation, having sucked the toes of a prostitute. Bill Clinton himself, of course, whose impeachment trial following an affair with a buxom intern tied the country in knots for months, as the planet warmed and al Qaeda organized; more recently, John Edwards; while I am not a huge fan of his, he was the only candidate to run on an anti-poverty platform and the revelations that he had sired a baby out of wedlock with groupie-slash-videographer Rielle Hunter – as his wife was struggling with cancer – burned up his political future in a nanosecond. It will be a long time before we see another major candidate running with a mandate for the poor – but the National Enquirer got plenty of front-page scoops along the journey. Governor Mark Sandford, whose wife’s memoir Staying True is out right now, famously announced that he was unreachable on the Appalachian Trail when in fact he was with his spicy Argentine ‘soul mate’. And so on…

Are we better off, after all the clucking and tut-tutting has died down, having watched these careers derail? I would say we are far, far worse off. I will go further: we need to stop this. Quit cold-turkey; make a personal promise to ourselves to take the next sex scandale with enormous, disciplined dispassion and refuse to participate in any way in any kind of backlash that will end political careers. This is a far more serious issue than it superficially seems. I am often called by producers in the wake of the latest sex scandal. They assume that, because I am a feminist – and because the people brought down by this kind of drama are usually guys – I will go on the air and join the chorus to say, shock, horror! Shame on him! But I never do. There are three reasons. First, if consenting adults are involved, I believe a sexual transgression is no one’s business but the couple – or the people – involved. (It is indeed a real issue if a law enforcement officer such as Spitzer breaks the law by hiring a sex worker, or if the governor of a state such as Arkansas puts pressure on an employee for sex, as Clinton was alleged to have done with his employee Paula Jones. But to me those are law enforcement and equal opportunity employment issues, not sexual transgression issues.)

Second, the cultural narrative assumption is that this is a ‘betrayal of the wife’ by the erring husband. But I would say that there are many ways to betray a spouse, and you can never know what has gone on in someone else’s marriage. Exposed adultery is a betrayal that we can quantify and ‘see’ – but who can see other possible betrayals between two people that may be equally if not more serious – emotional coldness, belittling language, failure to support one’s dreams, self-absorption, untreated mental illness or addiction, or simple cruelty? We cannot know who the villain is, and who is the helpless victim, simply by reading an account of a sex act outside of marriage.

Third – and this is by far the most important: post-Patriot Act, post-Chinese hacking of Google, post first-world surveillance society – no one has any secrets anymore, and all privacy has become fair game for those who benefit from seeing their enemies fall. Everyone has things he or she would like to keep private: an addiction or a bisexual impulse, a conversation with his or her tax accountant that would look bad out of context, a flirtation with a married colleague. But we have now entered an age in which technology allows all these secrets to manifest unshielded in the hands of the opposition. Was it happenstance that Eliot Spitzer’s credit card payments for illicit sex just coincidentally got swept up in another investigation’s chatter? Was it, heck. Was it a random event that the ‘squidgy’ tapes were made public, that Prince Charles’ ‘tampon’ conversation became part of the culture? Hardly. Surveillance technologies have become so powerful that anyone who has spent time with global principals, for instance during a national political campaign, knows that the world’s Presidents and VP’s, crowned heads and Prime Ministers, simply assume that their conversations are being monitored by intelligence services’ satellite. But people are human, and they let things slip.

The Patriot Act merely made explicit – and applied to any US citizen – the level of surveillance that Congresspeople and Presidents had taken for granted. So now none of our leaders can ever assume that his or her sexual secrets won’t end up in the hands of those who want them, say, to stop bothering the powerful interests that they have begun to pursue. I studied surveillance societies for my book about the loss of civil liberties, The End of America. And in the final chapter, based on those lessons, I called upon Congress to simply disclose every embarrassing secret to their constituents. Yes, I am bipolar. Yes, I was in a threesome in 1979. Yes, I did some coke last winter with old friends in a ski chalet in Utah. Yes, I went to cross-dresser meetings on the other side of town. Yes, I go to AA meetings. Yes, there are nude pictures of me from college. Yes. Yes. Yes. The short-term distress and upheaval in their personal lives would only be balanced by long term liberation from intimidation and fear.

Why should our leaders disclose all their embarrassing secrets? Because in a surveillance society, undisclosed secrets make you blackmail-able – and can be used to bring you down. If you disclose everything yourself – there is no more they can use against you. Something salutary happened on my FB ‘fan’ page recently. A friend posted an article calling for Tiger Woods to apologise to all the women he slept with – and the readers reacted with derision. “I am so sick of this celebrity culture – why am I seeing this here?”, wrote one. No one took the bait; no one cared. In the wake of global warming, the hijacking of our leadership by lobbyists, the suppression of civil liberties, the threat of preventive detention, thirty million people without health care – the Tiger Woods story seemed to these readers to be exactly what it was: a corrosive, pointless distraction. How much more so the circuses around the sex lives of our elected officials – especially those who are actually trying to do some good. If current standards had been applied to leaders in the past, we would still be reading about the derailed career – and steamy extramarital activity – of Rev Dr Martin Luther King. I hope we take a collective vow – no more reacting to sex scandals. I hope Eliot Spitzer runs for office again, very soon. I hope he brings down the big bad guys on Wall Street. And most of all – I hope he can stop apologising.