Friday, March 14, 2008

The Spitzer scandal

This conversation took place after a Confession in which I had acknowledged abusing myself three times in the previous 24 hours (reconstructed from the best of my recollection). Father's penance involved a devotion to Mother Teresa, the saint of the darkness and spiritual dryness.

FATHER: A treadmill can be gotten off.
(long pause)
ME: You heard about the New York governor today?
HIM: Yes.
(long pause)
HIM: And you're afraid of the same thing.¹
ME: Yes. I didn't want to say it during Confession so as not to come across as making excuses.
HIM: It puts it in context.
(long pause)
ME: I got a call on my cell today from a prostitute I hired a year ago -- unsolicited, not a call-back.
(long pause)
ME: Big etiquette violation on his part.
(Father nods)
HIM: Might be a setup; delete the number from your phone.
ME: Oh, I've already done so, believe me! I've not even close to being tempted. No way, not now.
(CM lets out some mordant, sarcastic laughter)
ME: Wonderful. That's how perverse I am. I'll resist sin if I fear getting caught.
HIM: That's not the best reason, but it'll do.²

Now to repeat, I am not not not not not not not not not not not not not not not not not not not not not not not not (is that enough "not"s) "blaming" Elliot Spitzer for such a hard fall. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

As Father said, I had been gutted by fear and not for the first time, and I responded in one of the ways people do -- seeking to medicate and forget through escapist private vice (drunkenness and drugs are other examples). I confess that I don't see exactly how, or even whether, this situation would be covered in any of the classic Nine Ways of Being an Accessory.³ And obviously "hey, the New York governor bought a prostitute, so I will too"⁴ is not a self-conscious thought process many people go through.

But the effect of Spitzer's whoremongering on me is, I think, illustrative of how all sin is social and how there is no such thing, ultimately, as a "completely private act." Your acts, everything that you do, becomes a part of the world that everyone else lives in and thus influences everybody else and in ways over which you have no control. Admittedly this next is a greater concern for public figures than other person, but at the end of the day, you can't even really have any knowledge of that influence, only the knowledge that it's there somehow.

I don't expect Elliot Spitzer to care whether he raised anxiety levels in others who have purchased prostitutes or encouraged the masturbatory response -- he has many more-pressing and important-to-him concerns. To make an obviously imperfect bawdy analogy, it's like pissing in the pool. Everybody knows and understands that you can't just pee in your own end. Obviously, one person's discreet whizz is hardly noticeable in any discrete way. But we still know that it circulates, and, if diseased, can infect anyone anywhere in the pool.

The meaning of the term "scandal" has changed. Now it just means "the public fracas over a celebrated person's wrongdoing, often in the personal or private (certainly non-official) sphere." But in the past, as in the phrase "giving scandal," "scandal" meant "the encouragement of bad acts/thoughts in others." And in that sense, Spitzer's purchasing prostitutes, though it may be a "victimless crime" in the sense that bourgeois libertarians imagine -- it is, truly, scandalous. And thus not victimless.
¹ I'm not even close to being a public figure, so fears at the level of "front page of the New York Times" are completely irrational. Lesser forms of outing ... not so.
² Father has told me in more than one other context that I shouldn't worry so much over doing things for not-the-noblest of motivations.
³ "By counsel. By concealment. By command. By partaking. By consent. By silence. By provocation. By defense of the ill done. By praise or flattery." As I say ... not clear if this fits any example.
Or as Chris Rock put it apropos of Marion Barry: "How you gonna tell little kids to not get high, when the mayor's on crack. 'Don't get high, you won't be nothing.' / 'I can be mayor'."


Terry Nelson said...

Hell - it is not a victimless crime at all! He humiliated his wife and children, and wrecked the life and reputation of the call girl he used - from all reports, she had other plans for her life other than prostitution - the world knows her real name and what she looks like now. She got screwed twice. Who cares if the story turned some guy on and he masturbated - people's lives have been wrecked.

CourageMan said...

I'm sorry that I came across as more self-absorbed than I intended.

I don't know how I could have made it more clear (how many more "not" repetitions?) that I wasn't blaming anything I did on anyone. I thought my overall point was at least reasonably clear -- how far scandal can spread. But I guess not.

I admit I didn't say Spitzer's family was victimized, but I honestly saw that as one of those things too obvious to need saying. But I guess not.

Rick said...

Courageman, I appreciate your honesty, as well as your “pee in the pool” illustration, which sure captures the idea of scandal. No need to apologize from my perspective.

The flip side to your point seems to have been noted more eloquently, if not more memorably, by Plato with his point that “virtue is one”. That is, a fault not only infects others, if it is left unchecked, it spreads to the other parts of same man. A man who has a vice in one area, will experience it spilling over into other areas of his life, especially if he refuses to recognize it as a vice.

Aristotle gives the clearest expression to this idea in his Ethics; the four “cardinal virtues”—temperance, courage, justice and prudence. They are all interconnected. A significantly lapse in one virtue, if it goes uncorrected, will inevitably spread into the other virtues. A man who becomes intemperate, and who does not make a sincere effort to correct it, will eventually lose his courage (if he ever had it to begin with) along with his sense of fair play (justice) and prudence (good judgment.) Most importantly, the cardinal virtues are a necessary condition for true friendship.

Spitzer is a case study of the obvious collapse in three of the four—he was a bully (unjust and probably a coward), he took unnecessary risks with his family’s reputation (imprudent), as well as being intemperate. Because he was extremely clever, he was able to avoid the social consequences of his moral faults for quite a while. They did catch up to him, to his benefit, since he may learn from his mistakes, if his pride does not get in the way of his recovery.

Fr. J. said...


Thank you for this post. You illustrate well, if crudely, the powerful reality of scandal.

You have also given a thoughtful account of escapism, self medication through vice. As a confessor I am constantly surprised at what news this is to men who confess masturbation. I always try to say briefly that it is an escapist and potentially compulsive behaviour that is as much symptom as a sin in itself. I then explain to them that they can pray the underlying feelings of anxiety, loneliness, fear, etc. through an act of surrender and that the Lord always gives us peace in return. And that in this peace they are far less susceptible.

It sounds strange to say, but I wish I could just tell the world this simple insight common to the world of recovery. The vast majority have precious little insight into their own interior spiritual inner workings.

So thanks for making some connections that perhaps some of your readers needed to make for themselves.

Marcus Aurelius said...

Is it possible that purgatory is a period of total public exposure, transparency, and reconciliation to every dark act, thought, or non-act of our lives?

Anonymous said...

Wow. That was indeed a courageous post. I'm going to have to bookmark your blog.

As for the harm to his family being self-evident, I wish it were so. Check out a recent column I read about the subject: