Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Doing the laundry

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine Notebook (May 2010)

To suppose, as we all suppose, that we could be rich and not behave as the rich behave, is like supposing that we could drink all day and keep absolutely sober.

-- Logan Pearsall Smith

The hanging of a public head in shame is by now a familiar American photo opportunity, but why almost always as a penance imposed on a male erection for conduct regarded by the Catholic Church as the spiritual equivalent of a traffic violation? Why no humiliating act of contrition demanded of President George W Bush for his criminal invasion of Iraq; of Wall Street banks for looting their clients, their depositors, and the Treasury; of chemical companies for poisoning the nation's air and water; of hospitals for the iatrogenic deaths of their patients; of pharmaceutical companies for the distribution of drugs inducing the diseases they supposedly prevent? Why no women dragged into the arena of the tabloid press to beg forgiveness for embracing the pleasures of the flesh with the "riotous appetite" likened by the victimized King Lear to that of "the fitchew" and "the soiled horse"? Why no mumblings of atonement for the predatory nature of capitalism itself, its core values and standard operating procedures no different from those of the beasts in the field?

I raise the questions as follow-up to the press briefing staged February 19 in Florida by Tiger Woods, who apologized to a television camera and his mother for having the same sort of trouble with his penis that he sometimes experiences with his driver - hitting it wide right into a cocktail waitress, short left into platinum-blonde rough. Apologizing not only to his mother but also to fans, friends, staff, young students, board directors, and sponsors, saying to one and all that his behavior had been "irresponsible and selfish", that he was both "wrong" and "foolish" to think that somehow he deserved to enjoy "all the temptations" placed before him as if they were chocolates on a hotel pillow.

But why not taste the fruits of victory? They ask to be appreciated; they'd made an effort, arranged the flowers and the mirrors, and it would be both ungenerous and unkind to refuse their hospitality. If not as "irresponsible and selfish", how else to characterize the behavior of Julius Caesar and Henry VIII, of Presidents Bill Clinton and John F Kennedy? Why else do men seek wealth and power if not to seize the love of women? For as long as historians have been keeping score, the spoils of war and stock-market killings include the objects of affection plumped on the cushions in the other hero's tent, wearing feathered hats in Paris, perched on bar stools in Las Vegas. The wrath of Achilles in Homer's Iliad springs from Agamemnon's taking from him the trophy of a captive concubine; Genghis Khan was of the opinion that "the greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies" and "to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms". Bear in mind the seventy-two dark-eyed virgins awaiting martyred warriors in the Mohammedan paradise; examine the lives of victorious generals and famous poets, of leading statesmen and robust financiers (King Solomon, Mark Antony, Emperor Yang Ti, Pope Alexander VI, Suleiman the Magnificent, Louis XV, Lord Byron, J Pierpont Morgan, Jackson Pollock), and nowhere is it written that they abstained from the enjoyment of the ladies of the morning, noon, or night.

Similarly the consensus of gentrified opinion in the early days of the American republic, maybe not in Boston and its Puritan environs but in New York and Philadelphia and Charleston, where men of quality and fashion adopted the eighteenth-century social graces sanctioned by their peers in London and Paris. Gouverneur Morris shared a mistress with Talleyrand; Benjamin Franklin delighted in the comforting rustle of feminine undress; both Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson granted themselves the privilege of an occasional indiscretion. Some sort of public apology or explanation might be demanded for a pecuniary indecency or a criminal assault but not for dabbling in adultery. Hamilton published the distinction in his Reynolds pamphlet, denying a charge of fiscal impropriety brought against him by the husband of a woman with whom he'd been having an affair. The pamphlet ran to a length of 28,000 words, Hamilton conceding "an irregular and indelicate amour" in order to refute the "more heinous charge" that "could alone have extorted from me so painful an indecorum". Sex was a secondary and subdominant concern, not the villain of the piece.

So matters remained throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. The newspapers damned Commodore Vanderbilt and Big Jim Fisk for their manipulations of money but not for their dealings with women. Campaigning for the presidency in the summer of 1884, Grover Cleveland was confronted with a Buffalo newspaper story naming him as a cad who had impregnated an innocent woman and then forced her to deliver the child to an orphanage. Cleveland's political image rested on his reputation as a righteous man, his moral and his financial probity programmed into the slogans "Cleveland the Celibate" and "Grover the Good". The churchgoing friends of the Republican candidate, James G Blaine, sought to bury Cleveland's campaign under an avalanche of scandal. Crowds appeared in the streets chanting, "Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa?" Cleveland declined to discuss the subject. Nowhere in the press was it suggested that he repent, and in November he was elected president of the United States.

Nor was any admission of sin required of presidents in the early and middle chapters of the twentieth century, among them Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, known for consorting with women other than their wives. The redemption narrative doesn't make its appearance in the ballrooms of wealth and power until Jimmy Carter introduces the evangelical tone into the 1976 presidential campaign. Sitting for an interview with Playboy, Carter presented himself as a good Christian who had struggled mightily to dodge the snares of Satan. "I've looked on a lot of women with lust", Carter said. "I've committed adultery in my heart many times". But not, praise Jesus, with any other part of his anatomy.

The historian Susan Wise Bauer attributes the revival of the old Puritan practice of washing one's dirty laundry in public to the celebrity culture and the various modes of group therapy, chief among them the television gossip shows, coming onto the American scene in concert with the 1960s sexual revolution. Her book, The Art of the Public Grovel (2008 ), traces the evolution of the standard act of contrition from the secular excuse offered by Senator Edward Kennedy for having drowned Mary Jo Kopechne in 1969 ("My conduct and conversations during the next several hours, to the extent that I can remember them, make no sense to me at all") to the biblical pleading placed on the altar of repentance by Bill Clinton in 1998 ("I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned").

I don't question Bauer's reading of the record, but she omits the point about the money. The 1960s opening of Pandora's box loosed entirely too many freedoms of the spirit threatening to deconstruct the society's sense of itself as a congregation of Latter-day Saints. To regulate the suddenly overabundant supply of sexual energy running around half-naked on suburban lawns, it was classified as a commodity somehow akin to breakfast cereal or unleaded gasoline. The policy allowed Eros to be borne aloft on the wings of commerce, powdered and freeze-dried, lemon-scented and cherry-flavored, floating in cloaks of as many colors as can be crowded into the supermarkets of desire - as breast enhancement and penile implant; as sadomasochistic fantasy, hard-line feminist theory, and the Victoria's Secret catalogue; as travel advertisement and Budweiser TV spot; as gentleman's club, Versace gown, and the pornographic film industry, which in 2009 provided 15,622 new releases as compared with 677 supplied by Hollywood.

The glittering invitations to everlasting orgy pour forth at all hours of the day or night from every orifice of the media (movie and television screen, newsstand, cosmetic counter, Internet), but as Woods sorrowfully informed his mother, it's "foolish" and "wrong" to think that they mean what they say, to mistake the sales pitch for a tourist destination. One is supposed to look, not touch; to abandon oneself to one's passion not in a cocktail lounge but in Bloomingdale's, in a BMW showroom, not in the back seat of the car.

The failure to read the manufacturer's warning on the label is what sets up the market in salacious scandal and sustains the belief in the fearlessness of the American free press. Celebrity is a consumer product manufactured by the media, and the floating exchange rate between sex and money determines the size of the tabloid headlines, makes possible the playing of the story on both sides of the transaction, meets the demand for rising stars and fallen idols. The celebrity in the mud sells as many papers as the celebrity in the sky, but in neither circumstance is the celebrity to be confused with a human being. In play for the television camera in Florida was not the ball-flight of a man's immortal soul but his missing the fairways groomed to attract a television rating and proud to bear the weight of Nike golf shoes, Woods joining the long roster of other brand-name consumer products (among them President Bill Clinton, Woody Allen, Eliot Spitzer, Jude Law, John Edwards, David Letterman, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Sanford) forced to respond to customer complaints about their sexual components - faulty marriage fixtures, upper and lower lip malfunction, loose steering, torn moral fabric.

The procedure is a form of money laundering, the sending of the banknote otherwise known as Tiger Woods to a sex-addiction facility in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, comparable to a crime syndicate's placing bundles of shopworn fifty-dollar bills on deposit in the Cayman Islands, or Goldman Sachs's setting up a cross-currency swap for the government of Greece. For the media the seating of celebrity in the bath brings with it something for everybody, upmarket prudery and down-market prurience, sermonettes in the New York Times, clucking and sniggering in the New York Post, everywhere the joyous dancing around the maypoles of seventy-two-point type. The chasing after the golden geese (at any given time hundreds of paparazzi in pursuit of Tiger Woods) relieves the media of the tiresome and time-consuming chore of having to report on something that might point to the systematic deconstruction of a public rather than a private good. The recycling of gossip is easier than the assembling of facts.

But other than the media, who else profits from the proceedings? What is to be learned from watching one sum of money say, "simply and directly", to another sum of money, that it's "deeply sorry" for the embarrassment it may have caused? Whose spirits are uplifted, whose hearts made young and gay? Conceivably, those of the anonymous faces in the crowd who can say to themselves, "I'm not rich, I'm not famous, but I'm good", the brief glow of moral superiority their compensation for a poor and empty life - safe at last to lust after the girls on the hotel pay-per-view but, happily, traveling on a budget that doesn't include the temptation of ordering one or more from room service.

Acknowledge the extent of the social and technological change that over the past sixty-odd years has reconfigured the relations between the sexes, and maybe the time has come to cut down on the scolding of both history and human nature. The women romanced by Woods complained that on his list of apologies he neglected to give them a producer's credit. It's a wonder that Woods wasn't asked to apologize to the golf balls he had abandoned in the hazard of the Pacific Ocean. Take the redemptive therapies to the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth steps, and pretty soon we'll have more apologizing than can be rinsed and dried in the prime-time laundromat.

We're probably better advised to take instruction from the Pentagon than from the Gospel. Obliged to preserve the combat strength of America's military forces for what in March 2003 was looking to be a prolonged deployment in Iraq, the general staff adopted the practice of issuing "moral waivers" to prospective recruits exhibiting the blemish of a criminal arrest record. Since 2006, still finding itself short of volunteers, the Army has extended the shelter of amazing grace to an ever larger company of felons.

If the media were to take a similar approach, the country might be served by a better class of politician. Given the constant croaking of the blogs that live in hope of catching flies, any politician old enough to know that he hasn't led a blameless life must also know that sooner or later the National Enquirer will empty a chamber pot on his head. Which means that the only people likely to stand for public office will be those as self-deluded as John Edwards and Sarah Palin.

It's even possible that an issuing of moral waivers might promote women to the rank of human beings, reconfigure them as subjects instead of objects. Under the current arrangement they arrive in the arena of the tabloid press in the manner of the exotic booty dragged behind the chariots of imperial Rome. No point in their begging ritual pardon for their sins, because the stain is unredeemable, the futility of liquid cleansers determined long ago by the fathers of the early Christian church. Daughters of Eve and therefore of Satan, doomed to go for the ride and take the fall, in medieval Europe as in Puritan New England and the mouth of Howard Stern. But if the US Army can overlook an arrest for grand theft auto on the record of a private first class, surely, as a society, we can overlook the prior conviction for wrongful gender on the rap sheets of the women in the room.


Lewis H Lapham is the National Correspondent of Harper's Magazine and the editor of Lapham's Quarterly.

Bill Totten


  • Wonderful writing. The original quote is incorrect. From great wealth and privelege there are many who never copy their peers. S.

    By Blogger suzannedk, at 3:41 PM, June 06, 2010  

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