in Society, Politics, and Art
by Ari Adut
Cambridge University Press, 356 pp., $28
The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America
by Susan Wise Bauer
Princeton University Press, 337 pp., $26.95
“In England, except for those with an income larger than 200,000 pounds or of high social status, marriage is all but sacred. In Italy, when you celebrate a wedding in church the ideas of sacredness and eternal fidelity do not cross anybody’s mind.” Thus wrote Stendhal in his 1826 book Rome, Naples et Florence. He adds that the husband, knowing the rules of the game, will not get upset if his bride takes a lover. Stendhal’s comments about female infidelity in a country where women were held to a higher standard bring home the point that the pursuit “of all the pleasures that Italian society has to offer” takes precedence over moral and religious imperatives.
If Stendhal were writing today he would choose American, not English, marriage to compare to the Italian version. The differences would be even more marked. Following de Tocqueville, he would point out that in democratic America the rules that apply to the common man also apply to the rich and powerful. The recent slew of sex scandals from Bill Clinton to Larry Craig to Eliot Spitzer shows that this central reality remains more or less as it has always been, despite other rather dramatic and seemingly related changes in American social life: the tolerance for single-parenthood, homosexual unions, coarse speech and bare bodies nearly everywhere in public spaces.
Stendhal might also note that the American Declaration of Independence sanctions the “pursuit of happiness”, not the “pursuit of pleasure.” Translation issues shed light on the difference between Stendhal’s ideal and that of English or American happiness. The French write of happiness alternatively as “félicité” or “joie”, but only the former is the correct translation of “happiness.” “Joie” points to something at once more intimate and sensual, a connotation that Anglo-American speech, with its Puritanical underpinnings, divides away from the condition of being happy. The French call male orgasm and sexual intercourse “jouir”, and although “joie” is not guaranteed by the law, the French, the Italians and most Europeans save the cold-blooded Brits claim it as a birthright. In a nutshell, French “joie” and American “happiness” spring from different sources. The first is intimately psychological and personal; the second is so available for discussion and observation that it can be rendered virtually legal and placed in a political document. Almost needless to say, the two are at odds with each other.
The American pursuit of happiness relates mostly, for most Americans anyway, to economic well being—the free-standing house in the suburbs with the two-car garage—and to the freedom to choose where you worship. Lust is not good in America, and it must be resisted because it delivers you into the hands of Satan. Lust is sinful. Even lusting in one’s heart is sinful, as a presidential candidate said in an interview that probably played a part in winning him the office. When Playboy pressed Jimmy Carter on his self-righteousness he answered that
Christ says, Don’t consider yourself better than someone else because one guy screws a whole bunch of women while the other guy is loyal to his wife. . . . I think that my religious beliefs alone would prevent that happening to me.
How exhilarating it must have been for candidate Carter to say “screw” to a Playboy interviewer! To his credit, but not to the credit of the less prurient Americans who voted for him because of it, he found the right time, place and occasion to say it. That Carter was elected President perhaps owes something to the fact that he found a way to affirm American moral standards and ever so slightly violate them simultaneously.
Puritanism is often cited to explain American indignation toward turpitude in high places and the moral outrage that follows the disclosure of sexual, financial and political scandals. It is the American religious tradition writ large, as the story goes, that shapes the reaction to moral transgression, in contrast to the sharply more lenient attitude of Europeans. Europe is correctly defined as post-Christian because Christianity is taken with a grain of salt and adapted to the realities of a secular world. Across the pond, on the contrary, Christianity is alive and kicking. The difference is one between an old society (“old Europe” is often used in American narratives about its “moral indifference” toward disgraceful behavior) in which the same games were played for centuries and engendered pervasive cynicism, and a new society that believes the system works and that it should intervene forcefully when it is flouted.
Two recent books about scandals in the United States grapple with these issues from two different, sometimes opposing points of view. In On Scandal: Moral Disturbances in Society, Politics, and Art, Ari Adut, an Israeli-born sociologist now teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, argues that the rise of scandals is a by-product of the decline of Puritanism in America. In contrast, Susan Wise Bauer, in The Art of Public Grovel: Sexual Sin & Public Confession in America, claims that it results from the reawakening of the Evangelical spirit.
Adut does not explain his contention that Puritanism in America is fading; he simply takes it for granted, pointing out that “sex talk in public has been normalized, indeed banalized.” Adut also believes that the “declining modesty” about sexual matters in America has brought about a drive to regulate them, as proven by the legislation and court cases involving sexual discrimination and sexual harassment. Thus, Adut argues, the realm of sex in America has shifted from the private and moral to the legal and public.
Adut’s premise about the decline in Puritanism is disputable. What could be more puritanical than to legislate what is and is not proper sexual conduct? And what could be more attention-getting than to talk about it incessantly? Paula Jones’s lawyers, for example, in their deposition of Bill Clinton defined “sexual relations” as “contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with the intent to arouse or gratify.” This in a courtroom, no less.
Adut’s observation that scandals have probably increased as a consequence of the politicization of sex, on the other hand, is well taken. Add to this the decline of political authority, de facto Executive privilege, and an establishment media that positively hungers to dig up stories about fellatio in high office, and you have all the conditions for a scandal. As news progressively became entertainment during the nine-month-long Monica Lewinsky uproar, Americans were glued to their televisions 24/7, scandalized and (therefore) amused. Presidential phone calls to Congressmen with the intern under the desk, the cigars that weren’t just cigars, the blue dress stained by the most legendary ejaculation in modern history, the graphic descriptions of the First Penis—lurid detail after lurid detail pushed the networks’ ratings through the ceiling as Americans wallowed in the combined pleasures of revulsion and merriment (mostly in the privacy of their own homes, of course).
What saved Clinton and allowed him to leave office with high approval ratings was not only the good economy but, as Bauer points out, his public confession. Trying to defend himself, Clinton began with several false steps (“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” was, for all its audacity, ineffective.) Later he shifted his strategy from the legal to the religious, updating the Lutheran tradition of confession-as-conversion. And conversion it was, or so the American people seemed to believe. On September 11, 1998, at the annual Washington prayer breakfast, the President pronounced three magical words: “I have sinned.” Clinton had managed to use a political breakfast to turn the entire American political arena into a mega-church stage, and it worked. Thus, Bauer adds, “In Bill Clinton’s America, the intersection of Protestant practice, therapeutic technique, and talk-show ethos was complete.”
In addition to sex scandals, Adut examines political and, less convincingly, artistic scandals. He offers a thorough examination of Watergate, explaining that Richard M. Nixon was brought down not only by breaking the law but also by several concomitant factors that weakened his presidency: the decline of Executive privilege, the related decline in the public’s trust in government, the vast coalition against his Vietnam policies and the changing attitude of the media. “What had remained secret yesterday—often thanks to an implicit yet widespread collusion—would more likely become public”, Adut argues. “Charges that would have been brushed aside would now look credible. What had gone accommodated would now look unacceptable.”
Adut’s initial ambition was to come up with a blueprint for scandals, a boilerplate model that could repeat its usefulness as successive scandals break. But when he compared different events—the Oscar Wilde “gross indecency” trial in Victorian England to the Lewinsky affair—he realized that other factors having nothing to do with the scandal itself actually determine how it erupts and how it concludes. Adut ends up not trying to force a scandal taxonomy on messy realities, but rather searching for a phenomenology of scandal—a sociological explanation of why very similar behaviors give rise to scandal in some contexts but not in others.
In the case of Wilde, Adut recognizes that the writer caused his own downfall by calling attention to his homosexuality with litigation. It is hardly beyond possibility that, what with sexually segregated English public schools and all that, the Victorians’ reaction to Wilde could have had something to do with a wider and growing homosexual panic. That the word “homosexual” entered the English language only in 1892, three years before Wilde went to court, is symptomatic at least of the possibility.
The least convincing part of On Scandal is the chapter “Provocation in Art”, in which Adut asserts that post-Manet art is more scandal-inclined than all previous art. This is a serious misreading of the Western artistic tradition, and indeed, one suspects Adut is out of his depth here. To assume, for example, that Chris Ofili’s dung-covered “Virgin Mary”, a work that incited vehement condemnation, exemplifies a strategy by contemporary artists to gain recognition through transgression, is a misnomer. Artists of all times proceed via transgression; Ofili’s work is no more scandalous to us than, say, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, an unabashedly erotic icon, was to his Renaissance contemporaries. Ofili looks more scandalous to us because he is our contemporary, while Botticelli’s painting enjoys a high place in art history. It is all about the context, something that Adut, given his aims, should recognize.
Contemporary artists, it is true, are aware of the role of the media in the reception of their work and to some extent they play into it for fun and profit, but great art always debunks prior paradigms and makes a scandal, whether desired or not. Time will tell if Ofili’s “Virgin Mary” will turn into a classic. If it doesn’t, it will be regarded simply as a publicity-seeking put-on; but Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes” and Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”, a urinal turned upside down, both provoked scandals when first shown, and now are seen as classics of modern art. They no longer horrify anyone, even if they fail to please or inspire most. To at least one prominent critic, William A. Camfield, in one of the best books written on modern art—Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1989)—the silhouette of the urinal is identical to the outline of a classical Virgin Mary. It has taken Duchamp’s work a full century to run the cycle from an outrageous and provoking urinal to a classic of modernism that withstands comparison to a Renaissance Madonna.
Bauer’s The Art of the Public Grovel focuses almost exclusively on how scandals are dealt with by the perpetrator. That might seem at first blush a limiting perspective, but it serves her well because she also takes a longer historical view. Looking at American scandals from Grover Cleveland to Cardinal Law, from Ted Kennedy to Jimmy Carter, Jim Bakker to Jimmy Swaggart and, finally, Bill Clinton, Bauer seeks to explain why some were forgiven while others remained mired in the mud. She argues that the 20th-century resurgence of religious movements, such as Evangelical Fundamentalism, Puritan Revivalism and others, all of which are rooted in the Protestant tradition, brought about a newfound interest in the act of public confession. The Lutheran’s public confession, in contrast to the private Catholic counterpart, is strictly connected to the idea of conversion to God. However, in the early American Colonies the public grovel grew increasingly independent and took on a legitimacy of its own. “In the early American Puritan revivals”, Bauer reminds us, “public confession of sin was undertaken both by believing individuals and by entire congregations as a way to regain God’s favor. In essence, public confession of sin began to detach itself from the conversion narrative.” The advent of the radio further increased the audience for confession, and religious leaders took to the airwaves as a conduit that could reach virtually the entire nation.
As the influence of religious fundamentalism on the public and political spheres became even greater during the last decades of the 20th century, public confession of sin also drew support from practitioners of secular healing techniques like group psychotherapy and psychodrama. Its appeal as a valuable practice to right a wrong and mend one’s ways spread through the American public. Bauer points out that it is important to distinguish confession from excuse. Public excuse (Clinton in Lewinsky, what “is” is) is the attempt to deny, cover up or blame the problem on others, while public confession (Clinton in Lewinsky, “I have sinned”) is a clear admission of one’s fault often accompanied by the promise to change one’s life with the help of religious support (an underlying motif, of course, of George W. Bush’s life). Bauer has little doubt that the second one works and the first does not, and the examples she uses bear out her theory. Her conclusion leaves little doubt about where she thinks America is headed:
American democracy is not essentially evangelical, but American evangelicalism is essentially democratic, so that its rituals translate seamlessly into rituals of American public life. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, huge numbers of Americans who would never identify themselves with Protestantism, let alone its evangelical forms, have unconsciously accepted not only the form of the confession, but the religious language of holy war that accompanies it.
On the ticklish subject of comparing the American approach to scandal with the European one, Adut’s chapter “Investigating Corruption in France” examines the recent and massive attack of the French judiciary on political graft, corruption and misbehavior and questions why a society that had been historically lenient with political malfeasance suddenly exploded in the opposite direction. In fact, what happened in France during the 1990s also happened, and to some extent still continues to happen, in Italy and Spain—and Adut’s French analysis applies equally well to those two countries. Adut correctly explains that the judicial attack on politicians was mainly the upshot of the Judiciary’s growing independence from the control of the Executive. It had nothing to do with morality as Americans or most others understand the term, which is why Americans have generally misunderstood the recent phase of European political scandal.
In France, as well as in Italy and in Spain, the government traditionally kept the judiciary under tight control, so that it was most unusual for judges to take action in important cases without its assent. With time, as respect for political authority declined and the judiciary freed itself from the leash to which it was tethered, judges organized themselves into de facto unions with political labels. Thus judicial action against politicians, amplified by the media, was both a way to compete for status against the government and to fight partisan battles. Leftist judges attacked conservative governmental coalitions, and vice versa. As Carlo Guarnieri, a professor at the University of Bologna and an expert on the judiciary, points out, the publics in France, Italy and Spain reacted to the “mediatic-judicial circus” that wiped out an entire class of politicians in a typically nuanced fashion: rage over politicians’ misuse of their tax money, but satisfaction in the revelation that everyone likes to evade the law when they think they can get away with it.
After the initial uproar, public support for the judges declined, and things more or less settled back to what they were before the battle started. The reason is that the various European publics quickly recognized that there was no moral high ground in this business, and many fretted over the instability it added to several already unstable parliamentary arrangements.
Silvio Berlusconi affords a particularly good example of partisan scandal-mongering. His media conglomerates were subjected to countless investigations immediately after he ran for office in the early 1990s, and he was subjected to countless criminal and civil trials, often brought about by leftist judges who did little to conceal their personal mission to bring down a right-winger. Nonetheless, he was re-elected as Italy’s Prime Minister in the spring of 2008 with the largest majority in Italian history since 1948—and Silvio, unlike Bill, never confessed to anything. After surviving a war waged against him that lasted almost twenty years he now enjoys de facto immunity.
Why is Europe’s attitude (the United Kingdom excepted, as usual) toward scandal so different from the American? Clearly, what Bauer says about the United States does not apply to an older, post-Christian continent. Christian fundamentalism is almost unknown in Europe, and the cynicism that usually meets the outbreak of scandal is partially explained by a revival of what can only realistically be called Paganism. Scandals do erupt in the old continent, but the public treats them somewhat as the Greeks and the Romans did: They held the mythological misdeeds of their gods and heroes up to their own faces as mirrors.
There is also a European cultural tradition of the civilization-enabling double standard that dates back to the Renaissance. In the Prince, Machiavelli explains that the ruler’s deceptions and crimes are often a necessity of “good” government. Other Renaissance books comprising the “Literature of Behavior”, such as Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528) and Della Casa’s Galateo (1558), endorse good manners as a way to beguile, to hide one’s thoughts and intentions, and, ultimately, to deceive. The high point of this literary movement is a 1641 pamphlet by Torquato Accetto appropriately titled Della Dissimulazione Onesta (“On Honest Dissimulation”, or “On Honest Hypocrisy”). “From the moment when the first man opened his eyes”, Accetto says, “and realized that he was naked, he tried to hide himself even from God. Thus the need to hide was born with the world itself, and has come to be known as dissimulation.”
People have a natural disposition to duplicity, Accetto continues, and only those who suffer from emotional conditions, such as excessive exuberance, melancholy, depression and anger, are unable to hide it and cannot profit from it. Quoting the Gospel of Matthew, the author urges his readers to “be astute as snakes and straightforward as doves.” While Accetto recognizes that truth is beautiful he believes that its practice was possible only in the utopian Golden Age, which, he adds, was called “golden because it had no need of gold.” But, after the expulsion from Eden, “he who does not know how to feign does not know how to live.” Not only are dissimulation, duplicity and hypocrisy necessary in the world of fallen mankind, they are also a source of pleasure, “because when you win by ingenuity you feel happier.” Thus, if one accepts dissimulation and feels comfortable with it, it will provide wealth, power and peace of mind. Accetto has little doubt that “dissimulation is the remedy that removes all evils.”
Thus, when the first American colonists were reviving the Protestant practice of public confession, confident of the opportunities for human regeneration that a virgin continent offered those who wanted to break with the evils of the past, the Europeans were theorizing about how the acceptance of evil made life easier. This is perhaps part of the reason why Americans have always seemed like incorrigible idealists to Europeans, and Europeans as fallen evildoers to Americans.
The American faith in the redemption of mankind is unique among modern societies. It is the trademark of American exceptionalism that characterizes, both in success and in failure, so much of the American experiment. Only history will tell what the final outcome of this work in progress will be. But it certainly goes to America’s credit that it wants to ameliorate the less noble features of human nature, even should the task in the end prove impossible.