April 3, 2008

Spitzer’s steamroller blues

When the Eliot Spitzer scandal broke last month, most Americans seemed to have the same reactions: “How could he be so stupid?” “What was he thinking?” “What an idiot.” The cover of New York Magazine featured a photo of the governor with an arrow labeled “brain” pointing at his crotch. A New York Times editorial on his resignation stated, “It is hard to comprehend why such a driven and accomplished prosecutor—who promised to clean up Albany’s political sludge—would indulge in such reckless and self-destructive behavior.”

It seems just about everyone assumed that Spitzer had made an informed, calculated, and entirely rational decision about the merits of soliciting a prostitute and chose, foolishly, to do so. Such a view is misguided, however. In reality, all scandals of this kind—whether Spitzer, Ted Haggard, or Mark Foley—stem from the fact that people’s emotional and intellectual tracks are separate. Our current social system’s failure to recognize this fact will only perpetuate more of these scandals.

In the case of Spitzer, a politician who built his reputation as an ethics crusader on Wall Street, the scandal’s subject was immediately regarded as a hypocrite. Yet it wouldn’t be at all presumptuous to suggest that Spitzer’s public, emotionally aggressive side—he famously once likened himself to a “steamroller”—was probably masking a weaker, more vulnerable side. His actions have no more to do with intelligence level than a U of C student’s regrettable hookup.

That difference is lost to the media, however. Free-enterprise advocate Tom Borelli called the scandal “a victory for capitalism” after the man who shamed top Wall Street executives had a shame of his own. On CNN, anchors were even asking psychologists if they considered Spitzer to be a sociopath.

Much worse than the mass media’s inability to separate the intellectual track from the emotional track is when a individuals can’t separate the two within themselves. The more someone tries to deny a part of their character for intellectual reasons, the more likely it becomes that the truth will seep out in strange ways. This explains why most homosexual politician sex scandals come from Republicans. When you’re gay and politically opposed to homosexuality, you’re much more likely to resort to eccentric behaviors like foot-tapping in a Minneapolis public restroom, sending lewd e-mails to underage congressional pages, or buying crystal meth from your male prostitute.

Former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevy has been the only recent case in which an outed politician did not publicly deny the allegations after the scandal broke. Craig maintains his heterosexuality to this day, while Foley tried to label the scandal as a smear campaign before later blaming it on his abusive childhood. Haggard called himself “sexually immoral,” “a deceiver and a liar,” and noted, “There’s a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life.”

It’s understandably difficult to separate these two tracks. When we read any story of someone’s intellectual stance on an issue, and we strongly agree or disagree with that statement, we assume it has something to say about that person’s character. Some liberals refuse to associate with conservatives, and vice versa, no matter how compatible the personalities of individuals with opposing political viewpoints may be. But at the end of the day, this stance simply leaves you with fewer friends instead of a validated political position.

This is not simply an issue of politics. It’s an issue that’s very basic to humanity and affects virtually everyone. The more we’re aware of this distinction, both in the media and within ourselves, the better we’ll be able to relate to the rest of the world. Suddenly, Spitzer and company seem like the rule rather than the exception.

Ethan Stanislawski is a fourth-year in the College majoring in HIPS. His column appears on alternate Fridays.