Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hypocrisy and moralism: The fall of Eliot Spitzer and the rise of the double standard

By Michael J.W. Stickings

(See my earlier post here. The updated NYT article is here. ABC looks at the FBI/IRS investigation here.)

Greenwald asks: "Who cares if Eliot Spitzer hires prostitutes?" -- "[A]re there actually many people left who care if an adult who isn't their spouse hires prostitutes? Are there really people left who think that doing so should be a crime, that adults who hire other consenting adults for sex should be convicted and go to prison?"

Well, yes, I suspect there are many people who care. America's retrograde views on sex and sexuality are still quite prevalent, after all.

Now, whether such views should or should not be prevalent is another matter, and Glenn is right to question those views. As I mention in my previous post, I think prostitution laws should generally be relaxed -- or, let's be blunt about it, overturned (with restrictions, of course, and highly regulated).

I certainly agree with Glenn that sex with a prostitute (consensual sex for money generally) does not warrant prosecution and imprisonment, and, legally, Spitzer should be treated like anyone else. But I do not agree that, non-legally, he should be treated like anyone else. He is the governor of New York, after all, a prominent politician, a democratic leader. Like it or not, we do need to hold our leaders to higher standards than we do most private citizens. We must be able to trust our leaders -- and is not one of our key criticisms of Bush and those around him? And we certainly do not want our leaders hiring prostitutes.

As liberal as I am on sexual matters -- and I am extremely liberal, I suppose -- I think Spitzer was right when he said he broke his obligations, including his public ones.

Now, does this warrant resignation? No, maybe not. I'd like to know more about what happened before answering that question. My initial reaction is: probably not. (And the same goes for Republicans like Craig and Vitter.)

Is Spitzer a hypocrite? Yes. That much is clear. But, as I wrote in a comment to my post linked above, what bothers me is that he is being treated differently than Republicans (and conservatives generally) who find themselves in similar situations. What they do is deny, then un-deny, then find God and repent (sincerely or not), and express contrition (genuine or not), then blitz the media seeking forgiveness, looking and sounding pathetic and forlorn, then go on with their careers, all forgiven, all forgotten. And what about someone like Gingrich? While Bill Clinton was being persecuted by Republicans, Gingrich among them, he was engaging in rather inappropriate behaviour, at least from the perspective of the moralists. And did Gingrich suffer for it? Hardly. And he is not alone.

This is not to excuse Spitzer, just to note that the hypocrisy is political as well as personal. Republicans, including (or especially) the rabid moralists among them, seem to be able to get away with it, hiding behind their God and lashing out at the "liberal" media when their "sins" are exposed, while Democrats like Spitzer (or Gary Hart, or Bill Clinton, etc.) are treated to the moralistic wrath and partisan hypocrisy of the right and the blatant double standards of the media -- and the hand-wringing of some on the left.

Let us await more details before judging Spitzer, but let us not accept how he is being treated, and how he will continue to be treated, by the moralists and hypocrites on the right and in the media.

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