Sexual McCarthyism

Lurid revelations, crude moralizing, perjury traps: they all echo America's darkest days

One can only imagine what this redemption would look like: a revival of the patriarchal presidency as epitomized by John F. Kennedy. JFK's reputation remains suspiciously intact among the Clinton bashers despite all the shock-horror about infidelity. (Indeed, as Jim Windolf complains in last week's Observer, the problem is that Clinton lacks Kennedy's grace in philandering.) In the more id-driven precincts of the media, this sense of the world turned upside down is taken quite literally. Consider the recent New York Press cartoon of Clinton butt-fucking Uncle Sam, with blood and shit flying everywhere. Talk about male panic!

"Certainly Clinton is not threatening the political status quo," says Schrecker, "but as a cultural figure, he's an embodiment of women's rights, a more relaxed modern view of sexuality, and a more multicultural world. Whether he lives these values or not, they have been projected onto him." These qualities are still associated with the '60s, which explains why the rap about Clinton's lack of honesty and honor so often leads to the need to wean America from countercultural values. "What's at stake in the Lewinsky scandal is not the right to privacy," writes conservative commentator David Frum, "but the central dogma of the Baby Boomers that sex, as long as it's consensual, ought never to be subject to moral scrutiny at all."

The conflation of Clinton and the counterculture is to conservatives today what the image of Communists in the State Department was 50 years ago. No wonder Pat Robertson told the Christian Coalition convention last week that the office once occupied "by Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln," had become "the playpen for the sexual freedom of the poster child of the 1960s." This is the moment when roiling resentments over the low status of white men in general and God-fearing Christians in particular can be brought together in a grand alliance. It's D-Day in the culture wars, and the target is much bigger than the president.

Kenneth Starr (left) and Joseph McCarthy: Their methods are ominously similar.
AP / Wide World
Kenneth Starr (left) and Joseph McCarthy: Their methods are ominously similar.

Once it took hold, McCarthyism spread far beyond its original mandate to root out Communists, damning as "fellow travelers" anyone who opposed nuclear proliferation, expansion of the military budget, or the global predations of the CIA. At its height, this crusade virtually shut down social activism, from civil rights to trade unionism. The impact of a similar jihad today could threaten everything from sexual freedom to abortion rights. These signatures of the current era are far less entrenched than they seem, and liberals are far more ambivalent than they are willing to admit. Not that there is anything wrong with an uncertain response to complex issues, but when it comes to politics, the true believer is always in the best position to accomplish social change--especially when he can wield the ultimate weapon of shame. Clinton's destiny--and ours--may ultimately be decided by what Americans actually feel about their sex lives.

"The United States is one of the most sexually conservative countries in the world," says Edward Laumann, coauthor of the definitive University of Chicago study Sex in America. Yet our puritanism is suffused with promiscuity. Adultery is by far the most common sexual transgression, with one out of four married men (and one out of three over 45) admitting to it. Yet 90 per cent of Laumann's sample say adultery is "always wrong." This contradiction is reflected in the recent Washington Post poll showing that more Americans regard adultery as unacceptable than even homosexuality. The widespread revulsion at Clinton's conduct has more than a little of the slogan artist Barbara Kruger invented to describe the American sexual perplex: "Protect Me From What I Want!"

The consequences of this paradox are impossible to predict. But as the Washington Post noted, 55 per cent of Americans think their values are losing influence in society. This is the constituency social conservatives hope to mobilize, and if they succeed, we could see not just a new president but the rise of a virulent new puritanism, enforced by sin-baiting pols and scandal-mongering media. (First they'll publish all the filth, then they'll say it's filthy.) You don't have to be a public figure to fear this apparat. When it comes to probing the sex life of, say, a teacher, the precedent that the Starr investigation sets for what the government can get away with is terrifying to behold.

Why are people willing to accept a process that could ultimately curtail their freedom? One might as well ask why Clinton was willing to risk his presidency for a fling. He has never been able to embrace the aura of the New Man. Elected as the first postmodern president, he is revealed to be the ultimate premodern pig. In his failure to get away with what other men have always gotten away with, he may thrust us all into the very past we thought we had overcome. In the end, much will depend on whether the American people can tolerate the complexity of liberty, as personified by a fallen man.

Research: Michael Zilberman

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