Monday, October 16, 2006

Hitchens on Foley

Is it really a surprise that Hitchens is nonplussed by Masturgate? One of my favorite things about the way Hitch writes is that he masterfully conveys lewdness without being obscene.

From todays' Wall Street Journal.

When I finally took a look at what we are all now doomed to call the "sexually explicit" emails between Rep. Mark Foley and the young male page, I found that I had an immediate difficulty in following the exchange. The congressman's side of the correspondence was denoted by his online name, while the page's name was asterisked to protect the innocent, but they both seemed to be talking about the same thing, or things. And it read for all the world like a chat between two dirty-minded adolescent boys. How often do you do this or think about that? How long is it? Material of that kind or "stuff like that," as we might say. Perhaps I have become jaded, or perhaps I lack some crucial moral element, but I could not see what was criminal about it, and I laughed when I read the solemn announcement from the FBI, promising to investigate whether an email could possibly have crossed an interstate line and thus aggravated the gravity of the offense. Our guardians never sleep . . .

The case would perhaps be altered somewhat if Mr. Foley had been the boy's teacher, or employer, or even priest. But pages are volunteers who are not on any one person's staff, and cannot be hired or fired by individual politicians. Neither coercion nor bribery was involved, as in the priestly scandals, which were quite often instances of actual rape. And the boy in this case was obviously a very knowing one, whose virginity was somewhere in his past. Indeed, it was Mr. Foley who seemed like the juvenile, or perhaps the case of arrested development. In what sense, then, does this constitute public business?

If there had been a sexual relationship between man and boy, it would almost certainly be illegal (as it would not have been if it were between man and girl) but there is no persuasive evidence that there was any sexual relationship. Indeed, it looks to me as if the email equivalent of phone-sex was the very thing that the wretched congressman was after, and probably the most he was likely to get. The youngster seemed able to look after himself, and to "turn" the conversation whenever it became too needy. It was all a bit sad and a bit sordid, but in the scale of things, no hanging matter or federal case.

I suspect that the hugeness of the current fuss must have something to do with our uneasy and only half-acknowledged awareness that the age of innocence is long over by the time that most of our children have turned 16. And this is why the Foley giveaway was contained in his ostentatious political activity in respect of the protection of minors. Have we not learned by now that the propensity of politicians to rave on about morality is often in direct proportion to their hypocrisy on the point? "Why dost thou lash that whore?" is the pertinent question asked of the lasher in "King Lear," and the answer comes plainly -- he hotly wishes "to use her in that kind" for which he whips her.

Anyone who has studied the fate of leading gay-bashers in American politics will know that the danger-signs are there from the start. Set your watch, and sure enough that fervent campaigner will be arrested kneeling abjectly on the men's-room floor. If the campaigner is an evangelist for purity and abstinence, he is booked to keep an early and certain date in a dreary motel, beseeching a drab hooker with an expired MasterCard.

Another free laugh, therefore, is provided by all the pompous talk about when exactly Mr. Foley's colleagues began to worry that his contents might be under pressure. Never mind the possible earlier emails, or signs of excessive interest in the problems of the pages. They should have known that Mr. Foley was a gay man in the closet, of course. And they should have taken alarm at the very first moment that he began to orate about sex-offenders and children. But the crucial word, here, is "closet." As long as a proper outward show of denial was made, Mr. Foley could as well have been asked to open the House's daily prayer session.

He has of course made himself even more contemptible by emitting easy babble about a hitherto unsuspected battle with "addiction," like a cuttlefish blowing off ink, and by alluding to a possible nasty moment in the woodshed with a man in holy orders. (If he does not come forward and say who that priest was, he is withholding evidence of a crime -- which really is against the law.) But the deafness, as well as the dumbness, of his party leadership is the truly extraordinary thing. It seems that the only offense of which he can possibly be accused, by the speaker of the House, is that of election-season indiscretion. In other words: How inconvenient!

Whether one is a stern defender of the present so-called "age of consent," or inclined to take a more relaxed view of dirty talk among males of all ages, or appalled at double-standards being applied for years to moralizing mediocrities, or merely concerned with that elusive thing the dignity of Congress, one has the right to expect more seriousness from the speaker than that. I am among the vast majority of people who never understood how Dennis Hastert got his job in the first place, or indeed how he has justified hanging onto it, and who would not really notice or care if he resigned it now. However, the speaker does have it in his power to do one decent thing before his term is up -- which is to get out while he can still save a rag of his integrity. There might be a person left in the world who believes that Mr. Hastert would have taken the same lenient or lazy view if Mr. Foley had been a member of the opposite party, but innocence on that level would actually be more sinister than cynicism. To add that the same would be true of Democrats if the situation was reversed is to say no more than we already -- from the forgiveness of numerous past "peccadilloes" -- have come to expect.

For a "peccadillo," Mark Foley is gone from politics already. And a huge public holiday has been taken from the serious matters that confront the electorate. But before the waters close over this scandal, and before the next one surfaces, I would still like to know what crime was committed in this instance, and who if anyone was the victim. We like to think that we "learn" from such episodes, but I cannot think of any lesson that can be derived from this latest spasm of righteous indignation.


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