Friday, April 30, 2010

God to The New York Times: "Thou Shalt Not Drop the Bible Speak!"

In a previous post, I explained that The New York Times' “alerts” feature sends a reader an email any time an article of interest appears in the paper. Readers can choose from a list of hundreds of pre-set alert topics. Strangely, it turns out that “adultery” is an alert topic, but “sex scandals” is not. In my post, I suggested that the Times drop the antiquated, moralistic term “adultery” altogether. As a search topic, why not replace it with something more descriptive, like “extramarital sex” or “sex scandals”?

No way, says the Times. In an email response to my proposal that was not just snarkily dismissive but also laughably incoherent, the folks in the Index division insist that the search term “adultery” is preferable to alternatives because, in their estimation, the term “adultery” is less judgmental than possible substitutes like “sex scandals” or “extramarital sex.”

That’s right: The New York Times thinks the term “adultery” is morally neutral. What millenium are these people living in?

And here’s the truly hilarious part: to justify this conclusion, the Times directed me to that great arbiter of truth and objectivity: Wikipedia. (Am I the only one who thought the whole point of reading The New York Times was so that I wouldn’t have to use Wikipedia as my baseline for reality?) But hey, if the Times tells me to read Wikipedia, I read it—which apparently is more than the Index guy who sent me the link can say for himself.

The Wikipedia entry on adultery explains that while the term has Judeo-Christian origins, the concept of an extramarital transgression predates Judaism. Based on this neat historical tidbit, the Times proclaims itself justified in treating the term “adultery” as a moral universal, simply because the idea spans time and place.

Setting aside the absurdity of relying on a strained parsing of a Wikipedia entry to justify an argument of any kind, what is even more risible is the fact that the very first paragraph of the entry in question resoundingly rejects the position the Times seeks to defend! Here is what it says: “The term ‘adultery’ for many people carries a moral or religious association, while the term ‘extramarital sex’ is morally or judgmentally neutral.”

So, the Times dismisses the term “sex scandals” as a replacement term for “adultery” on the grounds that the term “sex scandals” is less objective than the term “adultery—but the very Wikipedia entry the Times cites as evidence for this bizarre conclusion actually takes the opposite view.

But wait, there’s more. If the term “sex scandals” doesn’t pass the Times’ contorted neutrality test, how about using a term like “extramarital sex” in its place? Oh no, says the Times, the term “extramarital sex” would never do in a diverse society like our own in which non-marital intimacies, such as civil unions or other public commitments, enjoy widespread public recognition.

While I wholeheartedly applaud the Times’ commitment to inclusivity, I am again flabbergasted by a logic so faulty it veritably reeks of disingenuousness. Perhaps the Times is unaware, but the term “adultery” also implies a transgression of a specifically marital bond--so I fail to see how the term “extramarital sex” applies any less (or more) to non-martial unions than the term “adultery” does. There is an important difference, though, and that is the fact that the term “extramarital sex” does not explicitly endorse an antiquated Judeo-Christian morality.

Whatever may be the imperfections of terms like “sex scandals” or “extramarital sex,” these terms nonetheless mark a clear improvement over “adultery,” a word which has as no place in a respectable newspaper which aspires to objectivity and fairness in reporting. “What’s in a name?” Shakespeare’s Juliet asks. This Juliet says: a lot.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Eliot Spitzer: Naughty by Nature

This week, Peter Elkind’s Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer will hit the bookshelves, promising to shed new light on the already over-exposed life and times of the former Governor of New York. Spitzer agreed to be interviewed for the book, apparently unable to resist the opportunity to make yet another appeal on his own behalf for public forgiveness. But Spitzer will be fighting an uphill battle with detractors sprawled across the political spectrum--from vengeful fat cats who have relished the downfall of one of the great crusaders against Wall Street greed to former supporters still fuming that Spitzer squandered his chance to make a much-needed difference.

So, just how does Spitzer expect to garner sympathy after being caught shelling out a reported $100,000 to finance his penchant for high-priced prostitutes? The answer, it turns out, is the evolutionary equivalent of the Twinkie defense: my penis made me do it.

That’s right people—Spitzer and his defenders (including, notably, his wife) would like us to believe that he is a noble man who tried to do good but was felled in the end by his own (hu)manity. When asked by biographer Elkind whether his downfall was engineered by enemies on Wall Street, Spitzer replies: “Was I set up? No. I was set up by the human psyche." According to Elkind, Spitzer’s wife Silda adopts a similar position, coming “to recognize that it wasn’t a reflection of her, but of him—his needs, his frustrations, his psychological wiring." And as The New York Times reports, Elkind himself speculates that “Mr. Spitzer may have turned to an escort service because ‘he had needs’ and that he regarded such an arrangement as less of a betrayal of his wife than an affair would be.”

Oh, please. Appealing to “manly needs” to justify, excuse, or even explain Spitzer’s behavior is like me saying I had to shoplift a carton of Diet Coke from the supermarket because, as a woman, I "need" a low-calorie beverage to satisfy my natural proclivity for hydration.

Spitzer’s “manly needs” defense is absurd, but it’s hardly original. In recent years, the media has helped popularize study after laughably unsubstantiated study claiming to demonstrate that men have a predisposition not just to sexual promiscuity, but to rape, kill, and engage in other forms of anti-social behavior. For the vast majority of men who manage to live their lives within the bounds of civilization, these theories are not just ridiculous, but insulting.

But the problem with Spitzer’s “manly needs" defense is not just the shoddy science: it’s also the fact that arguments attributing behavior like Spitzer’s to human nature deflect attention from the role that society plays in normalizing male sexual entitlement. When sex scandals erupt, the public often is left wondering why a powerful politician, athlete or public figure would risk losing his public standing simply for sex. Such professions of consternation are disingenuous in a society, like ours, which mostly treats access to beautiful women as the very emblem of male success. Instead of wasting our time speculating about the social life of cavemen, then, we as a society would be better served taking a hard look at the way men are encouraged to think that the sexual objectification of women is the right of any man who can afford to do so.

As for Eliot Spitzer, either apologize or don’t—but leave your “twinkie” out of it.