How Clinton is both a victim and perpetrator of puritanism

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, Jan. 31, 1998)

Can we have a break?

I want a break from America's long-rooted, tedious puritanism -- that sexual prissiness and denial of pleasure that caused the early settlers of this country to pillory wanton women and outlaw flower gardens, that causes media circuses every time Bill Clinton drops his pants.

Don't get the idea that I come to praise Clinton, even if I'm not yet prepared to bury him. I see Clinton as both an example of and victim of modern puritanism. His embarrassing fibs about his sexual peccadilloes are the least of my concerns.

What irks me is the way people like Clinton continue to act like textbook cases of psychoanalytical theory. Unable to control their own impulses, they compensate by trying to control everyone around them. The best recent example of that in our own state is Mike Bowers, the former attorney general who successfully defended the state's antiquated sodomy laws before the Supreme Court. Then he fired a lesbian hire for violating the sodomy law and potentially "discrediting" his office. As it turns out, of course, Bowers all along was conducting an adulterous affair, just as illegal as sodomy.

Clinton, likewise, has been no advocate of sexual liberation. Remember that this is the same president who, having made a campaign promise to the nation's gay men and lesbians to end discrimination in the military, retreated into the incredible position of legalized moral hypocrisy: the so-called "don't ask, don't tell" policy. This, as it turns out, is exactly how he tries to conduct his own sexual life. Unfortunately, hypocrite that he is, he seems to have a taste for sexual partners with large mouths (and I will leave exploring the dual psychosexual implications of that to you, for I do mean it literally and metaphorically).

But the moral posturing doesn't stop with official hypocrisy. He also has campaigned against "smut" on television and for sexual "abstinence" by teenagers. He's "concerned" about Internet sex. As I recall, he even delivered a few choice words about sexual wantonness when he signed the bill that caused thousands of American children to lose welfare benefits.

It ought to be clear to everyone by now that people who engage in moral posturing and legislating the sexual lives of others are always hypocrites. (Please don't confuse the issue by bringing up bestiality and pedophilia. I'm not talking about abuse.) This doesn't mean that the sex lives of politicians, as some falsely unctuous media critics claim, should be exempt from public discourse.

Quite the contrary. People who attempt to control other people's sex lives, to shame them or legislate against them, deserve to be scrutinized publicly in the media. Only by exposing the hypocrisy of men like Clinton, Bowers, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Swaggart, Eddie "I-Give-Taxi-Rides-to-Transvestites" Murphy, a third of the Catholic priesthood, and Gary Hart will puritanism ever begin to lose its suffocating grip on the American psyche.

Of course, the popular argument in the Clinton case is that his satyriasis might be forgiven but that his alleged effort to convince his latest woman to lie on his behalf is unforgivable, as it constitutes the obstruction of justice. Absurdly, people are comparing this to Watergate, as if the cover-up of Bill Clinton's penis is analogous to the cover-up of Tricky Dick's systematic campaign of illegal political manipulation. (I've seen this tempest called "Penisgate.")

And, of course, tedious Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr has managed to extend his investigation of a land deal nobody cares about to Clinton's sexual life, appropriating the Paula Jones "affair" to his own agenda. The argument, again, is that the concern is the possible obstruction of justice, not the sex life of the Prez itself.

That, quite naturally, is bull manure. Starr, whose own sex life deserves media scrutiny, has well-known connections to the Republican Christian right, and we are seeing nothing less than a war by the extreme puritans against the moderate puritans. Sexual hypocrisy should be exposed but the enforcement of dumb laws is a waste of money. It is highly unlikely that were Clinton not a sitting president we'd be going through this. The man has no sexual impulse control. He allegedly had an affair with a young woman. He allegedly asked her to fib about it because he's too cowardly to oppose our puritanical laws and ethics. Perhaps that's realistically impossible. Then, for God's sake, follow the pre-Charles European tradition and find women who can have affairs without running to Oprah. And, please, keep it out of the damn White House proper!

Of course, millions of Americans -- themselves under the spell of puritanical fantasies -- no doubt are clucking about the violation of Bill and Hillary's marriage vows. Puritanism requires a kind of self-blinding to, for one example, the fact that the majority of American marriages end in divorce, that fidelity and true monogamy are fantasies lived by a decreasing percentage of the population. (If infidelity were better tolerated, we'd have longer marriages and relationships with deeper roots in the truth. That is undeniable since "adultery" is the cause of so much divorce.)

In the view of finger-waggers, a marriage that tolerates outside sexual peccadilloes is indicative of willful self-destruction. I even read somewhere a ludicrous essay in which the author attempted to link Kennedy's sexual excesses with his bringing the world to the verge of nuclear holocaust during the missile crisis. In other words: Having lots of sex and tolerating outside sex within a marriage are destructive to the self and society.

How could Jackie have loved John? How can Hillary love Bill? Very well and quite deeply, I imagine, although I'm guessing they were both aghast at their husbands' complete lack of discretion and taste in the exercise of the libido. But this is the fate of hypocrites in power. Unwilling not only to oppose the silly laws and values they defy, they create new ones and, of course, end up undone by their own moral cowardice before the juries they have helped keep in power.

It is a pity that there is no cohesive movement against puritanism in our society. (The Libertarians, who are self-conflicted and dogmatic themselves, are as close as we get.) It is a great irony that the one group in America that most defies sexual norms -- gay men and lesbians -- has now itself become awash in puritanism and hypocrisy.

Gay journalists (including Atlanta's) now attack multi-partner sex, call for stigmatizing open relationships and write the same kind of exposés of promiscuous sexual culture that straight columnists did 20 years ago -- with the excuse of battling AIDS, of course. (There is always an excuse.) Some, like Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic, make the incredible claim that the gay rights movement will be over when gay people are granted the right to marry.

In other words: The inclusion of gay people in the crumbling mainstream moral fantasy will somehow end the movement's political goals. Give gay people the right to marry and then they too can have legal recourse against their cheating spouses so that fidelity to a norm, rather than the appreciation of differences, matters most.

That is the function of puritanical agendas, of course: conformity and sameness, the denial of pleasure, which, if fully granted, makes people quite unwilling to be controlled politically, religiously, socially or in any other way. It is a tragedy of American life that so many of us feel that we all have to be controlled.

Copyright 1998 by Creative Loafing | Published Jan 31, 1998

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