"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, January 13, 2014

France And America–Sex, Trust, And Politics

When Bill Clinton was caught with his knickers down and Monica Lewinsky under the desk, the country was subjected to months of smarmy commentary.  Clinton did himself no favors by trying to lawyer his way out of scandal.  “Depends on what you mean when you say ‘sex’”, he said. “Define your terms”, and instead of admitting what half of American have done at some point in their married lives, he hemmed and hawed, dithered, and evaded the facts.

Most men I met in Europe, Africa and Latin America during that period felt that Clinton had let them down. Of course powerful men screw around and were proud of it. Kissinger famously said that “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”, and the fact that that squirrely old man got so much pussy proved it.  Clinton was a wuss and a wimp for hiding behind Hilary’s protective skirts (she knew on which side her bread was buttered, and stood by her man), and made a fool of himself instead of doing a cock-walk, strutting to the podium, and winking.

French politicians, on the other hand, have no such concerns. They all have their cinq à sept, love nests in the 16th, and make no bones about having a mistress.  President Hollande is living with his current paramour and is now cheating on her.  His trysts have been allegedly held in the apartment of a well-known gangster, and one paparazzi caught Monsieur le President roaring off in leather on a Harley. Hollande didn’t deny the sex, he only hammered the press for invasion of privacy. He is a cultural hero.

Former President Francois Mitterrand had at least one mistress, had a child by her, and the threesome were often seen together.  In a photograph unimaginable in the United States, Mitterrand’s mistress and illegitimate daughter were photographed at his wife’s funeral – the surviving pair of the ménage à trois.

Former President Sarkozy had his dalliance with Carla Bruni long before his marriage, and the French public knew it was only a matter of time before he ditched Cécilia Ciganer-Albeniz in favor of the far hotter Carla.

American presidents and national heroes have all done their share of tomcatting.  JFK was perhaps the most well-known, but every other Chief Executive except Richard Nixon  either had longstanding extra-marital relationships (like Roosevelt) or serial quickies like Johnson. MLK was a veritable Lothario.  Up until a few decades ago these sexual adventures were kept secret by the press, and most citizens were in the dark about the night life of their Presidents.  Now we have to suffer through the scandalous stories, the abject apologies, the groveling, images of the stoic wife and loyal children, and the inevitable dunning out of office.  It’s as bad as the story of poor Hester Prynne.

So far, so good.  France is open and tolerant about sex.  The United States is not.  The bigger issue, however, is trust.  American women felt that after Monica Lewinsky they could no longer trust Clinton to run the country.  If he cheated on his wife, he was likely to cheat on them.

The French are either happy with Socialist Hollande’s taxes on the wealthy, support of labor unions, and interventionist social policies; or are leaving the country for European tax havens and free markets.  One thing is perfectly clear, however.  His sexual dalliances have absolutely nothing to do with his politics or his ability to run the country.

So, why is this? First of all, Americans tend to see things more in black-and-white than Europeans who have a more nuanced view of human behavior. Even a cursory glance at European history with its thousand years of alliances, betrayals, wars, assassinations, usurpations, and glories reveals that life is complex. Contradictions are the rule rather than the exception.  Kings can be ruthless and compassionate.  Cardinals pious and duplicitous. Cardinal Wolsey was a powerful politician and king-maker, but few doubted his religious faith.

Americans have always been black hat – white hat since the days of frontier justice. “Yer either with me or agin me” was the mantra of George W. Bush in his bullying approach to the invasion of Iraq.  LBJ’s inability to see anything but godless, relentless, expansionist Communism got us mired in Vietnam.

Second, we Americans seem to be willing to put up with a lot of hypocrisy.  We know damned well that our leaders screw around just like everybody else; and we sure as hell would invite Marilyn Monroe into the Oval Office if we had the chance. Yet at the same time we abide by Biblical injunctions and feel obliged to demand moral probity especially by our leaders.  We seem to have no problem with speaking out of both sides of our mouths.

Marilyn Monroe

Feminism has a particularly censorious and intolerant cast to it in the United States.  Men are sub-par, hormone-driven predators who need to be neutered.  Lesbians rule. European women are more tolerant and accepting of the differences between men and women.  A man can be more or less faithful, for it is in his nature to prowl.  The cause of women’s rights has more to do with economic and political power than it does with marital fidelity.

Finally, there are a lot of fundamentalist Christian poor in America, a nasty combination when it comes to sexual permissiveness.  Not only do they believe in the literal truth of the Bible, but they couldn’t afford a mistress even if they wanted one. They listen to the thundering word of God on Sunday, work two jobs during the week, and come home too knackered to think of anything except American Idol and a bucket of wings. The East and West Coasts may be urbane, wealthy socialites; but life down in the Delta is different.  It is still the ‘real’ America and one of absolutes. You either are a cheater or you’re not.

There may come a day when we elect a sexually mature and ambitious President; one proud of his masculinity and sexual prowess, but equally committed to good governance; but that seems a goodly way off. For the time being we will have to be content with admiring (or hating) the French for their moral flexibility; and, let’s be honest, for having a lot more fun.

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