Marital Outfidelity & Unoriginal Sin

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These are the kinds of thoughts stimulated by the recent acceleration of episodes of infidelity and outfidelity. There is clearly a stew of national consternation about just what should be the standards of private conduct that public personalities should follow. Obviously it takes a real jerk to say one thing about moral perfection and then act in another way and furthermore get caught. Such high ineptitude has no place in high places. People who claim the public's attention and respect deserve the scorn they stimulate when they malefact. Sputter they may, but foolish they are.

Though Gary Hart was something of a trendsetter, the prototypical case was that of Newt Gingrich. Whether one liked it or not, he had developed a genuine case for moral renovation of the United States. He used his powerful post to generate the beginnings of a political change of some real meaning. But then his private appetites and an overdeveloped sense of self-righteous entitlement combined with simpleminded vanity to dramatically erode his political future. The result is he is now a radio announcer and low-calorie speaker at conference banquets.

The same fate may befall Rudy Giuliani?though for some almost alchemical reason the candor of his deviation from the norms he himself set may protect him in an unexpected manner. Yes, he had long overlooked disclosing an annulled 14-year marriage. (Annulled? Huh? On what possible acceptable grounds? By which rectitudinous church? The same one that concocted Teddy Kennedy's annulment? You mean the marriage never happened?) He seemed to announce his private separation from his wife in a disagreeably public manner. But like Bill Clinton, the odd transparency of his public persona may in the long run insulate him from the apparent danger of his own misbehavior, though it has already cost him his shot at a Senate seat in 2000.

But the most interesting questions are what is misbehavior in the first place, why the issue of private morality arises so heatedly and why it appears to be expected that public people will abide by more exacting standards of private life than ordinary folk. My former colleague at Rutgers, the Machiavelli scholar Sebastian de Grazia, characterizes the matter crisply: there is a conflict between two oaths, the public one with one's constituency, and the private one with one's spouse. It's a balancing act with deep standing in the history of first ladies here and everywhere, in the Greek and Shakespearean tragedies, in the soap opera of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and of kings and queens and paramours forever. Since sex is the principal cause of divorce, it appears also to affect or afflict or infect nearly half the ordinary population. Is the 45-foot basket too high off the ground?

Notwithstanding its questionable practice on annulments to say nothing of an avalanche of its other historical deficiencies, the Roman Catholic approach to personal sin at least lowers the hypocrisy level in personal morality. The assumption is that because you are merely a human being you will do wrong things. It comes with your private territory and everyone else's too. As a matter of course you will be prepared to acknowledge these in the public privacy of the confessional. Doing wrong is normal and rather predictable even if undesirable. A week's buildup is not unusual. The mechanism of the confession?soul-flossing?is psychologically sound if for no other reason than that it allows the miscreant the opportunity to confront his or her behavior directly. It helps outline full awareness of the relationship between what happened and what should have happened. However little light finds its way into the confessional booth, it is much more than in the dark night of the private soul that the Protestant Reformation imposed on individuals. The Protestantesque contest between the individual and his or her God is extraordinarily unequal. The individual is doomed to founder or find the interaction so displeasing as to abandon it altogether. In the secular world, even visiting a psychiatrist implies that the individual is being reduced, if we are to take seriously the image of the shrink.

Sin is not original. The concept of original sin is unconnected with individuals. It's a theological fantasy, a conceptual folly associated with management policy that represents an effort to confront theodicy?the endlessly bewildering problem of why there's evil in a world made, it is claimed, by a putatively loving and helpful God.

It has little to do with local people and their struggles of the heart and body. Our species like all others is designed for reproduction. The program supporting it begins in earnest at adolescence and barely ever ends. Even at his state funeral President Mitterrand's mistress and their "love child" (an atrocious and heartless term) were present. Normal sin was in evidence at a dramatic time.

But should this become the norm or a desirable and enviable signal of a life elegantly and fairly lived?

Of course not, because triangle marriages are inherently unstable and more often than not unfair to someone if not everyone.

The fact is that couples who seem happy are widely envied. This suggests there is a sort of comfort zone in that conventional pattern. And it presumably became conventional in the industrial world because it provides the best compromise between two often opposing requirements. The first is that the individual has to be a nimble individualist economic unit. The second is that same individual's underlying need for the embrace of an emotionally agreeable environment that provides structure and flow to private experience. So people understand the virtues of families, which is one central reason why there is hostility to people who break up families whatever the grand passion that may impel them to do so. And yet because humans are always potentially serial reproducers or lovers or courtiers or flirters, then it is only to be expected that episodes of marital breakup will occur.

And occur and occur, and in the modern style occur with painful transparency. Public life and private increasingly overlap, often by harsh design of public relations warriors and political managers. The stars of the show may perform well at their jobs, on cue, but they may tire and inwardly rebel and then to whom may they confess?

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