why I think it’s great that the media is going crazy over the Petraeus affair

David Simon, famously cantankerous creator of The Wire and Treme thinks the press should stop covering “the sex lives of the famous”:

Hypocrisy will never go out of style in American journalism or American life. But sitting there and watching the rewrite and sports desk mobilize to surround the sexual wanderings of a sportscaster, I remember making a decision: Enough. This is just sex. This is nothing more than the odd, notable penis or the odd, notable vagina staggering off the marked path and rubbing against the wrong tree. This is just people….

Fuck Gingrich’s divorces. Fuck Lewinsky. Fuck where Herman Cain found some happy moments. I’m not playing anymore. I long ago ceased to even pretend to care.

The arguments about character? That human sexuality isn’t the most compartmentalized element of our nature? That if someone will lie about sex, they’ll lie about other things? Really? No, sorry, fuck that tripe. Character has become the self-righteous rallying cry of far greater hypocrisy than any cheating husband. It’s the excuse that makes our prurient leer seem meaningful and reasoned.

Simon’s a powerful writer, and his blunt, confrontational style can momentarily make you think he’s talking sense. But his self-righteous pose rings hollow for a number of reasons. As Alex Pareene points out in the same publication,

Some do-gooding liberal types are very upset that the dumb media keeps talking about this very tawdry David Pretraeus scandal instead of covering “the real news.” I hate to break it to them, but the Petraeus affair is actually very much Real News, and not just because there is nothing wrong or contemptible about the American public’s appetite for information about scandal in high places….

The News can cover more than one thing. The resignation of the head of the CIA is Big News by any definition. And as silly as this has been (and it’s been very silly), the Petraeus affair has also been very revealing about our national security state and its relationship to the press. The Petraeus resignation got us this incisive, self-critical piece by Spencer Ackerman, exploring how the media was complicit in the creation of the myth of the brilliant David Petraeus. The investigation shows how terrifyingly easy it is for the FBI to get permission to trawl through all your email, secretly, looking for almost anything…. The way to get the press to cover the fact that the national security state is regularly violating the privacy of citizens is to have one of those citizens turn out to be the press’ favorite general.

I’d just add a few more things. First, I find it telling that Simon lumps Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, and Herman Cain together with the oh-so-sophisticated dismissal “This is just sex.” The three situations are very different, though probably none fails to be newsworthy. Gingrich’s handling of his divorces was embarrassing and classless but could have remained firmly in the private realm, except inasmuch as it highlighted the awful cynicism and hatefulness of rich white men who demand that poor women be punished for failing to fully embrace marriage. Clinton, on the other hand, arguably used the most powerful political office of the nation to take advantage of a young intern. And Herman Cain was not hounded out of the race for “finding some happy moments” — he was accused of serial sexual harassment. In each of these cases, the sex scandal tells us something about the abuse of power — an abuse that is often invisible to these men, who are encased in resilient bubbles of privilege. Scandal is what alerts us to these abuses — but it’s also practically the only signal such men often have that they are doing anything wrong. And no, David Simon, the wrong here doesn’t have anything to do with the desires of penises and vaginas.

The Petraeus debacle is practically the paradigm of the way sex scandals are generally shot through with issues of power and its misuse. The head of the CIA exposed himself to potential blackmail and extortion, may have given classified information to his mistress, “arranged for” an egregiously unqualified social climber to represent the United States as an “honorary consul,” and generally acted like someone not qualified to be the postmaster of Mayberry, let alone America’s top spy.

Simon argues that we can’t call Petraeus “dumb” because he once noted that the invasion of Iraq was an uncertain proposition. Well… okay. If you think that one correct insight from 2003 outweighs the astoundingly bad judgment he’s displayed in more recent years… maybe you think M. Night Shyamalan still makes good movies, too. But, again, this is not about “dumb” or “smart.” It’s about the uses of power in the American system — something you’d think Simon would be able to appreciate.

Some articles and blog posts have affected a weary, “what’s the big deal?” attitude. E.J. Graff (first link) writes:

Did he abuse his power by coercing one of his subordinates into a sexual relationship and then sexually assault them, as Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair is alleged to have done? Did he misuse military or CIA funds? Did he spill national security secrets? No? Then why do I care?

Sure, he may have hurt his wife and children. Yes, she may have hurt her husband and children. So they were painfully human. It’s very sad when someone stumbles, especially for those close to them. But I don’t see what that has to do with their professional lives….

Which brings me to my second point. Gingrich and Cain got beaten up pretty hard in part because they presented themselves to the world as social conservatives — and not just social conservatives in belief, but in the practical consequences of that belief. They wanted to tell other people what they could and couldn’t do in the bedroom. They wanted to shame other people for their sexual activity. For that, they (and every “wide stance” Republican outed as gay) got heaped with scorn.

Clinton got heaped with scorn, too. But he still got to be (and stay) President. Why? Partly, I think, it was that he didn’t hold himself out as being above everyone else. Sure, he lied about Lewinsky when he got caught. But during his campaign, he had generally been honest about having been a philanderer. For that matter, he broke the pot barrier, too — albeit in a slightly chickenshit way. Clinton didn’t pretend to be a moral paragon, and he didn’t demand, in his policies, that anybody else be one, either. So people mocked him… but they let him keep his job and in fact gave him quite high approval ratings by the end of his second term.

Petraeus, of course, has never presented himself as a social conservative, nor advocated for policies that would shame or punish others for their sexual behavior. But he did set himself out as the ideal warrior. He and the press worked together to burnish bright an image of the soldier-protector, the brave fighting man who would protect America from the cruelty of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and whatever other black hats were lurking in Iraq and Afghanistan. We believed, in some way, that he loved us so much he would keep us safe. A devoted champion. But it turned out the idol was hollow. He didn’t care enough about his wife to protect her from his own cruelty — let alone caring enough about America to protect himself from potentially compromising situations which could have led to national security breaches. (The fact that, thus far, nothing serious seems to have come of it is a matter of luck, not the virtue of Petraeus’s actions.)

And thank God. Thank God for sex scandals. Thank God that men do terrible, pathetic things, and thank God sex is still enough of a catchy hook that the press follows up on these stories. Because we need them. We need these sex scandals to remind us that all the men who seem to stride across the earth as if driven by destiny, in the end, have feet of clay. They’re all small. They’re all comical. Jesus, do you remember Clinton? How we found out about all his stupid little sexual oddities and misadventures, like the thing with the cigar, or the blue dress with the stain on it? How cloddishly, boorishly human. And how great is that? It’s the same reason ancient Greek comedies were packed with dick and fart jokes — because when you’re dealing with gods and kings, it pays to remember that they’re just made of slightly humorous flesh, like everybody else. Please make all the Petraeus, Clinton, and Gingrich jokes you want — what could be more democratic, and freeing, than to mock our leaders for all their petty humanness? Maybe if we perform this democratic ritual often enough, the next time a serious-looking man in a suit proposes a war in the Middle East, we’ll remember some past leader with an overactive dick and a raging sense of entitlement, and we’ll laugh the dumb rube off the stage.

Finally, some simple advice for men looking to avoid a scandal: be better feminists. That’s it. You want to sleep around? That’s cool, man. But don’t assume that your wife is down with that if you haven’t asked her, and don’t discount her feelings in the matter as somehow unimportant. Treat your wife like a person, not an entitlement. Don’t assume that because you’re powerful and you have a dick, you should be able to enjoy all the benefits of marriage without being willing to take on the responsibilities of marriage.

And taking on your responsibilities to your wife doesn’t necessarily mean never sleeping with anyone else. It means having the courage (remember the seventh Army value, General Petraeus? “Personal Courage”?) to negotiate honestly and in good faith if you want to have an open marriage, or practice polyamory. It means being willing to accept tit-for-tat, too — if you’re willing to go outside the confines of monogamy, you have to be willing to accept that she might do the same thing. Can you imagine a politician who was willing to do that? Who was willing to say, “This is the arrangement we have. It’s none of your business, particularly, but I’m not ashamed of it, either.” And whose wife would back him up on it? Man. Mind-blowing.

Or be like George Clooney — just don’t get married. Be upfront. Tell the world, “You know… I like the ladies. I don’t really want to settle down.” Negotiate all this with your lady friends in advance. Be that permanent bachelor. This is also acceptable.

Finally, as long as you are not someone who wants to punish other people for not being married or not staying married, feel free to get divorced! Nothing lasts forever. Pay your child support, and who cares? We will not judge you.

Pick any of these three. Be an honest man. That is how you avoid being mocked on late night television.

Or don’t. I don’t care. I like the dirty comedy of privileged men covering themselves in embarrassment. Long live this squalid, grubby ritual of democracy!

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3 Responses to why I think it’s great that the media is going crazy over the Petraeus affair

  1. Grambear says:

    Awesome comments, Seth.
    Thanks for reminding us that sexual abuse in any form is about power, not sex, pleasure, love,
    companionship or anything else human and comforting.

  2. Ben Freedman says:

    Good article but your point about Clinton is off the mark.Your assertion that, “Clinton didn’t pretend to be a moral paragon, and he didn’t demand, in his policies, that anybody else be one, either.” is clearly BS Clinton revisionism- DOMA?!!

    • thehandsomecamel says:

      Well, DOMA wasn’t Clinton’s idea, and he signed it grudgingly in the face of a veto-proof majority. Whether he should have, as a matter of principle, vetoed anyway is certainly a matter for debate, but I don’t think that makes DOMA his policy. On the other hand, Clinton and most Democrats of the time were officially against state-sanctioned gay marriage (as was Obama when he was elected), and DADT certainly was Clinton’s policy. So… I take your point.

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