Elliot Spitzer’s “Corruption”

Posted March 19, 2008

I’m trying to figure out whether I think Elliot Spitzer actually did anything that we should call “corrupt.”  I’m sure he broke his marital vows, quite repeatedly it seems, and I get what the folks are saying that Silda shouldn’t have stood by her man, literally, and looked crushed – she should have issued a statement dumping his ass.  Then, at the same time, I feel like that kind of decision is between her and her God and her shrink and so forth and giving a feminist seal of disapproval to her actions seems kind of weird to me.  Of course it seems even weirder that I should be in a position to comment on feminist seals of disapproval, so I might as well just work my way out of this particular thread.

But okay, back to the public sphere.  Elliot Spitzer broke several laws (against soliciting a prostitute and transporting her across state lines) which shouldn’t even be on the books, as far as I’m concerned.  I suppose if it turns out he used campaign funds to pay for all this, that would be corruption in some sense.  And yes, it was hypocritical for him to push for harsh penalties for in busting a prostitution ring a couple of years ago.  Again, I don’t think prostitution in and of itself should be a crime; if it weren’t, it could be regulated, which would probably be a much better way to get rid of unsavory pimps and super-exploitative prostitution rings, improve working conditions, etc.  (Incidentally, I say it would be easier to get rid of super-exploitative conditions because I presume that sex workers under capitalism would still be exploited.  Unless they were independent contractors???  Clearly they would need some good unions, like other workers do.)

But isn’t this a kind of garden-variety hypocrisy we find in politicians all the time?  Spitzer is clearly guilty of personal misogyny, marital betrayal, and hypocrisy.  The first and the third we probably knew before last Monday, and the second is really not an issue that rises to the level of statecraft.  He’s probably also clearly demonstrated some incredibly poor judgment; I don’t really feel sorry for the guy.  But I’m also having a hard time getting with people’s expressions of outrage and public betrayal and the allegations that he was a corruption-buster who was himself corrupt.  I’m glad the mother-fucker chased after Wall Street titans for a while, and I’m having a real hard time seeing anything he did as equivalent to what they did, again, barring the use of campaign funds to pay for sex.

Of course the further question would be, what was the quick condemnation of Spitzer really about?  New York Magazine has a decent discussion of this on the purely superstructural political level, comparing Spitzer’s quick resignation to Clinton’s survival.  But is it about anything on a deeper level?  I think part of it might have to do with the level of detail provided in the information that came out, which suggested that Spitzer’s patronization of this particular service was not an example of “sliding into sin” by a man who usually has better judgment, but itself an example of his best judgment: ongoing and calculating if banal.  Perhaps there is an ability to accept this “poor judgment” in politicians when it seems to emanate from their unconscious against their conscious will, if it is accompanied by a sufficiently crestfallen mea culpa, the narrative of the alcoholic or drug addict or unfaithful husband who strays, falls, confesses to his family and the public, and begs for forgiveness.  Though Spitzer went through the motions of some of this, the accounts of Client 9’s business transaction in arranging a liaison sounded like the accounts of any business transaction, and suggested that he was in complete, conscious control of his actions (whether or not this would be an accurate account of his compulsions).

I suspect then that this gets us back to the stigmatization of sex work (which is perhaps obvious, but interesting if that’s what’s underlying the energetic denunciations which say, “it’s not about sex, it’s about hypocrisy / corruption / etc.”).  If Spitzer visited a prostitute under other circumstances, people would read him as fallen to temptation, whereas commentators have read into Spitzer’s actions instead his being an alpha male thrill seeker, flaunting the norms he himself insisted upon as an anti-corruption crusader, etc.

Let’s remember that in these politician sex scandals, where a male politician strays with “a prostitute or other loose woman” (leaving aside the gay cases, for now) she never comes off well, at all, but usually as pathologically hungry for status, money, or both.  That has certainly been the case for Ashley Dupré; she became the perfect scapegoat, for many, when it turned out she was from a wealthy family, which to some contradicted her own narrative (on her MySpace profile) of being from a broken home.  In fact the women who have turned this notoriety into some kind of success have usually done so by projecting an image of a made-for-Hollywood caricature of themselves.

Elliot Spitzer is certainly a hypocrite, but his hypocrisy seems to be of a banal, commonplace sort, and “corruption” seems beside the point.  The stigmatization of sex work may be the base hypocrisy which underlies this particular morality play.


4 responses to “Elliot Spitzer’s “Corruption””

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    So does it really matter whether your Republican or Democrat? A crime is a crime. Why is it that we have such a crooked gov’t with such crooked people and we still have to decide who we vote for based on what party they are in? Shouldn’t it be based upon how well you can do the job? Just like any other job you should have qualifications!!

  2. Stephanie Avatar

    I agree that Spitzer didn’t do anything particularly “wrong,” especially compared to many people in his position. But I confess, I was fascinated with the story. I think the hypocrisy part is huge, and I think more extreme in his case because he built a reputation on being “mr. clean.” Yes, I think most people are hypocrites in some way, but that doesn’t excuse it. For me, its a serious challenge to what I think we need for a truly democratic society: honesty, transparency, humility. I think other people agreed, and were happy to see him punished for his arrogance.

    I was also intrigued by his mental state. Did he feel invincible because he is rich and powerful? Do men in his position believe they are above the law because they often are? I know that because I am white and a “professional” that I also am above the law in some ways – I am certainly less likely to be arrested or stopped and searched or harassed by police. If your ability to break the law without risk increases with your class/race/gender/sexuality/nationality status, do powerful white American men break laws on a daily basis? Perhaps that is that a good argument for full-time police surveillance on people like Spitzer. (I don’t think prostitution should be a crime, but if it is a crime, I want to see at least equal enforcement).

    Or was it the risk itself partly what he was after? The thrill of danger? Knowing that he might be risking everything from his family to his career? It is fascinating to think about the power of desire as it relates to risk. He knew he had enemies who would love to expose him, and yet he seemed to be doing this on a regular basis – maybe he almost wanted to get caught? I don’t know why I found that so interesting, and slightly terrifying because of its implications about human behaviour.

    Now all this information is coming out about Patterson – adultery, drug use – and I could not be more bored by it. I guess it means that for me, Spitzer’s hypocrisy was not of the banal, commonplace sort that you suggest. Maybe because I want to fight the idea that hypocrisy should ever be commonplace. Does that make me a hypocrite? 🙂

  3.  Avatar

    The same day that the ex-NY State Governor’s sex scandal broke I attended a naked yoga class for the first time. I was very uncertain about it, but I had a free class coupon, and the news of Spitzer’s downfall emboldened me.

    It was very weird to do standing forward bends (!) in a room filled with nude strangers, about half of whom were young women with the free class coupons and half of whom looked like my father’s cousins (middle aged Jewish men who might have been Russian lit professors or medical illustrators).

    I agree that collective bargaining, improved working conditions and state regulation are better approaches than criminalization of sex workers.

    But naked yoga also reminded me that many of us pay for or receive payment for offering services that are sensual or sexual, whether that’s massages or nudie yoga. Thinking of sex as something that “normally” only happens in the realm of pure desire or love is just plain silly!

    But hey at least now that Eliot’s political career is over he can start practicing naked yoga without shame. Isis Phoenix, the teacher, could probably do a lot for him.