Spitzer & America's Perverse Ethics
Editor’s Note: The U.S. news media can’t devote enough time to the prostitution scandal that just forced New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s resignation and gave the ethics enforcer of Wall Street a bitter taste of his own medicine.
But the unspoken counterpoint to Spitzer’s dramatic fall from grace is how the same U.S. news media views public calls for the impeachment of George W. Bush or Dick Cheney -- over war crimes and violations of the U.S. Constitution -- as nutty and unworthy of serious debate.
In this guest essay (which was written before Spitzer announced his resignation), Rabbi Michael Lerner looks at the perverse state of America’s ethics:
The cross-the-political-spectrum attacks on Elliot Spitzer and the intensity of the demands that he resign his office show just how far the right-wing sexual moralizing has been able to trump 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 whose sexual energies have diminished but whose love is intact.
It's not uncommon for men (and now increasingly women as well) who have achieved great power in our society by adopting an outer show of ruthless pursuit of power and influence (even, as in Spitzer's case, if the power is aimed at pursuing laudable ends) to feel a deep emptiness and loneliness that is not addressed by friends or spouse, and hence to seek some kind of outside connection, no matter how superficial, that is not bound 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 the objectification of another human being, so that sex is disconnected in ways that it should not be from a significant encounter 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 rape and abuse and the 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 become predators manipulating 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 when he had power to do so to prosecute others for their participation in creating 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 who have been willing to honesty face how flawed we ourselves are, and how at times we ourselves fail to embody in our actual practice with others the values that we publicly espouse.
Humility and compassion are also part of the path of a spiritual progressive.
But the intensity of the critique of the New York 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 three 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 this 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 of our phones, and violation of our human rights and the rights of people around the world. Senator Dianne Feinstein and Senator Charles Schumer voted to confirm as Attorney General a right-wing judge who refused to repudiate these crimes.
The U.S. government has rejected every attempt to implement the Kyoto environmental agreements or to work out new agreements sufficiently strong to reverse environmental destruction that is 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 the farmers of 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 the rich and the 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 one dollar a day, and over 15,000 children die every day from malnutrition-related diseases and inadequate availability of medicine that is hoarded by the rich countries who can afford the prices made 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 that is provided in ways that guarantee corporate super-profits and thereby guarantee that the cost of health care paid through taxes will be huge and create anger at all government social welfare and well-being programs, leading to their likely de-funding.
People in the U.S. have faced severe economic crises on a regional and soon on a national level because corporations move their centers of production to countries in Asia where they can exploit workers with less government or union interference and where they can destroy the environment with fewer societal restraints.
Wild to achieve greater profits, corporations and the rich have managed to support politicians who lower the taxes on the rich, 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 the politicians fear is being exposed for 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.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine www.tikkun.org. Chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue-without-walls in San Francisco and Berkeley, and author of The Left Hand of God. He welcomes comments at RabbiLerner@tiikkun.org .
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