Marital Outfidelity & Unoriginal Sin

Written by Lionel Tiger on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

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

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

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?