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.