Front page news is the story of Mark Foley’s lust for young male flesh and what it’s doing to the Republican Party. There’s blood in the water and what a shark-feeding frenzy it is. I make no secret of my loathing for the Bush Administration and I’ve joined the Bush bashers routinely with almost every opportunity. This time, though, I want to reflect on what it means to be one of those sharks at lunch. Or, to use perhaps a better metaphor, I feel like the world is following the spotlight to one part of the stage, and missing action of much greater consequence being played out in the dark.
Look what’s happening here. Mark Foley is being institutionalized for having a drinking problem “and other behavioral problems.” A euphemism for pedophilia. To take anything less than quick decisive action at this point would only work against him. But let’s take a look at those so-called “behavioral problems.” The age of consent in Washington, D.C. is 16. Any monkeying around with a 16-year-old is not pedophilia; it’s sex between consenting adults. Even if Foley had actually engaged in sex with pages, and even if we grant that e-mailing messages with sexual innuendos is a form of sexual behavior, the issue is not pedophilia; it’s abuse of power and hypocrisy. But hypocrisy only to the degree Foley is a closeted homosexual and not forthcoming about the fact he misrepresents himself to his rightwing constituency, many of whom would tar and feather him for his sexuality if they could have at him.
Foley is being ridiculed for having stated publicly that he found pedophiles disgusting. This isn’t hypocritical. It’s not even insincere, necessarily. An adult who engages in sexual activity with willing teenagers over the age of consent can be just as readily disgusted as the next guy by adults who engage in sexual activity with unwilling or unknowing nine-year-olds. What this means is that once again we’re back hiding under our beds, hiding from one of America’s more prevalent native monsters – its infantile view of sexuality.
Foley is not psychologically disordered for getting turned on to young guys, for Christ’s sake! He’s feeling what any of the rest of us might feel under certain circumstances. Teachers, priests, boy scout leaders – any adult who works with young people – can discover an attraction for them growing out of close contact. There’s nothing wrong with that attraction and pretending it doesn’t happen keeps us from coming to terms with it. Things go awry, however, if we don’t stick to two hard and fast rules. First, you don’t use your power over a young person to make them do things against their will that they could conceivably come to regret. And second, you don’t break the law. Those rules, it strikes me, are pretty close to absolute, and if you can’t follow them, you ought not to be working with young people. To these rules I would strongly recommend two additional rules, not of law but of professional ethics. You don’t allow yourself to give preferential treatment or otherwise make an ass of yourself, and if your work involves representing the wishes of a particular constituency, you live up to the expectations of that constituency.
Clinton is being trotted out by the right these days for any number of purposes. Bush and Company are now trying to get out from under the failure to capture Osama bin Laden by claiming Clinton should have caught him first. In connection with the Foley case, at least one right winger, Brit Hume, is trying to put a positive spin on the affair by pointing out that Gerry Studds, Barney Frank and Bill Clinton all got away with it, while the Republicans took quick action. Never mind the inaccuracies in that statement. Look at the reminder of what happens to people who have sex and note that while nobody here is talking about sex with kids, we’re focusing on sexual behavior instead of on abuse of power. The reason Gerry Studds and Barney Frank “got away with it” is that their constituents did as I suggest we should do now. They asked whether it was about sex or power, decided on power, saw no abuse, and moved on. Ultimately, that’s what happened to Clinton, as well. Hume’s trumpeting Republican superiority because here, in Foley’s case, they’re nailing him for being sexual, is repeating the same mistake we make when we fill our jails with the drug addicted whom we put in a framework of criminality rather than a framework of illness.
Clinton, by doing the naughty under his desk in the Oval Office, was not guilty of my first two (hard and fast) rules. That explains why the impeachment proceedings were such an outrage. You don’t impeach people for ethical shortcomings, but for breaking the law. Foley, too, has not yet been determined to have broken any laws, and if it turns out that he has, they will probably be technicalities. He, like Clinton, needs to take full responsibility for letting his constituents down, for being unethical, possibly stupid, definitely imprudent, but not for illegal activity. What they both show is how readily Americans can go at people with the full force of the judiciary when what we ought to be doing is remarking on their immaturity and wishing we had elected people to office who were a little bit more grown up.
But here we go again, focusing on sex when the real wrongs being done are hypocrisies involved in grossly inappropriate behavior followed by clumsy and barefaced deceit in covering up the problems. When, oh when, will we ever get to the place where we can allow sex to be just another appetite which, like greed for sugar, carbohydrates and money, does not make us monsters, but simply not-ready-for-prime-time players.
Foley is being labeled by the Christian right (and quite a few others besides) as a sexual predator. I don’t want to take Foley’s side. He appears to have gone over the line in getting sexual. But what is truly offensive is the blame being attributed to his homosexuality. The inability to come to terms with one’s sexuality is a social problem that many homosexuals suffer from, but the problem lies in being out of step with social attitudes toward sexuality and not in sexuality itself. More importantly in this instance is that the lie is being repeated once again that sexual abuse of children is inherent in homosexuality, a lie as foul as the claim that blacks are given to laziness and violence and Jews to greed. If you want to know what gay-bashing looks like, here it is. Couldn’t be plainer or simpler or writ more large. Not to say more simple-minded.
These misrepresentations that minorities regularly have to contend with, like pepper thrown in the eyes, are hurtful and shameful. But the real damage is in the way they cast the light on the wrong issues. It’s not about sexuality. It’s about abuse of power.
Amy Berg has recently completed a documentary film which takes on Los Angeles Cardinal Mahoney for his part in hiding child abusers in his diocese for over twenty-five years. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) will not give her a permit to show a trailer for the movie to general audiences because of the content, even though the content of the trailer is careful about how the topic is presented. The latest incarnation of Texas Chainsaw Massacre will make it into the regular theaters, but Amy’s film may be restricted to art houses. Amy invited 600 members of the community to a showing, including members of the US Supreme Court, the District Attorney and City Attorney, but nobody showed up. They all showed up for Mahoney’s “Red Mass” , however, and Mahoney’s status as member of the ruling class continues unabated. The Catholic Church has moved on. Homosexuals are now being scapegoated for the scandal and hounded out of the priesthood, and scant attention, if any, is being paid to distinguishing between those who preyed on children and those who, in no way different from heterosexual priests who find sexual opportunities with women of the parish, simply broke their vows of chastity and often expressed a sexuality tied to love, compassion and affection. With Foley, too, we’re very likely to go on missing the woods for the trees. We will nail Foley for the wrong reasons and forget the problem is our inability to take sex in stride and curtail the abuse of power.
The Foley story is big at the moment, and there is more than one distraction from what I am arguing should be the main foreground issue. Salon, and even John Stewart have said or implied that the Foley story might be working as a diversion from the bungled terror war and the infinitely more consequential fact that the United States Legislature has just granted the president the power to arrest non-citizens without habeas corpus, to torture prisoners and to try them without revealing their accusers, and possibly even to execute them without due process. The Foley scandal, bad as it is for Republicans, might actually mitigate outrage against this abrupt departure from democratic practices and thus actually improve GOP odds going into the election. I think there’s fire behind that smoke, but I find the idea it’s a Republican plot pretty far-fetched. Still, it’s a distraction.
We need shed no tears for Mr. Foley. Like James McGreevey, the former governor of New Jersey who retired almost two years ago after having been outed as a gay man, Foley will no doubt be getting lucrative book offers once he “recovers” from his “psychological disorder.” McGreevey seems to have found his integrity at last. OK, settling down with a gay lover and leaving the homophobic Catholic Church for the gay-friendly Episcopal Church may not be everybody’s idea of integrity, but you have to admit it suggests he is getting his shit together. Foley, on the other hand, has yet to step up to the starting line. Despite his record of supporting gay causes to a degree which has long alarmed many of the extreme right, he once declared, after being outed, that any charges about his homosexuality were “revolting and unforgivable.” If he means getting caught is revolting and unforgivable, that’s his tough luck. If he means being homosexual is revolting and unforgivable, all I can say is “poor baby.” Lining up with arch homophobe Rick Santorum, voting to impeach Bill Clinton, backing Ashcroft’s attacks on civil liberties, and to me most egregiously, voting for the foully mislabeled “Defense of Marriage Act” makes him a self-hating gay example par excellence, the kind of guy Christopher Isherwood once wrote about as the most dangerous of men, the kind that would work faster and harder to punish his own kind to demonstrate for all the world to see that he’s “not one of them.” What a strong argument Foley makes for outing.
There’s where I think the heart of this story lies. People don’t have to demonstrate maturity before running for political office, God knows. Foley isn’t the first child in a man’s clothing to make the laws we have to live by, and he won’t be the last. But as long as we have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy in our military while gay men in Spain can be married in a naval uniform by the mayor of Seville, and as long as we have heterosexuals who divorce at a rate above 50% writing “Defense of Marriage” laws to keep gay people from having their marriages recognized by the state, and as long as men with homosexual feelings hold office by referring to those feelings as revolting and unforgivable, we’re going to continue to trip over our sexual immaturity and lend credence to the charge that America is an empire run by children.
October 2, 2006