16 September 2011

A Quibble with Jeff Sharlet: The C-Street Sex Scandals and Their Importance

Jeff Sharlet is the author of the very capable C-Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy. This is a frightening, enlightening, and wholly edifying journey into the halls of fundamentalist power in the US. My complaints, about and disagreements with, Sharlet's book are probably not insignificant, even if we generally agree. Regardless, Jeff has done more in recent years than most to expose the far reaching and secretive Christian fundamentalism at the heart of the modern culture wars and the divisiveness of modern politics than most. He has named names, exposed gross hypocrisy and incompetence, and exposed to the world, the festering, and grotesque need that is the heart of C-Street style fundamentalism. Power. That may sound simplistic, and leaves out the bit about God, but that is an old story too, and always has been the way of clerics. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, the clerics may talk about glory and rewards in the next world, but what they want is power in this one. Sharlet's work on C-Street, and the secretive, dangerous and it -must be added- odious Family that is housed therein. What ever side of the culture war you happen to find yourself on, conservative, liberal, religious or irreligious one hopes that you will value our secular democratic traditions. Those traditions protect us all from tyranny. So while I do have disagreements with Sharlet, they do little to stop me from recommending that every one, wanting to be an informed citizen, should read his two books on this subject(both are linked to Amazon in the text). Now on to one of the points of disagreement I have with Sharlet.

The C-Street Sex Scandals

Scandals was indeed plural. The pious fundamentalists, as per usual could not live up to the ideals and moral proscriptions they want to impose on the rest of us. Another old story to be sure but the details of these affairs by the C-Streeters (Sen. John Ensign R-NV, Gov Mark Sanford R-SC, Rep. Chip Pickering R-MS) and the ways, and lengths to which the leaders at C-Street, that is to say the leaders of The Family went to cover up these extra-marital affairs is as instructive as it is grotesque. In many ways the scandals that have recently broke concerning The Family (a cabal of fundamentalist Christians who court the powerful in an attempt influence policy) mirrors the scandals and cover-ups that have rocked the Catholic Church. The idea in both groups goes something like this. Cover-up and preservation of the powerful in such organizations is preferable to exposure, justice and living consistently with organizational principles because the organization is doing good things, in the case of either The Family, or the Roman Catholic Church, that means the work of God. I suppose it is easier to sweep any number of evils under the rug if you think you and your organization have a mandate from the author of the multi-verse. I wouldn't know. I'm not delusional. Whether I understand the mentality or not it is clearly over-represented in these circles.

It may not be necessary to go into too much detail about the particulars of these sex scandals with the exception of Mark Sandford. Chip Pickering had an affair with an ex- from college while living in the house known as C-Street. Ensign had an affair with the wife of his top aide (the wife received some kind of pay off from Ensign's parents which adds a whole other level of weird to his tale). Click on the names for more details, and google them. Its all pretty sordid but then so is The Family.

Mark Sanford's affair is a bit trickier, and certainly more spectacular than those of his fellow C-Streeters. It involved apparently real passion (he seems genuinely to have loved his mistress - there are some serious love letters that can be adduced anyway), a strange subterfuge was put on by his handlers to account for his MIA status (he had gone to Argentina to be with his mistress though they claimed he was hiking the Appalachian trail), he also kept his staff, and advisers in the dark about what he was up to(with the exception of key C-Streeters), used some public funds for his Argentina trip, his wife had long known about the affair and lived separately from her husband (had infact asked for an official separation) and...well you get the idea. Sanford (who was fond of quoting biblical verse and waxing poetic about his boyhood memories on his family farm in letters to his mistress) was like maybe the most perfectly inconsiderate, and thoroughly pious character in recent politics. He wanted what he wanted, and could apparently manufacture the rationalizations required to run roughshod over any moral pretense he might have had. What is also strange is his pseudo-apology to South Carolina, his mistress (first) then to his wife. There is also his defiance at the idea of resigning his governorship. You probably won't be surprised to learn that he was one of the people who thought Bill Clinton should have resigned when Clinton's infidelity came out. I could continue to essay these details but I think you get the idea. If you want a complete timeline of the events here is a good place to start. You could also read Sharlet's account which imbues the whole thing with more humanity and sympathy than I can muster.

Sharlet's Question to readers of C-Street:
Jeff Sharlet begins C-Street with a series of political sex scandals, but goes on to argue that we must look beyond the sensational details of a scandal to understand its real importance. Do you think that is true? What interests you about the scandal? What can we learn from a scandal when it happens?

And here comes my argument -minor, I think, but you can decide- with Sharlet. Sharlet describes his own annoyance at the press, even Rachel Maddow, for wanting to go after C-Street over the sex scandals, and Mark Sanford's in particular. Sharlet was very moved by the revelation of the South Carolina Governor's humanity in the content of those love letters to his mistress Maria. Sharlet lamented at the idea of being brought on to these talk shows to kick the Governor who had committed no other crime than being human and falling in love (well that and maybe using state money to fund that Argentinian love romp). I think Sharlet's generosity here is misplaced. If Sanford had been just a politician, or an actor or any person of normal integrity on the street I think Sharlet's tone would be exactly right. I'm not interesting in castigating a bloke for something that probably happens to at least the majority of all people like everywhere. I do, however, think the scandals and the way they are handled reveal much more about both the people involved, and the organization The Family than he does.

Sharlet thinks these sex scandals reveal only human nature, and he is surely right that human nature is jarringly revealed. But that revelation includes the negative aspects of that nature as well. In fact I would argue that the sex scandals of these men, and the behavior they and their C-Street brothers and their Family advisers tells you almost all you need to know about C-Street to write it off as a house of cranks, liars and hypocrites. While Sharlet marveled at Sanford's apparent tenderness toward his lover, he seems to miss or to at least be less concerned with, Sanford's general selfishness, and disregard for anyone else's needs or integrity. His needs are paramount and come first. This is an ugly tendency in anyone, but it becomes even worse when coupled with his breath taking hypocrisy (and it is a tendency that seems to form the foundation any tyrannical character in life or fiction). Sanford, a conservative Christian, apparently keeps two sets of books, the ones he thinks we should have live by, and the ones by which he and his fellow C-Street clan get to live. It would be hard to find an example of behavior and personal attitudes that so perfectly encapsulate the C-Street ethos than the example provided by the behavior of Sanford. The license he granted himself, and that which was granted by his Family gurus reveal both to be self-centered and greedy and obsessed with the conservation of their power and influence despite their Christian pretensions.

Sharlet thought the attention the public gave and gives to such stories is based only on the salacious content. Everyone loves a money shot. Its a valid point, though perhaps too narrow. There is more, at least for thinking people. I think what attracts the public's attention even more, in fact much more, is the revelation of the huge disconnect between the individual's public statement of beliefs, and their actual action in the real world. It fractures their integrity in way that everyone can understand on a very visceral level. The moral calculus is easy. Everyone shares a frame of reference. The public fascination isn't all about who stuck what into whom and where. That isn't what makes people assiduously devour news for a cycle or two. What captivates us is the shocking hypocrisy that is on display. Such hypocrisy also makes people shake their heads in disgust. For normal people who make these kinds of mistakes and mis-steps, many of us can look the other way, or offer human compassion, and understanding. People make mistakes, they think with their heart (or other regions) and leap before looking and generally make a big mess of things. Its different when you claim to be the moral paragon, when you claim to have the answers, and you want to impose those answers on the rest of us. That is a real and legitimate point of concern and it isn't shallow.


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