January 9, 2017 / Theology
Lauren D. Sawyer addresses the appropriation of black Jesus through the work of James Cone and civil rights era fiction.
“We may be through with the past [. . .] but the past is not through with us!” said Quiz Kid Donnie Smith in Paul Thomas Anderson’s complicated, prophetic film Magnolia. This axiom was articulated by numerous characters as the film’s thesis, and the film uses this idea to illuminate the consequences of solipsism at the end of “the roaring” 1990s, particularly as characterized by personal and cultural amnesia. Indeed, Magnolia was a portent to the tragedies of the 2000s—after all, if we have learned anything in this decade, it is that the past is not through with us.1 After 9/11, two wars, economic crises, political and cultural enmity, and a general confusion of national identity and purpose, many of us are asking, what was that all about?
In this three-part interview, the historian and cultural critic Eugene McCarraher helps us sort out this complex question by putting the decade into historical and theological context. Here, in part one of the interview, McCarraher talks about some salient themes emerging in the 2000s, including the credulity of the U.S. populace, Christian conservatism, the spectacle of “Obamarama,” and the Tiger Woods scandal as underwhelming distraction. Later, in part two of the interview, McCarraher will talk about the “Obama Doctrine,” Niebuhrian realism, and the usefulness of maps.
The Other Journal (TOJ): We’ve reached the end of the decade, and Time magazine has already hyperbolically pronounced it the “worst decade ever.”2 In 2001 you said that in the ’90s “the trajectories of abundance and power had never seemed so righteous and unalterable.”3 What is your take on this decade? What cultural themes have emerged in the last ten years?
Eugene McCarraher (EM): The 2000s were most definitely not “the worse decade ever.” That pronouncement demonstrates how addicted to hyperbole our historically illiterate media have become. There’s any number of decades that far exceeded the last one in awfulness: the 1940s, when almost the entire globe was engulfed in war; the 1930s, when a quarter or more of the workforce was unemployed, and fascism was on the march; the 1860s, when the nation was torn apart by civil war. People have endured horrors and upheavals of far greater magnitude than our own.
That said, the 2000s did really suck, and the key word in that sentence of mine you quoted was “seemed.” Some of us knew back in the ’90s that the American Empire was heading toward a reckoning with Nemesis, and the only question was when, not if. The trajectories of economic and military supremacy were unsustainable, and at some point, the Empire would meet resistance to its courses of military and financial overextension. The tech-stock bust of 2000—no one seems to remember it these days—was the first sign that the imperial finances were out of whack. But it was swiftly patched up—to a considerable extent, we now realize, by creating new bubbles in the housing and “financial product” markets. Similarly—albeit much more tragically and horrifically—the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were the first acts in a tragedy of retribution for imperial sway in the Middle East. The distemper of that episode was composed by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq—rather than confront the real issues and reasons for the attacks, Americans acquiesced in or enthusiastically supported the most arrogant and brutal assertions of imperial might. In both cases, we heard a lot about how We’re All Going to Get Serious Now and how the Decade of Frivolity (that would be the ’90s) would be followed by a Decade of Seriousness. (We’re hearing the same thing now, about how the economic crisis is going to Change Our Values, etc.) It didn’t happen. Most Americans are just as deluded and mortgaged in Fantasyland as they were on September 10, 2001, or on September 15, 2008, the date often affixed to the current crisis. Even as the trajectories of power and abundance have turned out to have real and jarring limits—our follies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the exposure of our economy as a vast and meretricious shell game—most people reside either in Palinland or in YesWeCanistan.
Where does one begin the retrospective on this “low, dishonest decade,” as W. H. Auden described the ’30s?4 For me, one of the more revealing episodes was the public reaction to the Abu Ghraib revelations—the callous indifference or approval a lot of people exhibited to the cruelty recorded in those photos. As soon as they first appeared, our Wise Statesmen and Pundits roared in a chorus of outrage, “This is not who we are.” Who the hell do they think took the photographs? Who do they think was telling interviewers that they thought the prisoners deserved what they got? Who do they think had been told by people such as Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter that torture was an acceptable practice?5 The aesthetic of the photos was just as revealing as the reaction. Much was made at the time of the resemblance between the composition of the photos and the aesthetic of Internet porn, one of the leading uses of the Internet. No, Abu Ghraib was a snapshot of the American character. Those photographs and the reaction to them told us how harsh we’ve become as a people.
Bound up with the cruelty was credulity. The 2000s was a jubilee season of credulity, when masses of Americans exiled reason and evidence to some nether region of the mind. And what was especially striking and dispiriting was how willful so much of it was—and remains, because I don’t see much of a let-up. So many, many people, almost on principle, decided to accept on faith a lot of falsehood or bullshit. (I use that latter term not as an indelicate provocation, but in the technical sense defined by Harry Frankfurt in his treatise On Bullshit, published, in exemplary fashion, in the middle of the decade: not simple lies, whose speakers actually pay a kind of homage to truth, but assertions made without regard for their truth or falsehood.)6 Not quite as a side note, credulity should be a serious matter for Christians, because we are people who take certain things on faith, and so we are open to the serious charge that we’re gullible folk who’ve taken leave of sense and reason. This isn’t the place to hash all that out, but one reason I’ve grown fonder of the Thomist tradition over the last decade is that it’s a rigorous lineage of rationality. (Speaking of Thomists, whenever I can, I advertise for the late Fr. Herbert McCabe, O.P., so let me recommend his entire oeuvre.) Christians have an obligation to affirm reason, evidence, and science; they shouldn’t be the first to jump on board “faith-based” anything.
The 2000s was, sadly, the heyday of faith-based everything: faith-based wars (Iraq), faith-based science (“intelligent design” and global-warming denial), faith-based economics (the financial and housing bubbles, the extraordinary trust placed in a gnomic mediocrity like Alan Greenspan). And let’s be honest here: conservative Christianity, Protestant and Catholic, remains one of the leading service providers of credulity. You just can’t escape the fact that conservative religious culture leavened almost every instance of faith-based bunkum that characterized the last decade. Anyone who studies the events leading up to the invasion of Iraq knows that one of the reasons George W. Bush went to war was his belief—encouraged by neoconservatives who don’t give a damn about Christian or any other faith—that God wanted him to be some righteous warrior. Churches and synagogues around the nation sounded their tocsins for war, but the invasion received the most enthusiastic benedictions from conservative churches, all resounding with hosannahs and praise for God’s President. Even churches like the one I attend, which isn’t especially conservative, started draping the Stars and Stripes from their choir balconies. When I objected strongly to this, I was told that parishioners were demanding it. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson drooled with anticipation at the prospect of vengeance and assassination; John Hagee, Rod Parsley, and others reveled in blood-soaked eschatological visions; the Left Behind books sold millions of copies, filling the minds of readers with hateful, sanguinary orgasms of violence; theo-con journals like First Things, the religion supplement for the Wall Street Journal, ran articles about America’s providential mission in the world. Add to that the cavalier hostility to science that now makes a cretin like James Inhofe into a major player on climate policy. Very large swaths of American Christianity now compose a potent culture of resentment, bigotry, and militarism. Where, oh where, is H. L. Mencken when you need him? You can’t even begin to understand someone like Bush—or Sarah Palin, the true heir to this maelstrom of nuttery—without attending to this stew.
Whenever I say these things, as I did a few years ago at an Ekklesia Project conference, I get taken to task for being “uncharitable” toward “our conservative brothers and sisters.” Sorry, but correcting the ignorant is a work of charity, and fighting stupidity and malice in the church is one of the most indispensable services one can provide. (I can hear the fingers on the keypads already: “What an arrogant. . .”) It also won’t do to retort that conservatives get beaten up by “the liberal media” or that most conservatives are really Very Nice People. First, I don’t think the media are “liberal”—they’re blandly, spinelessly centrist. They never step outside a very carefully patrolled perimeter of opinion. You’ll see someone from the right-wing libertarian Cato Institute on the TV, but you’ll never, ever see an anarchist like Noam Chomsky on Meet the Press. And as for conservatives, who do you think buys the Left Behind books? Who contributes to the ministries of Hagee, Parsley, and Robertson? Who voted for Bush—twice? Which religious groups have consistently demonstrated a level of support for torture that’s higher than that of other religious groups? Oh, that’s right, conservative Christians.
Conservative Christianity was one, but not the only, fertile ground in which the Bush administration could plant its seeds of militarism—the most tragic and vicious example of credulity from the last ten years. Some of us realized at the time that the administration’s case for the invasion of Iraq was outrageous on its face: Scott Ritter, Seymour Hersh, and Mark Danner handily disposed of the “weapons of mass destruction” ploy, as well as the assertion of a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. As we all know now—or perhaps I should say, as many of us are now willing to admit and as some of us knew all along—these arguments were not only unfounded but largely concocted out of meager or nonexistent evidence. The invasion did not result from a well-intentioned search for truth that was derailed by “faulty intelligence,” as we’re now told by our Ministry of Truth—I’m sorry, our mainstream media, themselves milieux of credulity. It isn’t simply that our network and cable propaganda services distort or suppress news—that’s nothing new. I’m struck by how servile, mediocre, and just plain lazy reporters and pundits are. It’s a sign of how low standards have fallen that a belligerent blowhard like Thomas Friedman can receive not one but two Pulitzer Prizes for the most god-awful typing on earth. (I refuse to call what Friedman does writing.)
Of course, governments and reporters lie all the time, so the falsehoods of the Bush regime, although certainly deadlier and more egregious than the usual untruths, weren’t unprecedented or even very original. (Think of the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” in 1964 or My Lai in 1968.) What struck me about the public response to the Bush regime’s lies was the willful acceptance of falsehood and misrepresentation. Let me give you a couple of examples.
I was giving a talk in Chicago a few months after the invasion, and a student asked me a question that just knocked me for a loop. “If the government is protecting me from harm,” he asked, “isn’t it OK for them to lie to me? I mean, if I’m safe, and if it’s for my own good that they’re lying to me, what’s the harm?” I couldn’t believe that a post-sixties college student would even think of asking such a stupid question. I asked him, “So, when do you want the government to not lie to you? If it’s for your own good that they lie to you, why should peacetime make any difference? Why should they tell you the truth at all? For that matter, why should they tell you anything? Why should you want or care to know, ‘as long as you’re safe’?” His very question indicated to me that, for a large cohort of this college generation, truth, falsehood, and evidence just don’t mean very much. “Whatever.”
My second example is more infuriating because it demonstrates how even people trained and paid to be smart could be so damned gullible. In the fall of 2002, I attended and delivered a paper at a conference at Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture. As you might expect of an academic confab in the tense months before the invasion, several of the panels were devoted to war and peace—all of them were bellicose, especially, I have to say, those composed of scholars from evangelical schools. One of the bigger-ticket panels featured Gilbert Meilaender, Russell Hittinger, and some other guy whose name I’m glad I can’t remember, an Air Force vet and scholar. The Air Force vet was clearly hopped up for war—I remember thinking it would have been a perfect ending to his screed for him to gear up, run outside, and jump into a waiting B-52, stocked full of ordnance. Hittinger mumbled some forgettable remarks about the United Nations, the tenor of which, I do remember, was not favorable. I don’t recall what Meilaender had to say. He’s revered by many Christian ethicists, but I have to say I can’t see a single reason for the esteem in which he’s held. What I did see that afternoon was a disgraceful display of moral and intellectual servility. (Maybe that’s what gets him published in First Things and what got him a spot on Bush’s Bioethics Council.)
During the Q&A, a student stood up and asked, “Look, we all know that governments have lied in the past. Why should we believe what our government is telling us now?” A little naive, I thought, but a good question nonetheless. Meilaender gave this avuncular chuckle and said, “Oh, I don’t think we have any reason to think that we’re being lied to.” Here’s a guy who’s clearly old enough to remember the Gulf of Tonkin, My Lai, Cambodia, and Watergate, and he’s shoveling this bullshit to this young man. I raised my hand to object, but the moderator detected that I was going to go off on Meilaender, which I was, so he didn’t call on me. The crowd milled around Meilaender and Hittinger afterwards, so I left. (The Air Force guy didn’t fly off.) I left the conference the next day, gloomy and depressed. I knew that we were going to war and that people like Meilaender were among the enablers, complicit in lies and duplicity. I wonder how the old fart feels now, after hundreds of thousands of deaths caused, in no small measure, by the sort of credulity he sanctioned that day. Meilaender is part of a whole cohort of Christian intellectuals—Jean Elshtain, George Weigel, Richard Neuhaus, Michael Novak, Stephen Webb—who no longer deserve a nanosecond of anyone’s attention.
Lest anyone think that credulity is limited to the Right, let me give you the biggest piece of evidence that it also afflicted the Left: namely, Barack Obama. I used to enjoy annoying my friends and colleagues during 2008 by ridiculing what I called “Obamarama”: the investment of so much hope in a man whose public career and pronouncements belied every assertion of his “progressivism.” I knew it was a bad sign when Obamaphiles would say, “I don’t want to hear anything bad about Obama!” in the same way that they’d said, back in 2004, “I don’t want to hear anything bad about Kerry!” As with evangelicals and others on the Right, there was the same willful refusal to even look at evidence. If you wanted to see a “faith-based” candidacy, Obama’s would have served every bit as well as Bush’s.
I was informed many times about how “audacious” Obama was, especially about opposing the invasion of Iraq, but the evidence of his conventionality and opportunism was not only apparent but glaring to anyone who bothered to look. There has never been anything audacious about Obama save his instinct for the political moment. (Ask Hillary Clinton, whom Obama at least respected enough to stab in the front.) His speeches, books, and essays bear the mark of a virtuoso in moderation. His autobiography-cum-campaign brochure, The Audacity of Hope, features a lot of what could be called dialectical middle-of-the-roadism: On the One Hand This Well-Meaning Group Thinks This, but On the Other Hand, This Equally Well-Meaning Group Thinks That, and the Truth Lies—you guessed it—in the Sacred Middle, where Reasonable and Responsible People meet in Judicious Compromise.7 In short, Obama’s first principle is to quell discord, not insist on truth, demand justice, or defy power. After the press discovered his one genuine act of political courage, a speech he delivered in early 2003 denouncing the invasion of Iraq, Obama lowered the flame of dissent into the flicker of Responsible Criticism. He told the Chicago Tribune that he thought the Iraq War was imprudent, not immoral, a question of “who’s in a position to execute,” as he put it.8 That reveals the mind of a technocrat, not a prophet or a visionary leader. Once he was in the Senate, he voted consistently to Support the Troops and fund the war—he never challenged a dime of the appropriations—and he voted to re-authorize the Patriot Act, a decision clearly calculated to portray him as a Responsible Leader. When it came to economics, Joe the Plumber and his petty bourgeois ilk needn’t have worried about the impending arrival of socialism. Senator Audacity was nothing but reverential toward the nation’s capitalist heritage. As he told Fortune magazine in June 2008, “I still believe the business of America is business.”9 All those tea-bagging numbskulls are frightened by a phantom. Obama is Bill Clinton: triangulation all over again, talking left to the beguiled and credulous activist base, talking right—and straight—to the corporate donors who make the Democrats the Other Business Party.
Now that Obama has been “in a position to execute” since January, he’s dispelled almost every Hope of the Hopeful. Their boulevard of broken dreams is long and monumental, an avenue of rubble left in the wake of Obama’s commitment to the corporate order. If we didn’t hear it during the campaign, he repeated it for us in the opening lines of his inaugural address: “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense.” That’s not a call to Change, that’s a restatement of George Herbert Walker Bush’s flat assertion that “our way of life is not negotiable.” So what happened to Change We Can Believe In? Obama’s domestic policies have been utterly corporatist. The two most revealing areas here have been financial regulation—actually, non-regulation—and the alleged “health care debate.” Obama has squandered whatever opportunity ever existed to place Wall Street under stricter scrutiny—what would anyone have expected when you have a Rubinesque duo like Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner running the shop? (Talk about the state as the executive committee of the bourgeoisie.) And contrary to the notion that Obama fought against the resistance of Joseph Lieberman and other “obstructionists” on health care, he’s gotten exactly the health care reform for which he expressed a preference during his campaign: a system of individual mandates plus government subsidy that hands the medical-industrial complex a huge new market.
Let me reiterate to underscore my point about credulity: Obama either strongly implied or explicitly displayed all of this centrism, even conservatism, while he was running for president. So I’m not at all sympathetic to liberals who are wailing and lamenting yet another letdown of their hopes. On the New York Review of Books blog, Garry Wills whined that he felt “betrayed”;10 at the Nation, Tom Hayden informed us that he’s removing his Obama sticker from his bumper.11 (Now there’s the spirit of ’68.) Please. What exactly did Wills, Hayden, and others like them think they were going to get when they voted for Obama? What were they thinking? Oh, that’s right, they weren’t thinking—they were Hoping, Hoping that the first African-American president surely wasn’t another corporate shill. Hoping that because Obama could get his subjects and verbs in alignment, and do it with some rhetorical skill, then he must be on the side of All That is Good and Progressive. Wills, Hayden, and others who are now smarting with disappointment over Afghanistan and other issues were just as credulous as the evangelicals they berate.
Obama was Obamarama, a marketing gimmick, one of the slickest ad campaigns ever devised in American politics. Obama was never going to “change” anything; what’s more, many of his supporters, especially those in the upper middle classes, never wanted and don’t really want him to change anything. Change or Hope, for such people, turns out to be what Terry Eagleton calls the present plus more options.12 Liberalism—or progressivism, an utterly empty word that mashes together a lot of very different tendencies on the Left—is now more than ever the left wing of capitalism, the same benediction of capitalist property relations but with a renovated racial and sexual politics. Obama is a product of ’80s and ’90s academic culture, when “diversity” and “multiculturalism” became the polestars of liberal politics. Much of this diversity and multiculturalism wasn’t real; like the United Colors of Benetton, it was Otherness that wasn’t too Other, defined in terms that comforted the new meritocratic elites. There was never anything subversive or transgressive about all this Otherness palaver—as Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, multiculturalism is the ideology of multinational corporate capital.13
All it amounted to was the banal notion that people of all colors and customs could be integrated into the global consumer economy. The essential banality of Obama’s political imagination—“the business of America is business,” “we will not apologize for our way of life,” et cetera—demonstrates that the most significant effect of diversity-talk and affirmative action has been to absorb the best and brightest non-whites into the culture of corporate capital. (“De-capitation,” it used to be called: assimilate the smartest members of the working class into the bourgeoisie so that you can both avert revolution and advertise your openness.) The same is true of gays and lesbians: you know that the spirit of Stonewall has been co-opted when Ikea can make ads featuring a gay couple or when Ellen DeGeneres decides to come out on her show after careful consideration of the impact on advertisers. And right here is the rub for the Left, secular or religious: it’s hard to fight or challenge a system that’s accommodated so much that’s good. So why did Obama choose a bunch of Wall Street bankers for his government? The answer is quite simple: Obama thinks and feels like the post-sixties professional and managerial cadres, who’ve absorbed much of the social and cultural liberalism of the decade and linked it to the accumulative ethic at the heart of capitalism. Obama doesn’t challenge the Man; he is the Man. He’s “the spirit of the new capitalism,” as Luc Boltanski and Eva Chiapello have called it;14 he’s “the conquest of cool,” in Tom Frank’s phrase.15 As the great political philosopher Pete Townshend put it: “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”16
All the hype about hope and change camouflaged the triumph of corporatism, the almost complete domination of government by corporations, if not a virtual merger of the two. Everything I write and say now about politics, economics, and political theology rests on the assumption that we do not live in a functioning democracy. We inhabit a corporate state, a regime in which democratic institutions are stage props for a government and society franchised by corporations. The state and corporate elites have now merged to an almost unprecedented extent—I don’t think we’ve seen this degree of symbiosis between government and business since the Gilded Age. And what makes our era worse is the almost complete absence of popular movements opposing the advance of corporatism. If the turn of the twentieth century—the years, say, from 1890 to 1914—was a period of mighty corporations and servile governments, it was also a kind of golden age of political imagination. All across the North Atlantic world, there was an incredible effervescence of reformist and radical ideas: Populism, Progressivism, the varieties of socialism, anarchism, and feminism. These movements were able to at least curb, and in some cases transform, the capitalist political economies they confronted. They also engraved ideas in the political firmament of two or three generations, all connected by the hope that capitalism was not the outermost limit of social and political possibility.
That hope is fading, and that’s the third development that characterized the past decade for me: the erosion or atrophy of the conviction that something beyond capitalism is possible. I see it in my brightest students, so many of whom supported Obama and are now wondering how they could have been taken for a ride. I try to tell them, as gently as I can, that they fooled themselves—you saw in Obama what you wanted to see, not what was (often plainly) there. One big reason they fell for Obama is that they have little or nothing in the way of an alternative political imagination; they have only the blurriest of visions in terms of which Obama can be assessed and found very, very wanting. I think credulity about Obama is traceable, in part, to this impoverishment of political vision. The passionate conviction that the world can be otherwise is a kind of love, and love enables you to see things as they are—in other words, it enables you to see the truth, and not fall for lies. It used to be said of youth that they demand too much, that they want the world to change too quickly. I think we’re in a very different moment now, when one of the saddest problems of this generation is that they don’t demand enough; they’re unwilling or unable to imagine and demand a different kind of world. At Villanova, where I teach, the business school attracts the largest number of majors—a not unusual situation in American higher education, which has pretty much become the vo-tech school for post-Fordist capitalism.
Alasdair MacIntyre’s conclusion to After Virtue is even truer now than it was in 1981: the barbarians really are in charge. So are people like me despairing? For my part, no. Look, a Christian socialist like me has a lot of practice in disappointment and patience, so despair is sort of off the table already. I know things are bad and are probably going to get worse—tell me something I don’t know already. But I’m also an historian, so I know that things can turn around, sometimes very quickly. Times of decline are times of opportunity, and as I’ve told readers of this journal before, we’re living in a very auspicious moment: the slow decline of the American Empire.17 A very good friend of mine likes to remind me of Thomas Merton’s introduction to his The Wisdom of the Desert, where he says that the first monastics decided to “jump from the shipwreck” of the dying imperial order.18 I affirm the spirit of that—we can and must cultivate, personally and in concert with others, some pocket of resistance to the imperial culture of lies and death. (Even secular leftists have this sense; one of the reasons I recommend the essayist and novelist John Berger to Christians is that his sensibility seems, to me, a model of radical humanist commitment in a dark and apparently hopeless time.) Still, I think that Christians need to remain somehow connected to the imperial structures of governance so that, while the Empire is drifting toward its inevitable demise, they might be able to help manage it toward a humane denouement. In this regard, I’ve moved away somewhat from Stanley Hauerwas and toward Chuck Mathewes and Eric Gregory. So as someone who still loosely considers himself a socialist—I’ve been growing more attracted to the anarchist and syndicalist traditions of late—I see the Left as a way, not to achieve utopia, but to make it easier for people to be good, as the old Catholic Workers used to say.
Still, as John Howard Yoder put it, we’re called to witness, not to win. If we do “win” once in a while, thank the Lord; if we don’t, thank the Lord, it’s truly not the end of the world. I’m a Christian, and I believe that the final and fundamental victory has already been won. If we believe that Christ has already triumphed over the powers and principalities, then there’s no reason to hate or kill or despair—we already know the end of history, and it’s a glorious, complete reconciliation of all with all. That’s change you can believe in.
TOJ: The Tiger Woods scandal dominated the news cycle at the end of 2009. You mentioned in an interview we did a few years ago (when I asked you about Britney Spears) that it is important to pay attention to what news is being produced by our culture industry.19 Woods, the most iconic athlete in the world, reported to have earned up to a billion dollars throughout his career, is falling swiftly from poised hero to impulsive philander. Why is this an important cultural moment and what larger cultural realities does this expose?
EM: I could almost say, “Ditto everything I said about Brittany Spears, and more.” Woods not only is a commodity fetish, like Spears, but he made himself into a commodity fetish with greater skill and obsessiveness. He was the consummate brand, as they say in advertising and marketing circles.
Still, I take some issue with the premise of your question. On one level, I don’t think the Tiger Woods scandal is an important cultural moment. Not to be simply contrarian, but I’m struck by how unimportant and even uninteresting it is. Here we have a sad but ordinary tale of infidelity and the wreckage it wreaks: alpha male cheats on his wife, destroys his family, and possibly ruins his career. (Though I rather doubt he’ll suffer that last and, to his mind, most awful punishment. After his own disgrace, Elliott Spitzer, the closest analogue to Woods in this regard, has resurfaced as a commentator on television and in newspapers.) I don’t think you have to be some amorally urbane sophisticate to find this story utterly banal, albeit tragic. It’s replayed countless times every day among the upper reaches of the professional and managerial classes: powerful men dallying with their secretaries, high-end prostitutes, wives of other powerful men, and women they meet in meetings, hotel bars, or “events.” From Babylonian satraps to Valois kings to Manhattan executives, sexual predation has always been a club privilege of the male elite. (Marx and Engels have some sharp and incisive remarks about the erotic adventures of the Victorian bourgeoisie.)
Despite the banality, some commentators have tried to discover some larger cultural significance here. Because Woods appears to have philandered only with white women, some have tried to “interpret” this episode in terms of race. People are interested in the scandal, in this view, because of what one writer called the “Mandingo factor”: the fascination—and to some, the horror—of imagining black males servicing the sexual needs of white females. Maybe, but my impression is that most people weren’t expressing outrage at interracial sexuality. Perhaps closer to the mark was Frank Rich, who wrote in the New York Times that the Woods scandal exemplified a larger gullibility among Americans. He included the mirage of Woods’s impeccable public image among an array of other hypes: weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the virtues of preachers such as Ted Haggard, Obama’s “progressivism.” He’s right—as I said before, I think the last decade was a jubilee season of credulity—but I don’t think that’s really where the importance, if any, of this scandal lies.
If there’s anything important about the Woods scandal, it’s that Americans still haven’t figured out what they think about the “sexual revolution.” I’m even tempted to go further: the Woods scandal raises the question of whether in fact there’s been a sexual revolution in the first place. The notion of revolution implies that there’s been some sweeping destruction of the old order and its replacement by some new set of arrangements. We’re told that the 1960s toppled all hierarchies of sex, abolished all manner of taboos, and opened the gates of sensual delight for all who desire to enter. Especially when you listen to sexual conservatives going on about Sodom and Gomorrah, you’d think that’s precisely what’s happened. But I’ve come to think that we’ve overestimated the scope of the alleged sexual revolution. Note, for instance, how important marriage remains. Even when people fight over gay marriage, they’re fighting over marriage—however much we differ over the meaning of the institution, the institution is still, in some shape or form, the beau ideal of our sexual culture. And as the popular reaction to Woods’s philandering shows, the sanctity of marriage—understood, at the very least, as the keeping of one’s promise of sexual monogamy—still appears to garner enormous respect and even reverence in this culture. Through all the obvious changes, good and bad, that have taken place in American sexual life over the last fifty years, the insistence on sexual fidelity within marriage has more or less endured, even while report after scintillating report suggests that our practice in no way matches our preaching. At a time when so many features of the sexual ancien régime have collapsed or are under withering siege—premarital virginity, the norms of heterosexuality and heterosexual marriage, male supremacy, the stigmatization and/or criminalization of contraception, abortion, interrracial sexuality, and oral or anal eroticism—marital fidelity remains almost non-negotiable. Indeed, one might gather that Americans now seem to consider marital infidelity and pedophilia to be the only sexual sins. Let me be clear here: I’m not advocating a counterrevolution, some wholesale return to the ancien régime. As a Christian and as an historian, I don’t think such a thing is possible or even desirable. Especially for women and homosexuals, many of the transformations in sexual culture have been enormously beneficial and affirmative. What I’m suggesting is that one meaning of the Woods scandal that we might be overlooking is that what we’ve witnessed over the last two or three generations is a sexual reformation, not a revolution.
The sexual scandals that I found far more interesting and important were those involving Senator John Ensign of Nevada and Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Like Woods, they were alpha dogs. Woods’s adulteries seem to have been all about playboy pleasure—he’s horny, she’s horny, they get it on. Little or no emotional bonding; skanky and sordid, but easy to understand. The Ensign and Sanford affairs are more unsettling. If you’ll recall the details, Ensign kept a mistress, the wife of one of his staffers, while Sanford had a lover in Argentina. Ensign’s affair was pretty standard for conservative hypocrites: moral posturing about gays punctuated by furtive trysts. When the cuckolded husband discovered the affair, Ensign paid off the woman and her husband, who was in some kind of obscure cahoots with his parents and Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, one of the nuttiest and sleaziest men in Washington. Sanford appears to have been truly smitten by his Argentine paramour—read some of his poetry and love notes and emails, and you’d think he’s the Abelard of the Carolinas. Now, OK, they were hypocrites, but hypocrisy is a fairly uninteresting vice. What’s disturbing about these scandals is the larger political and religious universe onto which they opened: the world of “the Family,” the secretive group of conservative Christian politicians who comprise a Who’s Who of right-wing nuttery. As Jeff Sharlet explains in his invaluable book on the group,20 the Family’s theology includes a belief, anchored in the story of David, that the most atrocious behavior is excusable if the perpetrator is one of God’s Chosen Rulers. Ensign and Sanford belong to the Family, and their refusals to resign exhibit a hubris that’s inexplicable until you understand their sense of election. The scandals tell us that, in conservative Protestant circles, there’s still a potent culture of male supremacy: Darlene Ensign and Jennifer Sanford were both treated like pawns in the larger game of male politics and egocentricity. The Family offers ample evidence for the persistence of “woman as commodity,” as Luce Irigaray once put it.21 At the same time, the way these men acted—and continue to act, stonewalling for each other—indicates that their ideal is a male-dominated capitalist order, the sort of free-market patriarchy envisioned by R. J. Rushdoony and other “dominionists”22—a Christian Taliban. People who think that conservative Protestantism gets an unfair rap in the liberal media should take a good look at these scandals and then follow the longer and darker trail illuminated so well by Sharlet. Woods’s shenanigans look relatively benign by comparison to this creepy and insidious farrago of sex, power, religion, and misogyny.
Please read Part II of our interview with Eugene McCarraher here.
2. “The Ten Worst Things about the Worst Decade Ever,” Time, November 24, 2009, http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1942749,00.html.
3. Eugene McCarraher, “Mammon’s Deadly Grin: The New Gospel of Wealth and the Old Gospel of Life,” presented at the Culture of Life Conference, Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, November 30, 2001.
4. W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939,” http://www.poemdujour.com/Sept1.1939.html.
5. Jonathan Alter, “Time to Think about Torture: It’s a New World, and Survival May Well Require Old Techniques That Seemed Out of the Question,” Newsweek, November 5, 2001, http://www.newsweek.com/id/76304/page/1.
6. Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).
7. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York, NY: Crown Publishing, 2006).
8. Chicago Tribune, July 27, 2004.
9. “Obama: NAFTA not so bad after all,” Fortune Magazine, June 18, 2008.
10. Garry Willis, “Afghanistan: The Betrayal,” New York Review of Books, December 2, 2009, http://blogs.nybooks.com/post/265874686/afghanistan-the-betrayal.
11. Tom Hayden, “Obama Announces Afghanistan Escalation,” Nation, Foreign Affairs, December 1, 2009, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20091214/hayden.
12. Terry Eagleton, The Gatekeeper: A Memoir (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2003). See chapter 1, excerpt in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/jan/10/firstchapters.highereducation.
13. Slavoj Žižek, “Multiculturalism or the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism?” Libcom.org, October 9, 2006, http://libcom.org/library/multiculturism-or-the-cultural-logic-of-multinational-capitalism-zizek.
14. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2006).
15. Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 1998).
16. The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Who’s Next, lyrics by Pete Townshend (Geffen Records, 1971).
17. Chris Keller, “Britney Spears and the Downward Arc of Empire: An Interview with Eugene McCarraher,” The Other Journal 10 (2007), http://www.theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=287.
18. Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2004).
19. Keller, “Britney Spears and the Downward Arc of Empire,” http://www.theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=287.
20. Jeff Sharlet, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2009).
21. This concept is explored in Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, translated by Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985).
22. See the three-volume, The Institutes of Biblical Law, for closer look at Rushdoony’s work.
Chris Keller is Founding Editor of The Other Journal and a psychotherapist in Seattle, Washington.
Eugene McCarraher is associate professor of humanities and history and director of graduate liberal studies at Villanova University. He is the author of Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought (Cornell University Press, 2000). A contributor to Commonweal, Books & Culture, In These Times, and other periodicals and scholary journals, he is currently writing a cultural-theological history of corporate business, The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.