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.