Sanctimony is in, or so it appears given the drumbeat of critical reviews of famous people who have committed supposed transgressions. The reputation of Thomas Jefferson, one of the most influential founders of the Republic, has been tarnished because he was a slave-owner, had illicit sex with a slave, and traded in human capital.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great, courageous man; but he was also a Lothario who cheated on his wife even more than JFK.
Many women disqualified Bill Clinton from any further political consideration after his affair with Monica Lewinsky. If he cheated on his wife, they said, he will most certainly cheat on us, they said.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt who single-handedly rescued America from the Great Depression and led the country to victory in World War II, had an illicit affair with his secretary. Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe and the man singularly responsible for the defeat of Nazi Germany also had a decades-long dalliance with his secretary. Lyndon Johnson was known for his tom-catting.
Henry Kissinger clearly enamored of his own power, influence, and access to presidents, kings, and emperors famously said “Power is the great aphrodisiac”.
According to New Yorker journalist Paul Rudnik (4/11), Mahatma Gandhi had an illicit and passionate affair with a male lover.
Ezra Pound and H.L. Mencken were both rabid anti-Semites. Immanuel Kant said, “'The Jews still cannot claim any true genius, any truly great man. All their talents and skills revolve around stratagems and low cunning ... They are a nation of swindlers.”
George Bernard Shaw said, “Stop being Jews and start being human beings”. Theodore Dreiser said, “New York is a 'kike's dream of a ghetto,' and Jews are not 'pure Americans' and 'lack integrity”.
It doesn’t take much scraping of the surface to find something in politics, literature, science, sports, or Hollywood to find some dereliction of duty, probity, or personal responsibility. Mel Gibson is guilty of vicious anti-Semitic rants. Gay slurs are common among football and basketball heroes.
Wilt Chamberlain boasted of the fact that he had slept with 1000 women and the clock was still ticking.
In many people’s mind Chamberlain was a degenerate, a profligate, and a reprobate. Gibson had committed the unforgivable sin – invoking racial hatred, raising the specter of virulent Nazi Jew-hating, and reviving centuries-old stereotypes. Shaw, Pound, Kant, Dreiser, and Mencken were guilty of the same race-baiting, anger, and hostility.
Yet, Chamberlain was one of the NBA’S greatest basketball players and changed forever the the game of professional basketball. Kant was a brilliant philosopher, Mencken a trenchant satirist, Pound a poetic innovator and literary thinker, Shaw an influential writer and dramatist.
Recently there has been flap in the British tabloids about the summary dismissal of Jeremy Clarkson, the moderator/presenter of the wildly popular BBC program Top Gear.
"Clarkson can be a deeply objectionable individual”, said Mark Thompson (Chief Executive of the New York Times Company) to The Sunday Times.Clarkson was sacked last year after punching "Top Gear" producer Oisin Tymon because he was not served a hot meal after a long day filming.
"But I would say his pungent, transgressive, slightly out-of-control talent was something the BBC could ill afford to lose”.
Why are we so sanctimonious? Why do we hold our political leaders, athletic heroes, literary scions, and Hollywood heroes to such high, unattainable standards? They only do what we can only hope to do – speak our minds, sleep with starlets, be privy to state secrets, and be loved and admired by millions.
Aspiration to such wealth and power is understandable. Not only do they confer special social status and because they provide comfort, security, and physical well-being,; but they provide special license. Those with power, money, and influence are forgiven errors of judgment, transgressions, and moral lapses. The privileged can have their cake and eat it too.
Of course we are envious and jealous of those with such license. Our admiration comes with a penalty. Men may love JFK for his dalliances with Marilyn Monroe and MLK for his healthy and fulfilled sexual appetite, but we are obliged to censure them at the same time. We may be men, but we are all heir to a common Puritan heritage. Sensuality and the satisfaction of physical desires must come with a price.
American men love the French because they have a guilt-free attitude towards sex. The cinq-a-sept tryst, a man’s dalliance with his lover after work and before a home-cooked meal, has always been the ideal. The French have understood male sexuality as a biological imperative, and have been loathe to condemn its expression.
French women too have been far more sexually liberated than their American counterparts. The Story of O, Liaisons Dangereuses, Anais Nin, and Madame Bovary attest to the French understanding of human sexuality. To deny it is to confess ignorance. Jackson Pollock and Norman Mailer were bullies. Tennessee Williams was a proud sexual libertine. Churchill was an arrogant drunkard. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in an alcoholic haze.
The great British statesman Benjamin Disraeli had his sexual peculiarities.
Disraeli's biographers have noticed that there were some romantic irregularities in his past: he preferred old ladies to young women; he married late; he had a passion for male friendship. The standard explanation for this is that in those pre-Freudian days there was a Romantic cult of friendship and that love between men was sexually "innocent" (the underlying assumption being that sexual contact is "guilty"). Some of his earliest biographers (such as W. F. Monypenny and G. E. Buckle) explained away Disraeli's odd history of affectionate relationships by saying it was due to the "oriental" part of his nature (www.thefreelibrary.com)
In neither case- that of a British statesman or of a celebrated American artist – did personal preferences and proclivities make any difference to their craft. Warhol’s silk screens of Marilyn hand only a peripheral reference to the artist’s sexuality. Disraeli’s personal life had nothing to o with his efforts to consolidate social reform, to codify the law on public health and laws to prevent labor exploitation and recognition of trade unions.
The point is that not only should prominent men and women never be censured for their personal behavior, preferences, sexual choices, and political expressions; but that the relationship between marginal behavior, excellence, and creativity be celebrated.
Who knows how the sexual vitality of Martin Luther King and JFK was essential to their leadership? How the adulation of women in passionate sexual affairs augmented their confidence and ability to take risks? Who can say that prejudice and racial hostility did not provide the emotional abrasion necessary for the great works of Pound or Kant?
What about meanness? Identifying weakness and vulnerability whether in a theatre of war, in cabinets of diplomacy, in the bedroom, or in the open market has always been part of human intelligence. Exploiting this weakness to one’s own advantage has been the key to victory and success since the very first human settlement.
For those who avoided hurting others at all cost, such actions were considered mean. Tennessee Williams famously wrote that meanness was the only unconscionable and unpardonable act in life; and the faint-hearted often quote him to justify their reserve and misplaced generosity.
For the rest of us, those who use meanness as a tool for victory are winners. A canny observer of human nature and a savvy manipulator of it, he had the intelligence to devise a strategy for victory and success and the will to carry it out. A Nietzschean through and through and a modern day hero.
In this sanctimonious, righteous age, little is forgiven. In days past genius was given license, for everyone knew that creativity, innovation, and leadership were functions of ego, disregard for convention, and absolute individualism. Yet today an appreciation of the integrity of personality – warts, boils, blemishes, and scars notwithstanding – is lacking. We judge looking through one narrow lens, and the observation is necessarily myopic and ignorant.
Judge politicians by service to their constituents, judges by their jurisprudence, poets by their meter, rhyme, and allegory; dancers by their elegance; artists by their insights and perception.
Although biographical context has become increasingly current in judging performance – a writer according to deconstructionist theory is no more than the sum of those environmental factors which made him – it is no more relevant today than one hundred or five-hundred years ago. Biography may illuminate, but conditions can never fully explain genius.