Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Dangerous Liasons Of Client #9, And Other Morality Plays

by L DeSilva-Johnson (writer), Brooklyn, NY, March 17, 2008


New York's newsrooms remain abuzz with this latest scandal, the indiscretions of a vocal Moral Warrior. Are we asking the right questions if all our answers are sordid details? Whence relativity?

Here in myopic New York it is easy to assume that our news is yours, too, but let me start out by a little "factual" review: as of 1 pm today, Elliot Spitzer (D), New York's 54th governor, will be resigning in the wake of a scandal revealing his involvement in a prostitution ring. Amongst the facts revealed over the past week was that this vehemently moral crusader was largely responsible for the investigatory task force that ultimately did him in. It made me wonder if he didn't in part intend or hope for this to happen, as so many who find themselves in the unintended, human morass of questionable morality so often do.

Our headlines, both local and national, have grown accustomed to high-profile scandal, wherein the lines of im/propriety on the personal level interweave with professional and public life, and beg the question: what is appropriate behavior for our public figures? Furthermore, these: how, when, and why should these individuals be judged on the basis of personal indiscretions? More generally, is an increasingly visible link of moral/ethical "right" with civil/national law an indication of an increasingly policed philosophical state? And, how are these trends creating confusion and unhappiness in us on a personal level?

This week is a banner one for such stories, with similar tales in both National and International headlines. And of course who could forget the sea of ink spilt over the dalliances of President Clinton? The dress! The stain! The cigar! Leaves of Grass!... while it may be extreme to suggest that this is merely a lot of unneccessary fuss? can we agree that, at least, we're not asking the right questions in response?

In "Ethics for the New Milennium," the Dalai Lama writes about how we find happiness in a Modern world, considering that as we gain financial wealth and power both personally and as a nation, Americans in particular display an increasing dissatisfaction with their lives. We are, in general, unhappy. Our figureheads in every aspect of our lives (lets say, in general, our cultural, political, and commercial sectors?) are constantly on display as examples of this on a extreme level: wherein the propensity for indiscretion and the acting out of questionably moral scenarios meets both the financial ability to do so frequently and in excess, as well as the standing to do so largely out of the reaches of the Law's long arm.

With our young cultural icons in and out of jail and rehab, our politicians in and out the bordello revolving door, and wall streeters with little fear supporting a thriving cocaine industry, is this the dawning of a new day of Sodom? I think I just passed a statue of Baal on 42nd and Eighth. Oh my!

This is absurd. Prostitution is not only referred to as "the oldest profession" jokingly. Human error, and those missteps we take on our paths through the complicated moral landscape of our lives is the fodder of our History and its telling, its songs and dramas, from the beginning. Man's propensity for sin is the basis for myths from all cultures, all over the world. Our struggle between our human natures, our physical, material world, and then our questions of how we "should" proceed are the earliest and most enduring we have.

It is important to remember that our answers to these questions, both philosophically and civically, are far from fixed - that the translation of human morality into Law continues to be a question with no certain answer, and that in fact it is around the application of this question that we have found ourselves the actors of our tumultuous History, replete with and large scale horrors. Individual acts of immeasureable cruelty are constantly performed in service to innumerable, shifting versions of "the greater good."

Each and every one of us has the ability to fall victim to our weaknesses, and it would be fair to say that most of us do. But so do each of us have the potential to discern for ourselves wherein just actions and moral judgements lie. While I am not a buddhist outright, I have found that for myself, it is useful to consider the tenets of kindness and refusal to participate in human cruelty as the most basic steps towards a moral life. Forgiveness (of oneself as well as others) and humility, and an appreciate of our shared frailties and challenges at this most human level, can begin to relieve our feelings of shame that are largely outwardly imposed. As I was reminded once by a very wise friend, "there is no fault in one's impulses, only in how we act on these." And even if we sense we misstep, we can personally do a great deal in increasing our happiness simply by reminding ourselves how much we are all finally, permanently, and humanly flawed - and by laughing at this, as much as possible. We are, in our most raw and indiscrete moments, in the best of company, from our contemporaneous time and from every time before!

One of the problems is that we continue to be reminded of how horrible we are. In an ever increasing maelstrom of Ethical, Moral, and Value laden rhetoric coming from our power epicenters, and filtering out through media and other less obvious pores, these human errors, frailties of our souls and hearts, become indicators of a historically-located large scale tragedy, something to be "fixed."

We are aware that moral relativity is ubiquitous in our society, visible at all times if we choose to remind ourselves that only rarely do rules or laws apply to all persons or even most persons, that these media circuses occur at carefully orchestrated times, and of course not even remotely as frequently as these "indiscretions" occur. Illegal drug use is rampant amongst the wealthy and middle classes, who make up a paltry few of the astounding number currently incarcerated for these "crimes." In fact, "criminality" appears to be a pretty relative accusation in general. So is "obscenity," and a long list of accusatory adjectives assigned to items of (always temporary) moral outrage.

As I read about publicly funded foundations in the U.S. increasingly bogged down in censorship issues, hear about religious and other interest groups controlling and censoring media output, and various other similar trends, flags go off in my head -- how do we unconsciously absorb the accusations of our time? How do we paint ourselves into a larger picture, with someone else's brush and palette, and find ourselves shameful, unsure of our own moral fiber, and unhappily an active participant of an "immoral" age and its dalliances? Do we judge ourselves subconsciously while we allow for large scale contradiction, lapses in application, and general relativity of judgement?

With all the colors of nostalgia we often depict pockets of history as more or less demonstrative of moral fiber and "solid values" -- in the populace, in the religious sector, in financial operations, in creative output, and so forth. We seek to model ourselves on ethics found in books, de-contextualized from the human errors and indiscretions of those days, without considering the agenda that kept one human and one civic in scope.

I do not portend to defend Spitzer or any other, but today I seek to remind myself that it could easily be any of us in similar shoes, and that in another age it would not seem as sordid, that each choice is individual and that "ethics" remain to be sought out and challenged continually from here forward. "Let he without sin cast the first stone" comes to mind. We could do well to remind ourselves of our shared human weaknesses, to cultivate compassion and forgiveness on every level, even when our first impulse is to judge and criticise. Even as I have often held the torch for seeking a virtuous life, I will be the first to admit egregious errors in judgement -- and given our individual positions and resources, I must remember the increased relativity of ability to act these out, as well as the additional restraint required by our public servants.

We have often added to the histories of previous eras the personal indiscretions of great men and women, with dubious intent -- perhaps it could serve to humanize these individuals, to help us see how flawed we all are, but instead it is all too often in the service of this or that agenda, bent on poking holes in the legitimacy of action in other sectors when the personal life shows visible error. (Jefferson comes to mind.) But so too are we well versed in myths of heroism that turn a blind eye to well known indiscretion (JFK comes to mind). Perhaps as we consider the actors in this particular staging of the Human Drama, we need hold ourselves accountable to who we bring down in the blind anger of "immorality" that may indeed be temporary, and what losses we suffer from too easily allowing the slippage of humanity's first attribute into political fodder.

About the Writer

L DeSilva-Johnson is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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7 comments on The Dangerous Liasons Of Client #9, And Other Morality Plays

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By Steven Lane on March 17, 2008 at 08:58 pm

I totally agree with Morgana. A persons private life is just that ..private." However, I do have to say that I found Mr Spitzer's self serving resignation speech nothing short of disgusting.  His cheap attempt at trying to find the higher moral ground was pitiful. Instead of telling the world what a great guy he is by "fessing" up his indiscrecion, he might have just resigned, shut his mouth and ridden off into the sunset. We all know if he wasn't so stupid as to get caught in a FBI sting, he would still be banging the 22 year old.

Great article

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on March 18, 2008 at 11:21 am

I think you misread me, El G. My point here was more that we are all guilty of lapses of judgement in our personal lives -- and in a "there but for the grace of god" sort of way, if we WERE to find ourselves with power and resources far in excess of those we have at the current, that perhaps we would not act as we'd like to think we would under those circumstances. And I don't mean to dismiss the act as something to ignore, but I think we should consider why we pay so much attention to extramarital liasons sometimes rather than others, and why it is that our contemporary society has increasingly shifted towards a public life laid bare on the table. The sordid details, her myspace pictures, the treatment of the situation by the media...really? If he was a poor governor in other ways that's a seperate conversation, as is the use of public funds for private purposes.

There's spin everywhere, of course... but I think we need to consider what purpose this attention plays in a larger scheme of shifting our focus away from other issues. If it is a simple question in your eyes, I wonder if you condemn other countries or historical periods in which extramaterial indiscretion was a known and private matter, with the populace neither turning a blind eye nor pointing fingers, as we do in turn.

I don't excuse anyone's actions by saying it is a propensity natural to human frailty, but I pose whether we are careful to check our matrix of culturally relative judgement before we cast our stones.

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on March 19, 2008 at 12:57 pm

We're saying the same thing, my friend. You are manipulating everything I say, and frankly I don't appreciate it. We exist in a place in which the same people promote and act on a totally dynamic matrix of shifting ethics in which they are maligned, accused, and promoted if and when it is convenient. I am trying to draw ATTENTION to the problem you pose: that our country outwardly preaches/prides itself on a "standard of public ethics" while we operate in quite a different way. I am trying to help people remember how relative things are in terms of how they are SPUN -- that they are led down the garden path towards accusation of sexual liasons, or titallated by Miss Hollaway and those conversations while we are lulled into complacency by an ethical fairy tale under the hubris of which tragedies like Darfur are allowed to happen.

We are at the same conclusion. I am NOT saying cultural relativism (I really meant moral, but this is also applicable) is a good idea, but that we should remember how pervasive it is when we judge on visably "fixed" values inherent in media-attention scandals. I think we all individually need to spend time developing an ahistorical, personal grounding of our value systems, from which center we are able to negotiate the relative nature of the ethical rhetorics and mixed "rules" that define our society's take on these.

If you go back to the article you will see I am suggesting that it is difficult to say, for instance, if adultery is always wrong. How and why are very complex issues, personally variable, and in its judgement/popular opinion vs. law, there is a long history of changing societal opinion as to its acceptance. As I've suggest there, drawing on buddhist principles, perhaps a simple KIND/CRUEL dichotomy is a good place to start. We are starting to get into the ontological questions of Absolute morals, which I don't know your stance on, but no matter our religious background or perhaps particularly in response to, an individual's personal responsibility to him/herself as well as human society should include a constant engagement/dialogue with law, rules, patterns of organization, action, and condemnation that use as their legitimizing factor an Absolute Moral ground.

How else are people able to legitimize this administrations Fairy Tales while looking the other way at the facts on the ground? In the above, the "public" is both given too much credit (for the creation and sustenance of TMZ-esque drivel, while also being let off the hook as per personal responsibility in the realm of questioning the agenda and derivative power channels behind moral rhetoric. Whose "standard" of public ethics are we upholding? That makes it ok to judge? on that basis? That's as frightening in many cases as its opposite. Both have their downfalls, as polarities often do.

I hope you aren't ired by my responses. As always it's hard to clarify online for a range of audiences who read (and read into) your work in complex and myriad ways... it's quite impossible to clarify to each person wherein they might get confused. Our conversation (wherein I think we are voicing the same concerns) is a good example of both how this forum or similar can be most productive as well as dangerous! In the interest of a journalism that seeks engaged, independent minds/citizens/readers, and encourages the questioning of "fact", "right", and "the way things are", I would also say it's important for us as writers/intermediaries of public and "information," we must both write ourselves into and out of our work : by responding to and admitting falliability, perspective, and being reflexive about our abilities and context, but ALSO being humble and trying to be broad and not overly opinionated, or take our role in this too seriously. As much as we try to know, we are only who and where we are. We should keep this in mind at all times.

As I said, "there but for.... go I."
Thanks, El G. I mean no insult, and enjoy the dialogue.

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on March 21, 2008 at 11:20 am

Thanks Morgana --

I've been thinking a lot after this back and forth about how we, too, participate in mixed ethical actions even in our writing here! It's been productive for me, so I can ask for nothing more -- except hoping that even a few others got to thinking in response ;)

And also -- I'll check out that Taylor, I'm unfamiliar with it!


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By madmax427 on April 01, 2008 at 12:04 pm

As Always L; Very thought provoking! El G brought up the Reality T.V. Programs and Their 'popularity' (among other mind numbing type programs) Yet the fact that these type of programs were NOT brought about BY the Public seemed to be overlooked: I am suggesting a form of CONTROL  being used OVER the Public which, when judged by their Popularity, have been quite successful. Another point eluded to in Your article is the WHY behind the Publics reaction to these scandals. I would just like to mention the political affiliations of Spitzer. If You look at the news during this time, His rival Party had the same type of story in the 'news', but His rivals 'Story' 'slipped' between the cracks while His story garnered ALL the attention. WHY? Are We to believe ONLY Demoncrats are worthy of such Public outrage and Republicons are just being Human? No, The Public is being USED as 'good little attack dogs' for purposes of an AGENDA which determines when and where to strike! Just like 'Justice, Fair Play, equal application of Law, Morals & outrage have NO value other than to unleash the wrath at a target determined by the Agenda being used. Our human fralities are being used against Us and to eliminate the 'competition'. It is very hard to discuss Moral outlook, outrage or position while ignoring those Morals being used as tools to promote an agenda.

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By Rose Mountain on April 19, 2008 at 05:14 pm
Great article thanks for raising these issues. What I find most disturbing is that whenever a sex story hits the headlines, we can almost be certain that some truly important national news is being censored, the news the public really needs be aware of. If you're ready to have your heart broken and your world turned upside down, here's the link to 200 professors at a Calif State University that have been publishing news since 1976 that has been underreported or self-censored in the US media. The professors review and publish 25 news stories each year, from thousands submitted by journalists, librarians, etc. Project Censored at This news is confirmed by independent journalists, is usually about what's happening in the US, often it aired in other countries but is censored in the US. They also publish a book each year, buy the 2008 book on their website or at
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By Rose Mountain on April 19, 2008 at 05:20 pm

I forgot to say that you can read all the news since 1976 is now on the website!! Due to the massive censorship in the US since 2000.

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