Law, order, and the American style of gossip
FROM FRANCE comes sweeping condescension toward American obsessions with the disgrace of prominent figures. The case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn is only the latest. The forced-out head of the International Monetary Fund joins a roll call of notoriety: Weiner, Spitzer, Edwards, Vitter, Sanford, and before them, Clinton, Hart, and many others. Not every public downfall involves sex or politics; add Clemens and Armstrong to the list. The common thread? Men looming large in society, accused of crimes or indiscretions, brought low by a frenzied media, usually in advance of formal charges or verdicts, sometimes to be rehabilitated, but never free of shame.
While tabloid culture is transnational, a peculiarly American pattern is apparent in the collusion between the official investigators - the police, the prosecutors, the congressional committees - and the vast, empowered observing public. And yet this American style of obsession may have universal implications. Is it just our way of working out perennial human questions?
The French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy finds something “pornographic” in the way Strauss-Kahn was first treated, especially in the so-called “perp walk,” the ritual whereby law enforcement collaborates with explosive media coverage - a broad public seemingly invited to take “cannibalistic” pleasure in the humiliation of one who has yet to be convicted. A puritanical condemnation, combining the speculation, rumor, and guesses in which pundits trade, can simultaneously transform the condemned into an object of rampant titillation, especially when the matter is sex. For the proud and the powerful, the perp walk, replayed in endless loops on cable and over social networks, can be a grotesque form of punishment that obliterates the presumption of innocence. Indeed, as Strauss-Kahn’s accuser is now learning herself, just to be accused of misbehavior in the amplified megaphone of round-the-clock media can make subsequent and more rigorous adjudication anticlimactic.
All of this comes to a head in a courtroom, where, unless a deal is struck, the Strauss-Kahn case heads next week. The nation’s attention will be riveted, and why not? Dramas of the court define the mythic center of the public imagination - the never-ending reruns of “Law & Order’’ being the most obvious case in point. In the courtroom, the betrayal of virtue is reckoned with, but the legal forum’s very ubiquity as a cultural holy-of-holies suggests that far more is being dealt with than the miscreant behavior of marginal characters. Is it that an egalitarian nation is hostile, or at best ambivalent, toward pre-eminence? Is the common, if mostly unacknowledged, anguish of having fallen short of ambition somehow assuaged by the spectacle of downfall?
The cases of great figures cut down to size function as civic morality tales because, however good most people are most of the time, temptation is universal. Lust, greed, ambition, envy, fear - choose one. Or three. Every human must navigate the triple labyrinth of animal impulse, rational awareness, and moral choice. No one is immune from the recognition to which St. Paul came: “For the good that I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do.” (Romans 7: 19) It takes nothing away from the gravity of criminal acts, or the unacceptability of the exploitation by the powerful of the weak, to see in the courtroom contest between truth and deceit a process that implicates observers as well as antagonists.
But the public search for the tie between choice and consequence, which is, after all, the meaning of both morality and law, goes to deeper questions. How does character shape action? Do we get what we deserve? We imagine that those who are well known are somehow unlike us, that fame and wealth and power are instruments of control over destiny. When we obsess about their foibles, follies, accidents, crimes, and tragedies, we are working to let go of illusions about ourselves. Fallibility, contingency, foolishness, self-deceit - welcome to the human condition. What alone redeems it, and makes it noble, is the truth, which, despite the oath, is never whole, always mixed. Therefore the story is unending. That is why - duhn-duhn! - we never get enough of law and order.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.