Monday, May 24, 2010

Another conservative morality scold bit the dust when Indiana Congressman Mark Souder, staunch proponent of "family values," resigned in a sex scandal.  The video that he made with the staffer, with whom he was having the adulterous affair, and in which they talk about abstinence education, has been soundly mocked as yet another exhibit in Republican sexual hypocrisy.

But of course, for philanderers like Souder, or Sanford, or Spitzer, or Vitter (the list goes on) -  their sexual indiscretions aren't experienced as hypocrisy, but as confirmation and  vindication of their worldview.

There is no cognitive dissonance for them in both crusading against sexual temptations and falling for those same temptations.  The Spitzers of the world crusade against prostitutes at least in part because they believes prostitutes destroy men and marriages (like him and his); Sanford wants marriage's boundaries strictly defined (because he sees it as a fragile and vulnerable institution); Souder wants every kid in high school strapped to a chair and taught that the only way to stay out of sex-trouble is with absolute denial (because even ill-advised sex is so tempting).  That is why you won't find them apologizing for hypocrisy.  They've just been proven right as far as they and their followers see it.  They may be weak and fallible as individual men (which is after all another of the teachings they relay and rely on), but they haven't been proven wrong.

A month later, people outside of the circle can never understand how then, these men get so quickly accepted back into the flock; how they rebuild the support of the very moral conservatives that they seem to have betrayed; why there seems to be no real stigma attached.  It's because from the inside point of view their transgression wasn't lying or hypocrisy or even being mistaken, but the problem was human frailty.  A frailty that, to them, indeed confirms the need for control and repression and vigilance when it comes to sex and sexuality.  And after, this vigilance is what leaders like Souder and Spitzer and Sanford and so on have publicly crusaded on for for so long.  It's a strange alchemy, but this gives them more credibility as leaders:  their apparent struggle with illicit sexual temptations, their occasional fall, and their willingness to keep crusading against sexual freedoms.

Of course it is likely that some of these men are actually hypocrites -- just lying opportunistically -- but I think that the only way to explain the recurrent, blatant, and unapologetic nature of Republican sex scandals is to assume that they don't experience it that way.  So I won't call Representative Souder a hypocrite.  Instead he is a sexually and psychologically stunted man who is caught up in a religious system that has given him a poor set of tools for dealing with his urges.  Sadly enough, because he's been in a position of power and influence, we have had to confront not only the spectacle of him wrecking his family across a public stage, but more significantly and longer term, his destructive efforts to form his pathologies into public policy (which he continues to this day to advocate for).

I put this all out there, not to excuse these people, but because I think if we don't understand them better, we underestimate how difficult it is to root their influence out of our public policies.  They are not just walking, talking contradictions who can be shamed into shutting up every time their lives play out in another sex scandal.  It's entertaining to mock and amplify their personal failings -- and it does discredit them in the eyes of many.  But I think it's important to keep in mind that for far too many conservatives, the media storms that surround these scandals strengthen the case that their anti-sex political positions are indeed right and justifiable.
cross-posted (with comments) at Daily Kos