I didn’t really have a response when I first heard that John Edwards cheated on his wife. Cheating is common enough, and I tend to presume all political leaders have extra-marital affairs. But what’s prompted me to write is the mania that’s followed, the outrage at his bad conduct, the fuss over his attempts to cover up such a personal screw-up (as opposed to a political screw-up). A quick search pulls up headlines like, “John Edwards fiddled while America burned” and “Edwards' hometown dismayed by revelations of affair.” It bothers me because I’m not sure what it will take for the American public to recognize the disconnect between private life and political competence.
This story seems to exist not because Edwards has trouble with fidelity but because we’re a nation of gossips. A public figure’s private life isn’t our business, but we continue to insist that it is. Forget that our nation thrived under the presidency of a notorious sex fiend, or that it suffers under the presidency of someone who is ostensibly faithful. We shrug at the issues that matter, preferring instead to focus on the issues that are easiest for us to understand (or so we believe), issues that trigger the sort of knee-jerk response that will almost certainly be shared by friends and neighbors. Like infidelity. We’ve got a whole arsenal of platitudes on that subject.
If we actually cared about infidelity, we’d give it some real thought. We’d question why it’s so common. We’d look to other attitudes, attitudes we neither share nor understand. We’d allow for a more nuanced discussion, perhaps find solutions or new ways to think about intimacy and fidelity. If there’s anything I’ve learned as a prostitute, it’s that our attitudes toward marriage are simplistic, even naive, and that simplistic thinking is encouraged and exploited by the gossip media. But then, I’m not convinced it’s the cheating that matters to us so much as the power of judging and condemning strangers. That’s what keeps the gossip rags going - they feed the public with a steady stream of fallen heroes, the powerful at their weakest, the beautiful at their ugliest, the famous at their most damaged. It makes us feel superior when we’re feeling otherwise insecure. Gossip culture has surpassed religion as the ultimate opiate.
The Marquis de Sade, with his talent for weaving political commentary with necrophilia, feels eerily relevant here with his remarks on mass distraction in Juliette (1797). (And I suppose I’m invoking de Sade, rather than Huxley or Marx, because there’s something excellent in crossing de Sade’s filth with Edwards’ pretty, hangdog face.) In a lecture to King Ferdinand of Naples, Juliette denounces the king’s policy of keeping the subjects of his kingdom distracted. “You fear the powerful eye of genius. That is why you encourage ignorance,” she says. “It’s opium you feed your people, so that, drugged, they do not feel their injuries.” Ignorance is the opiate of the masses here, and since there is nothing to be gained from intelligent thought, “a taste for trivial things replaces a taste for great things.” Much like gossip, our own opiate. We skew our tastes down and shovel it in, one headline at a time.