10 March 2008

We Heart Hypocrites

(Sorry, I couldn’t figure out how to make a “heart” symbol, so I wrote out the word instead…)

In some of the most entertaining political scandal news to emerge in some time, Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D-NY) has apparently been caught up as an alleged client in a high-end prostitution sting. The highest irony of this situation is that during his tenure as attorney general of New York, Mr. Spitzer was right out of Law and Order central casting (although he looks less like Jack McCoy and more like Elliot Stabler). As the NY Times reports, after busting another high-priced escort service business in 2004,

Mr. Spitzer spoke with revulsion and anger after announcing the arrest of 16 people for operating a high-end prostitution ring out of Staten Island. “This was a sophisticated and lucrative operation with a multi-tiered management structure,” Mr. Spitzer said at the time. “It was, however, nothing more than a prostitution ring.”

I will leave the political and legal analyses for others in the blogosphere, except to say that when it’s a high-priced escort service where the women (or men) work voluntarily with absolutely no coercion, implied or otherwise, and all transactions are truly consensual, I have to believe that our public safety needs would be better addressed if we utilized our limited law enforcement resources in other realms.

My interest is differently focused. I have been pondering why it is that we (and if you want to exclude yourself from “we”, go ahead) find such delight in the downfall of public hypocrites. Of course, all scandals can be titillating, but there seems to be a particularly juicy, extra-special-tasty element to the story if there’s a healthy dose of hypocrisy included. After all, think about how this story would have played if instead of Mr. Spitzer, who has built his reputation on prosecuting those who transgress the law, we inserted some well-known horn dog of a guy, e.g. a pop music star, a professional athlete, or a hypothetical spouse of a leading Presidential candidate. It simply wouldn’t be as entertainingly titillating (unless perhaps it were the aforementioned hypothetical spouse).

So why is it that we particularly revel in the exposure of notorious hypocrites? Do we feel better about ourselves by seeing the foibles of others who we previously considered to be morally superior to us? Are we reassured that they are somehow just as mortal as we, susceptible to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? And if so, why do we insist on comparing ourselves to these idealized versions of humanity in the first place?

Perhaps there is a noble aspiration latent herein. Perhaps we seek heroes who will call us to our better angels, but in the end we fear our true potential and thus we establish heroes with feet of clay who we later can knock back down to our level. This keeps us safe. We are not required to aspire higher, because those who seek the heights are ultimately exposed as frauds. If there are no genuine heroes, no genuinely virtuous role models, then we are let off the hook. How can we strive toward perfection if those who claim to be perfect are always less than perfect?

In our religious undertakings, it perhaps seems easier to establish a Divinity as a distant object of worship. If Jesus were fully divine but somehow not entirely human, then we cannot be expected to match his life with ours. If the Buddha were a transcendent incarnation and not an earthly prince who sought a more enlightened human life, then we need not seek his level of enlightenment. As long as God is only wholly other and is not fully with us, we have an excuse. Otherwise, we might actually have to live up to the high callings that such lives place on our own lives.


Ken L. Hagler said...

Great post Dan!

IMHO I think it is something akin to why people always watch Jerry Springer.

Wish I would have written it! ;)

Cecilia Dominic said...

It's much easier to point out others' hypocrisy than to acknowledge our own. I'm sure someone's said that before.

It's a fitting time for this scandal and your post. In the Catholic Church, we have the reading of the Lord's Passion for Palm Sunday (aka, the longest Gospel reading EVER). There we have two hypocrites: Judas and Peter. Both betrayed Jesus. Both felt remorse. The difference is in what they did with it. Judas committed suicide, Peter went on to use it to build compassion for others who fall. We may never get to know what Spitzer does with his, although I admit it's hard to believe any appearance of remorse is due to anything but sorrow at having been caught (e.g., celebrities who "find God" while awaiting trial: God, or jury sympathy?).

Methinks my reaction a mark of our cynical age, which actually says more about us than about them. Maybe we just don't like authority figures telling us what to do, and it's more like the kid who catches his parents in some wrongdoing. Or maybe we just like sex scandals, as the previous commenter wrote when alluding to Jerry Springer.

My random thoughts on a Saturday evening...


Peter said...

Didn't read the whole post, I'll come back to it.

For now though, <3 approximates a heart nicely.

Ken L. Hagler said...

Hey Dan,

Are you going to Annual Conf? If so give me a shout.