Magazine article Tikkun

Clinton, Sex & the Decline of Public Space

Magazine article Tikkun

Clinton, Sex & the Decline of Public Space

Article excerpt

How did it happen that a society that once had its public life focused on questions of how to best achieve a world that reflects principles of social justice, peace, and tolerance should now have its main focus be diverted to sexual scandal? How is it that this sexual scandal becomes so pervasive that only an attack on Iraq can shift our attention to something larger? And why does the President become more popular as the focus on his sexuality deepens?

Here are some of the relevant factors.

Fostering Betrayal

Where are the true principled conservatives now that the country needs them? Where is the conservative movement denouncing the techniques of Ken Starr as he proceeds to do what conservatives used to fear most in "big government," namely its invasion of personal life?

Starr is recreating here what Joseph Stalin did in Russia and what Joseph McCarthy almost succeeded in doing in the 1950s: making personal betrayal the centerpiece of public life. Starr's behavior in encouraging one person to tape another's private conversations, or calling family members to a grand jury, is far more than disgusting-it is seriously scary in its model for what may be a growing police state of the future. This is not about someone stealing atomic secrets or someone organizing to overthrow the government. The betrayals are about personal life (albeit played out in the White House), not about government policy.

If, for a short while, President Clinton's popularity has increased as the Starr chamber got going, at least part of the reason is that the American people have a gut feeling of antagonism to returning to an era of mutual betrayals. Most of us don't want to live in that kind of a world. It's one of the reasons many Americans distrusted the Left at its most zealous, when people were denouncing each other for not being anti-racist enough, anti-sexist enough, anti-ego enough.

The Crushing of Sexual Energy and Spontaneity

This sense that every aspect of our lives should be the subject of intense public scrutiny was experienced by the American public as totalitarian and scary. That was the down side of "the personal is the political," the way that that seemed to imply that whatever we did in our personal lives was to be judged by the public. The women's movement made a powerful advance in our sense of moral responsibility for each other when it insisted that the physical abuse of women and children in private homes was not a private issue, that women and children had the right to be treated with dignity and respect, and that it was the job of the rest of us to provide support for those women or children who were subjected to this kind of abuse. Similarly, feminists helped us understand that a woman who was dependent on a man for economic security or advancement in the workplace or for grades at a university could not be said to be "freely choosing" when sexually approached by men in this power position.

Yet this became, at times, a slippery slope, so that every interaction in personal life became subject to intense scrutiny and judging, with a consequent decline in the spontaneity and joyousness of sexual connection between men and women (recently bemoaned by a new wave of feminist writers like TIKKUN's contributing editor Naomi Wolf. The over-zealousness of political correctness contributed to the current moment in two particular ways.

First, the notion that "the personal is political" was misused by the Right to legitimate the use of state power to coerce people into a patriarchal family model. …

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