In Praise of Sleaze

Monica Lewinsky giving a TED talk

It looks like a storm is coming. Allegations of sexual harassment and assault are being raised everywhere and now Westminster is going to face the brunt. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has just resigned. But this is nothing new. And there is surely more to come.

Sex scandals and sleaze of all kinds are really crises of public morality. Although the same is true of the sexual assault allegations, such matters should not be conflated with sexual indiscretions and corruption. It is still safe to say though that the breakdown of public morality is what these cases have in common. This is certainly true of the allegations hitting the political class right now.

What we understand to be ‘public’ and ‘private’ is worth examining further. It wasn’t always the case that we thought of sexual conduct as a private matter between adults, yet it’s a very deeply ingrained idea at this stage. Even sexual misconduct has long been seen as a private matter. It’s only in the age of social media that these actions can be called out.

“Nothing in human life is inherently private,” Terry Eagleton wrote of the phone hacking scandal. “Certainly not urinating, defecating and copulating, which only a few centuries ago could be performed in public with no sense of shame. Bedrooms were not particularly private places in medieval Europe, and wanting to relieve yourself unobserved might be considered as eccentric as wanting to crack jokes in utter solitude.”

What we once regarded as ‘public’ has since been tucked away into ‘private’ spaces. This was both a good thing for freeing up our sex lives, for example. However, it is also true that every advance gives rise to new limitations.

“The word ‘private’ is related to ‘privation’, suggesting that whatever is withdrawn from the public realm has no real existence. ‘Private’ meant ‘hands off’, but it also meant ‘of no great importance’,” Eagleton observed. “So if the person you slept with was of no great importance, what was wrong with having it broadcast to the world?”

When a sex scandal breaks out, what we’re really seeing is a private matter being opened up and brought back into public view. Before that point, the affair was really nonexistent in public terms and it was as if it had never happened in the first place. Yet, as we publicise the private, we should be reminded that the public was once privatised too – the two are interconnected.

I could quote Terry Eagleton all day. “In the end, it is because the media are driven by the power and wealth of private individuals that they turn private lives into public spectacles,” he said. “If every private life is now potentially public property, it is because private property has undermined public responsibility.”

Of course, the impact of this dynamic is not always straightforward and this is not an argument for avoiding dealing with the darkness of the private space. There are interesting cases where the publicising of the private is for the sake of the common good. Certainly this applies with cases of rape by political hacks, but it can also apply in the case of philandering politicians.

One of the most famous sex scandals is the affair between President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. The conservatives of the day argued that the public had the right to know what had happened between the president and a young intern. Actually the public couldn’t care less about such things. Some even found it amusing and a relief that the president was normal. But there is another point to be made here.

If we want to take the glass to be half-full, as Robin Blackburn argues, we might take the view that the Lewinsky scandal which saved social security from Clinton’s prescription of privatisation. It was in the mid 1990s that the widespread attitude was that the social security system required radical reform. The privatisation lobby basked in the popular perception that the reality of an aging population would soon make social security unsustainable.

As President Clinton had just sold the American working class down the river it was expected that the administration could well do the same to the retired and soon to be retired. Clinton had a top secret clique of special advisers, with Larry Summers at the helm, to go over the minute details of the basis for a bipartisan policy on social security that would splice individual accounts into the programme.

The New Democrats had snuffed the life out of the welfare program that had been established with the New Deal, now it was social security to be asphyxiated. It just needed to be harsh enough to win over the Republicans without appearing to be Draconian in order to keep the support of a fair chunk of the American population. It soon looked like it was going to be triangulation par excellence.

At the time the Republicans and the media were engaged in a moral crusade against Bill Clinton over a variety of accusations regarding his personal, sexual and political conduct. By 1998 the privatisation agenda had developed seriously over the years and Clinton attended a meeting to review the project. This was shortly before the president was handed a subpoena and it wouldn’t be long before he was confessing to the affair.

Now Clinton could not afford to be seen trashing a long-standing institution of American society. So social security reform was put on ice indefinitely, the reform programme would have to be rewritten very quickly in order for it to be saleable. Fucking Monica Lewinsky may have been one of the most worthwhile decisions Bill Clinton ever made.

Honestly, I think more Americans should know this and express gratitude for Monica’s service. She really did take one for the team and the media furore left Clinton too weak to pursue his neoliberal agenda. Her reputation has been permanently sullied. Meanwhile, Bill can still show his face at Democratic rallies and get a cheer from the crowd.

It is no coincidence that the publicising of the private often leads to public shaming and ostracism. This is the immediate recourse when it comes to revelations of sexual predation and violence, but it often is in cases of adultery too. Everyone else is expected to take sides and watch as the drama unfolds. We’re just here to enjoy the show. Maybe that’s not a bad thing to some extent.

Photograph courtesy of TED Conference. Published under a Creative Commons license.