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Vocation vs. avocation

A private bondage romp is no one else's business. Government-linked racism is everybody's business.

April 12, 2008

The transatlantic shamings this week of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Julie L. Myers and Formula One top man Max Mosley raise interesting questions about class, public responsibility and deference to privacy.

Myers' trouble began with a department Halloween party last year, wherein she gave top honors in a costume contest to an employee wearing prison stripes, blackface and a dreadlocks wig. This week, the House Homeland Security Committee issued a 22-page report detailing the then-acting director's unsuccessful efforts to conceal photographs of the party.

It's possible to feel some sympathy for Myers, who apologized immediately after the party and was subsequently confirmed. And requiring public servants to lead monkish, pleasure-free personal lives is a strategy for attracting bad public servants. This was, however, an event organized by her department on government grounds. It's a shame that Myers was surprised by this test of her judgment, but the cold fact is that she failed the test. The nation's taxpayers have a right to expect that high-ranking government officials -- particularly those whose jobs demand extraordinary cultural and ethnic sensitivity -- behave responsibly at work-related events. Myers should step down.

In Britain, the case of Federation Internationale de l'Automobile President Mosley -- whose fondness for garden-variety bondage and discipline was exposed by the News of the World newspaper -- is rich in cultural lore. Mosley is the son of British Union of Fascists founder Sir Oswald Mosley and the former Diana Mitford Guinness, both of whom publicly supported Nazi Germany during World War II. Given his family history, Mosley's willingness to pay five women for an hours-long session of spankings, B-movie German accents and prisoner/guard role playing is almost too on-the-nose. Though he filed an invasion-of-privacy suit against the paper, Mosley has been admirably forthright, acknowledging the session and asserting that "21st century adults do not worry about private sexual matters as long as they are legal and harmless." Formula One's governing body will decide Mosley's fate in June, but it's hard to see how his sexual predilections disqualify him from running a racing league.

The class dimensions in Mosley's case are equally rich. Formula One racing's frisson of jet-setting high style is not what it used to be. In the U.S., open-wheel racing hangs on as an item of interest to the gentry of Indianapolis but is everywhere else a distant also-ran to the more populist NASCAR -- which in turn is outgrowing its trailer-park image by attracting increasing numbers of international defectors from Formula One. In this context, Mosley's taste for what looks like fairly vanilla B&D counts as another disappointment from the fading aristocracy: These days you can't even depend on the upper classes to lead the way in discovering erotic oddities.

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