an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

Stones, Sex Scandals, and Self-Knowledge, in American Mass Culture

Bill Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” (White House press conference, January 26, 1998)
Bill Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” (White House press conference, January 26, 1998)

One might wonder what blissfully lucky, but still informed, noble souls in the world have somehow been able to healthily escape the public inundation of exploration of poor President William Jefferson Clinton’s once-private sex life. Certainly few such persons can have heard the news in 1998 and have avoided hearing more gossip that one might ever want to know – during the so-called “news” – of Clinton’s sexual past and predilections. Now, why is this such an important national subject in the USA, why is it so important for that nation which prides itself on being “the leader of the free world”, “the world’s greatest democracy”, even “the greatest nation on the earth” – “Number 1”?

In moving from the USA to Soviet Russia and back in the late 1980s, I noted how America often seemed to have an excess of something, whereas in Russia (then Soviet, and now Democratic/Dollar Russia), there was often a deficit. And it is symptomatic of much wider and deeper social and civilizational contrasts that while America in 1998 has the apparent luxury to worry ad nauseum about a minor sexual affair in the White House, Russia in the same time has a leadership which has next to no legitimacy and trust in the hearts and minds of her people. Who rules Russia – and by what rules shall Russia live – is in question; at the same time that the events in the US President’s Oval Office restroom are hotly discussed and debated nationally in the USA. Deficit. Excess.

If one has something resembling a high or noble conception of the nature of the human being (Is this still possible at the end of the twentieth-century – except among “new age” fantasts in the West or elsewhere?), one might well consider it a scandal that the US population – which sees itself to be leading the world in so many ways – is so preoccupied with sex scandals in the US White House. One American social critic admitted on one of the many national evening talk shows in the US, that the attention that the US population gives to President Clinton’s personal sex life reveals the “prurient interests” of the human soul. Now, aside from the telling fact that 99% of the US population could only poorly recognize, explain or define the concept of “prurience”, it could be argued, it seems to this author, that the passionate interest and preoccupation of the American people (and not only, but especially, them) in President Clinton’s sexual affairs is little less than voyeuristic! It is as if the US population – many with (feigned?) disgust and antipathy – were going to a red-light district of some major city, in order to see lewd peep shows. (Incognito of course!)

Sex is, has been, and will be a hot pop topic for the masses (demos) in the USA and elsewhere; especially sex scandals of those in high places. Were the American people more conscious of their own individual and collective inner psyches, had American society – also in its collective public discussions – a deeper, more serious, full and profound idea of the real nature of the human being than it does (which, in the now often forgotten and/or rejected Christian anthropology, was seen to be a battle field of the virtues and vices), they might not be so self-pleased and – righteous en masse to cast the first stone at Bill Clinton.

The entire complex of public interest in the “scandal” reveals many deeper aspects of American mass social psychology. Modern times’ sociologists, and psychologists, following history’s philosophers, religious men and women, writers, poets, and social critics, are well aware that individuals in a crowd, in a mass, behave quite differently than as individuals alone. One aspect of American society revealed by the mass national interest in the sexual affairs of the President is the decided superficiality and ephemerality of the mass mind and media in America. (Setting its great example to the world?) Tantalized righteous indignation in some; pure prurient delight in others; naive disgust in others some are actually not interested!; how can we, so late in human history, have such shallow public ideas of how Clinton’s private activities are little different in kind or character to what most people do (or frankly feel and think in their honest hearts and minds) in private? As St. Augustine held: we all sinned with Adam, and not just latter-day US Presidents.

Unindividualized people follow the crowd, and many people, now happily throwing stones at the “immoral” Clinton, are either shallow, ignorant, or imperiling, of their own human souls. Clinton is being treated – often righteously and piously – little differently than if a young woman were forced to strip on a stage before a crowded, drunken, frenzied audience. (There is an expression in America: media “feeding-frenzy”, to which it is telling to note that the word “frenzy”, derived – as Plato well understood–from a Greek word for the mind [phren], means: a state of violent mental agitation or wild excitement.)

Now, the American people are often heard to say that such personal matters as Clinton’s sex life are not serious subjects – that the nation should attend to more important problems in the world. Nice theory; but bad facts – many such people none the less cannot wait to hear or see the very latest tidbit of the scandal (be that e. g. of O. J. Simpson, or President Bill Clinton). Voyeurism. Hypocrisy.

The Clinton scandal – which has for months (scandal du jour?) completely absorbed hours and hours of US TV, and radio, and print, with all-so-serious commentators and analysts trying to talk dispassionately about the latest lewd “news” about the “Lewinsky Affair”, the legal-constitutional implications of Clinton’s amorous activities, and his trying to keep private what so many themselves do in private, – reveals much about the condition of man (in the USA). Let there be a full-scale investigation into the facts and details of the sex lives of the prominent social critics and commentators, of, as someone suggested, the sex lives of all US Senators! And even if righteous critics like the Congressmen Newt Gingrich, Orrin Hatch, or Jesse Helms are “free of sin” in their outer (and inner) lives . . . are they perfectly pure saints (which no man can seriously claim if they have deep self-knowledge!)?

The “Clinton scandal” reveals much of the mass psychology of the American people – one might also consider a lingering religious moralism, middle-class sexual ethics, etc. They move from one scandal and media event to the next – all the time often protesting how unimportant and unserious is the issue to which they nonetheless devote such avid crowd interest and attention. To call it hypocrisy is far too simple for such a mass phenomena.

The Delphic Oracle had written in Greek above a portal: gnothi seauton, know thyself. The passions, the months of hours of interest and discussions spent in America on Clinton’s sex life (and perjurous attempts to conceal it – like most anyone in such a position would do) and the earnestness of the news analysis, are revelations of the human condition en masse in the USA. Someone should investigate the scandalous spiritual and social conditions of “the world’s greatest nation”, which this entire mass national voyeurism reveals – including, among other excesses, one of deep self-ignorance of human nature, and casting stones.

First published in the magazine English, #42, November 1998, p. 6.