March 22, 2008
Those Sophisticated Europeans
Hardly had the sheets cooled on the bed momentarily occupied by former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer and his call girl tootsie than people took sides. Many people expressed shock and disapproval. Quite a few others claimed to be amazed that in these sexually permissive times anyone gave a hoot how New York's highest elected official conducted his private affairs (double entendre intended).
One of the favorite debating points of those who expressed amazement at the American public's critical reaction was to compare American attitudes to attitudes of Europeans. It is claimed Europeans are much more broad-minded and forgiving of the unconventional, complex sex lives of their government leaders. If I have my facts right, the funeral procession of one of the recently deceased French leaders was lead by the man's wife, while the man's mistress and his love child followed a few steps behind. To many of Spitzer's defenders, the American reaction of censure compared poorly to the blasé reaction of those sophisticated Europeans.
As unwashed as I am, I can see three reasons to keep my distance from the defenders of Eurosex.
The European tradition of looking the other way when its leaders gave full vent to their sexual urges is not a recent phenomenon. It has a long history. The right and power of European nobility and such to bed down whatever beauties caught their eyes is memorialized in ancient law and tradition. In quite a few parts of Europe the local noblemen could exercise the ancient droit de seigneur, the right of the nobility to enjoy the local brides on the brides' wedding nights. Roman Emperors lusted after and consummated relations with anyone they chose, whether innocent, virginal passers-by or wives of lower-ranking nobility. Confining royal or noble sexual appetites to the bounds of the marital bed was rarely the royal norm throughout European history. [The same observation can be made about nobility and royalty in most other parts of the world. But America is not yet so diverse a nation that chiding its comparative sexual Puritanism by comparing it to the more lusty attitudes and behaviors of, say, Chinese or Indian royal families is not yet an effective argument.]
Given the overwhelming weight of European sexual history, the roots of the blasé attitude of average Europeans is not so much a symptom of advanced liberal attitudes as it is a sign of defeat. If one's wife or daughter was grabbed off the streets to give the local Prince a night of pleasure, working one's self up to a froth of anger would be a supreme waste of energy. Better to shrug one's shoulders and mumble, That's just the way our leaders do things, and go on with one's life. Royalty and the super-rich have always been able to get away with stuff the commoner could barely imagine-and could hardy influence.
The idea that government officials are entitled to private lives away from public inspection or judgment goes only so far. One of the primary qualities office-seekers clamor to be judged upon is trust. When seeking election in a democracy, candidates' trustworthiness is usually front and center. Voters rely on the word of the candidates to live up to their promises.
The promise-usually given in a ceremony before one's family, closest community and representatives of one's religion-to be faithful to one's spouse is commonly considered one of the most profound tests of one's trustworthiness. In that case, whether one is trustworthy in private matters can shed a light on whether one is likely to be worthy in more public matters. If you lie to your spouse, family, closest community and the Divine Being, why should you be trusted to keep faith with all those strangers out there who voted for you?
News reports have it that former Governor Spitzer employed the services of a professional call girl. It appears that in this instance the employers of this young lady were not running a very tight ship. The ultimate bosses of this operation were already being hauled into court and appear likely to be breaking rocks upstate for a significant portion of their remaining days.
But what if ex-Governor Spitzer had not chosen to be a consumer of the services a sub-standard supplier? What if he had fallen into the clutches of a smooth-running branch of Organized Crime? With such a secret and a gun aimed at Governor Spitzer's forehead, who knows how badly distorted the wheels of New York State government might have been warped. The line between a sophisticated sexual player's privacy and public corruption could have been buried under many layers of European indifference had it not been for unsophisticated American outrage.
It doesn't always pay to be the most fashionable country in the world. Sometimes less sophistication leads to less sorrow.