Elliot Spitzer and America’s Ethical Perversity

The across-the-political-spectrum attacks on Elliot Spitzer and the intensity of the demands that he resign his office [which he has now done —ed.] show just how successfully the right-wing sexual moralizing has trumped any other kind of ethical reasoning in American society.

Going to a prostitute is legal in some states and some countries around the world, and is often the very arrangement that saves families from splitting up when sexual energies have diminished but whose love is intact.

It’s not uncommon for men (and now increasingly, women) who have achieved great power in our society (even, as in Spitzer’s case, if the power is aimed at pursuing laudable ends), to feel a deep emptiness and loneliness that remains unaddressed by friends or spouse; these individuals often seek some kind of outside connection, no matter how superficial, unbound by previous rules and roles. Nevertheless, I and many others in the religious and spiritual world oppose that practice when it involves adultery or prostitution, because it depends on objectifying another human being, disconnecting sex in ways that it should not from a significant encounter (either with the spirit of God in the other or a deep recognition that is the only real way to overcome existential or situational alienation).

Moreover, the trade in women for sexual purposes has frequently led to the rape, abuse, and kidnapping of young women who are sold into sexual slavery. All of these outrageous practices are abhorrent and should be challenged. The flaunting of sexuality in the media (and the implicit message that the only real satisfaction comes from having the most physically attractive people as sexual partners) not only generates huge dissatisfaction (even as it allows corporate advertisers to manipulate our personal sense of inadequacy to sell their products) but also generates desires that feed the sexual trade in women. Given this larger social context, until sexual satisfaction is so broadly available in our society that no one has to pay for it, and so deeply tied to love that no one is objectified in the process, this kind of exploitation of women and degradation of sex is likely to continue. All of these practices foster the sexual predators of the contemporary world.

So Elliot Spitzer deserves to be critiqued and ought to be doing deep atonement for what he did. His previous moral arrogance and willingness to prosecute others for their participation in prostitution rings makes him an easy target. We, in turn, might practice the forgiveness that our religious and spiritual traditions preach—particularly those of us willing to honestly face how flawed we ourselves are, and how at times we fail to embody in practice the values that we publicly espouse. Humility and compassion are part of the path of a spiritual progressive.

But the intensity of the critique of the N.Y. governor, tied with the demand that he resign, shows more about American society’s ethical perversity than about Spitzer:

  • The president of the United States and the vice president, working in concert with several other high ranking officers of our government, lied and distorted to get us involved in a war that has led to the death of over a million Iraqis, the displacement of 3 million more, the death of 4,000 Americans and the wounding of tens of thousands more. After token opposition in Congress, our elected representatives have overwhelmingly passed budgets funding the war, rather than refuse to fund any military projects until the president stopped the war and withdrew the troops.
  • Meanwhile, our government has overtly engaged in torture, wiretapping phones, and violations of our human rights and the rights of people around the world. The US government has rejected every attempt to implement the Kyoto environmental agreements, or to work out new agreements sufficiently strong to reverse environmental destruction certain to lead to new levels of flooding particularly in several poor countries around the world. The consequence: tens of millions of deaths.
  • The Clinton administration pushed, along with corporate support, a set of trade agreements that have devastated farmers in many developing countries, forcing many off their farms and into city slums where their daughters and sons are often sold into sexual slavery. The global economic system we have fostered has led to increasing gaps between rich and poor, so that over one out of every three people on the planet lives on less than $2 a day, 1.5 billion live on less than $1 a day, and over 15,000 children die every day from malnutrition-related diseases and inadequate availability of medicine (hoarded by rich countries who can afford prices set to ensure huge profits to the pharmaceutical industry).
  • Health insurance companies and private medical profiteers are doing all they can to ensure that there will be no health care for tens of millions of Americans unless it’s provided in ways that guarantee corporate super-profits, guaranteeing that the cost of health care paid through taxes will be huge, and creating anger at all government social welfare and well-being programs, leading to their likely de-funding. People in the United States have faced severe economic crises on a regional level (and soon nationwide) because corporations move centers of production to countries in Asia where they can exploit workers with less government or union interference, and can destroy the environment with fewer societal restraints. Wild to achieve greater profits, corporations and the rich have managed to support politicians who lower their taxes, in the process bankrupting the public sector or severely reducing its ability to provide enough funds for quality education, health care, libraries, public transportation, and social welfare.
  • That there is no outcry for these government officials and corporate leaders to resign immediately or be impeached, that there is no moral outrage at the entire system that produces this impact, is America’s ethical perversity. Instead, the only crime against humanity that the media takes seriously (and politicians fear is being exposed for) is personal sexual immorality. While everyone basks in their own self-righteous demands on Spitzer, we all allow media and elected officials to fundamentally distort our ethical vision and play out our morality on the smallest of possible stages while ignoring the global and personal consequences of our larger ethical failures.