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Europe does it better

Compared with British and French sex scandals, the Spitzer mess is a bit of a disappointment.

March 16, 2008|Theodore Dalrymple | Theodore Dalrymple is the author of "Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses."

Men of exceptional ambition or ability, it is often said, are more highly sexed than others, though perhaps it is just that their sex lives are more closely examined than those of others. Can there really be a man living, after all, who would relish the idea that every detail of his sex life, past and present, would be revealed to the public and those whom he loves?

But if, as Henry Kissinger once said, power is the most powerful aphrodisiac, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's extracurricular sexual activities seem pathetic and furtive, almost adolescent, rather than deeply wicked. Resorting to prostitutes is sex without the trouble, uncertainty or potential humiliation attendant on attempted seduction. In other words, it's a crude shortcut preferred by those who are uncertain of their allures unaided by financial inducements. It is pornography elevated -- or descending -- to the level of practice.

We in Britain are certainly familiar with political scandals of a sexual nature. In 1994, for instance, a Tory member of Parliament, the brother of a clergyman, was found hanged dressed only in women's underwear. This is the kind of thing that we expect of our politicians in Britain.

It used to be that scandals involving the Labor Party mainly concerned financial irregularities and those involving the Conservative Party were predominantly sexual. Labor politicians, being socialists who detested the rich, were avid for money, however ill-gotten. Conservatives, being moralists who lamented the passing of the old order of personal restraint, were deeply attracted to sexual vice. Now that the two parties are virtually indistinguishable, from a policy perspective, they are each financially corrupt and sexually incontinent. I suppose a Hegelian would call this a dialectical synthesis that overcame contradictions.

While he was home secretary from 2001 to 2004, David Blunkett, a blind Labor politician, was discovered not only to have had an affair with, but an illegitimate child by, the U.S.-born publisher of the famous conservative anti-Labor magazine the Spectator. From the public reaction, at least as expressed in the media, one might have supposed that Britain was peopled by a mixture of anchorites in the Syrian desert, subsisting on honey and locusts, and vestal virgins -- who would commit suicide rather than indulge in sexual intercourse -- rather than a country in which 42% of births are out of wedlock, and in which sexual promiscuity is now the rule rather than the exception. Outrage, nevertheless, was unconfined. A public that demanded, as a matter of inalienable right, complete sexual freedom for itself demanded Victorian levels of propriety from its political leaders. Blunkett resigned in late 2004.

The fact that sexual scandal has spread to the Labor Party does not mean that we have given up on the expectation that the Conservative Party will titillate us. It just means that the bar of public notice has been raised a few notches. We demand the equivalent of the Fosbury Flop of sexual perversion (if one is permitted to use that term at all in these days of universal tolerance). Thus, a Conservative member of Parliament was found dead in the course of his practice of autoerotic asphyxia -- hanging yourself to achieve heightened sexual excitement brought about by decreasing oxygen to the brain, while looking at erotic pictures or having erotic fantasies. An article describing 117 such cases was recently published by the British Journal of Psychiatry.

It is generally agreed that they order these things better in France. The French are more mature about sex, though they are terrible hypocrites about money. I remember having lunch with a French author who was writing a comparative study of serial killers in France and Anglo-Saxonia. English speakers, it seems, murder serially for sex, or rather some version of it, and the French murder for money or even for furniture (one has only to remember Landru and Dr. Petiot). Which is better or morally preferable? Well, to be honest, Je ne sais pas.

The French expect their politicians to have colorful, though discreet, sex lives. No one found it at all shocking that Francois Mitterrand maintained two households, complete with an illegitimate daughter, throughout his presidency. More significant, perhaps, was that no one either found his past Petainism, or his then-current protection of high-level Petainists, shocking. French and Anglo-Saxon forms of hypocrisy are very different.

What the French find objectionable in the antics of their current president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is not their moral impropriety but their vulgarity. No sooner was he divorced (for the second time) than he was seen cavorting on an Egyptian beach with his glamorous new love, Carla Bruni, with whom he exchanged very expensive presents. The fact that Bruni, now his third wife, is very rich does not mollify the French in the slightest. Sarkozy has behaved not like a mature man but like an adolescent.

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