Thursday, November 15, 2012

Petraeus' Secret Weapon: The Apology

See this recent BBC News report in which I argue that Petraeus delivered a lethal strike to his detractors by issuing his "preemptive apology":

Monday, November 12, 2012

Fight for the Right to Party

It has proven oddly disconcerting to learn that the man charged with guarding our national security secrets has a few secrets of his own—though why we should be surprised that a guy who runs a spy agency gets off on deception is beyond me.  

Of course, any time a sex scandal erupts, it’s worth asking why we get so worked up about the private lives of public officials.  And at what cost?  Just imagine all the other things you might have done this Veteran’s Day if you hadn't spent so much time marveling at Paula Broadwell’s upper body tone.

In this case, we may tell ourselves the public's interest in Petraeus’ private life is more than prurient—national security is on the line.  Because even if intelligence-laden pillow talk doesn't get ordinary civilians like you and me going, who knows what a CIA chief embedded with his biographer will let slip when he’s “all in”?

Well, we all may be worried about the security ramifications of the Petraeus affair, but you know who isn’t?  The FBI.  Officials in that organization insist they were right to keep mum for so long because they found no evidence that Broadwell gained access to classified information.  No big surprise here, I suppose—I mean, what with all the unauthorized wire-tapping going on over there, those guys wouldn’t get a wink of sleep if they had to report every inappropriate relationship involving a government official (let alone the rest of us) to the proper authorities.  

Still, now that the affair has gone public, many are wondering whether the FBI made the right call in withholding information about Petraeus' affair from the White House for as long as it did.  But at least for the time being, the FBI has its story and they're sticking to it: a private affair is a private matter unless proven otherwise.

Apparently, others in the intelligence community agree.  According to a CNN report on Monday:

A senior U.S. intelligence official said an extramarital affair by a CIA officer is not automatically considered a security violation.

"It depends on the circumstances," the official said.
Ah yes, the circumstances.  Because now that we’ve learned the identity of the woman whose complaint launched the FBI probe in the first place, we see just what a difference context makes—at least to those in the national security biz. The mystery woman turns out to be 37-year-old Jill Kelley, who holds a position as “unpaid social liaison” at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, home of the military’s Special Operations Command.  The fact that Ms. Kelley was named “honorary ambassador” to the base in recognition of her as-yet vaguely understood social services suggests to me that engaging in extramarital sex may be regarded more as an entitlement than an embarrassment in those circles.

And so in the end, the most revealing aspect of all of this may be what it indicates about the mental state of those who break rules for a living.  David Petraeus lives in a world in which the end justifies the means.  Soldiers go to war to kill bad that the innocent may live in peace.  Spies lie, cheat and that truth, justice and the American way may prevail.  The FBI violates our privacy with warrantless that we may enjoy the blessings of freedom.  No wonder David Petraeus thought he could get away with it. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Hail to the Husband-in-Chief?

Those of us on the sex scandal beat rarely get a break.  Seasons change; years roll by; the parade of sex scandals marches on.  That is, until this general election season, which has been the quietest I can remember for scandal-watchers.  And I’m not just talking about full-on, pants-down scandal fodder—this election season, the only tendency towards excess I could detect in either of the lead candidates was a propensity for cringe-worthy, over-the-top paeans to marital bliss.

And that got me wondering: since when did the presidential race become a contest for Husband-in-Chief? 

Call me cynical, but I’m not convinced the recent emphasis on husbandly devotion reflects some newfound national maturity.  No, I’m more inclined to think it emanates in the remarkable fact that this general election pitted a Black man against a Mormon—that is, two men dogged by longstanding and deeply rooted images of hypersexualized masculinity associated with their backgrounds. 

While the typical male candidate proudly asserts his virility as an emblem of presidential mettle, this time things were different.  As ever, each man was expected to prove his manliness to prove he could be president.  But in this case, the candidates had to do so in the face of often-unspoken but ever-present racist and otherwise prejudicial assumptions about the sexual cultures associated with Black men on the one hand, and Mormonism (with its historic embrace of polygamy) on the other.  Given these persistent stereotypes, it’s unlikely either of these candidates would have survived without an impeccable record of marital conduct.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m delighted we were deprived of the normal scandal fare this election season (lord knows, we should have gone on this diet long ago).  But maybe the real lesson here is that sometimes the absence of sex scandals can have as much to do with messed-up cultural understandings of masculinity as do their presence.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Real Boy Crisis

For years, news headlines have blared reports that American boys are “falling behind” their female peers in school. Last week, New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks sounded the “boy crisis” alarm once again. In his latest call-to-arms, Mr. Brooks attributes the widely reported “decline in male performance” to a one-size-fits-all school culture that systematically disadvantages boys. In one of the more outlandish statements I’ve read in a while, Mr. Brooks declares:
 "The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious." 
Nurturing? Did he say nurturing? When was the last time you heard of a student receiving a school commendation for being…nurturing? Mr. Brooks, why don’t you drop the cultural code words and just come out and say it—in your opinion, the “certain sort of person” schools favor is…girls.

Mr. Brooks thinks we should be ashamed of an educational system that forces boys to meet a feminized ideal of the good student. I say shame on Mr. Brooks for using the plight of American schoolboys as an excuse to lob another grenade in the gender wars. I will give him this, though: the fact that so many boys are failing to live up to their full potential at school is worth getting riled up about. But that’s where we part company. The way I see it, the real problem isn’t that schools don’t make make room for “boys to be boys.” The real problem is a culture that socializes boys into an ideal of masculinity that sets them up to fail, in school and in life.

If we as a nation really care about the future of our boys, it’s high time to take a good, hard look at the messages we’re sending our kids about what it means to be a man. But most “boy crisis” commentators choose to look the other way—even when the problem is staring them in the face. Mr. Brooks is a prime example. He observes that today’s typical boy regards school as a place for “wimps” and “softies.” But given the blatantly gendered nature of these put-downs (in contrast, say, to less overtly effeminizing epithets like “loser” or “nerd”), one might expect Mr. Brooks to at least consider the possibility that what turns boys off to school isn’t school itself, but rather a culture of masculinity that encourages boys to dismiss school as a hopelessly girly affair. He doesn’t. Instead he urges schools to hire
“…not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.” 
But why revert to old-school thinking when what our boys really need is to own up to their own potential as young learners and future leaders?

Ask yourself: Can we do more to help our boys learn socially appropriate ways to express anger, frustration, and fear? Can we teach our boys that there is no shame in loving to read, draw, and write poetry? Can we as a society change our thinking about what it means to be a real man?

The remarkable changes brought about by feminism in our time convinces me we can. It wasn’t so long ago that young women were taught that fulfillment could be found only as wives and mothers. Today’s girls are much more likely to believe “the sky’s the limit” when it comes to pursuing their dreams. To be sure, there is still a great deal more work to be done on the gender equity front for girls. But in the span of a few generations, we’ve come a remarkably long way (and no, you may not call me "baby.")

Now it’s time to set our sights on liberating our boys too from an ideal of manhood that really hasn’t had much of an update since our caveman days. I’m not sure America is ready to embrace feminism as a model for teaching boys to become men, but as they say, a girl can dream.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Playing the Field

As the decidedly unsexy presumptive frontrunner in the Republican primary race, Mitt Romney’s campaign has been banking that voter resignation will be strong enough to drag their candidate across the finish line. Touting “electability” as Romney’s chief mark of distinction in a field of comically flawed candidates, Romney veritably taunts his party’s faithful with his lack of political charisma. But by Romney’s calculations, love is overrated; he’s figuring Republicans will stand by their man simply because the risk of walking out on him is just too great.

But then that irresistible cad Newt Gingrich showed up, and now it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next. At first, it seemed like a harmless flirtation. But things have started to get serious now that questions have been raised about Romney’s penchant for firing people, let alone his refusal to release those tax returns. Romney’s campaign is starting to look downright infirm, and Republican voters want to play the field. Gingrich is down on one knee: Republican Party, will you open marry me?

And so it is that Newt Gingrich may emerge as the first man in American history to win office not in spite of having had extramarital affairs, but because of it. Gingrich’s dressing-down of John King at the candidate debate last week played big with primary voters in South Carolina. Not that it would take much to impress folks down there when it comes to scandal management; after all, this is the same electorate that put Mark Sanford in the governor’s mansion.

Unlike so many of his fallen political brethren, Gingrich has taken a relatively unusual approach to charges of sexual impropriety: instead of denial, he’s gone on the attack. Seasoned politician that he is, Gingrich understands that what really bothers so many Americans about seeing prominent politicians caught with their pants down is not so much the immorality of the acts committed as the failure to “man up” when embarrassing revelations go public—though how we’ve convinced ourselves that beating a dead horse like the media takes much by way of cojones is way beyond me.

Gingrich also seems confident that the American public ultimately couldn’t care less if a public figure turns out to have been a class-A jerk to the women in his life. You know what? He’s probably right.

Still, when Newt Gingrich seizes not just the political upper hand but the moral high ground, I get uneasy. What was particularly interesting to me about Gingrich’s performance at the debate is that he found a way to give voice to popular frustration with the media while somehow managing to make the viewing public feel validated rather than patronized. That’s no small feat. After all, by attacking the media for indulging his bitter ex-wife, Gingrich by implication was chastising all of us too. I mean, I seriously doubt there was anyone watching the debate proceedings who hadn’t taken some precious time in the preceding 48 hours to wallow in the glorious tawdriness of Open Marriagegate. But instead of Gingrich blaming us, he invited us to blame the media.

Just as the Republican Party enjoys success by playing to aspirations over reality—vote for the Party that protects the rich because hey, one day you might be rich too—so too did Gingrich’s diatribe shrewdly position the American people as the aggrieved victim of a pandering media, thereby downplaying the inconvenient fact of the public's own gleeful participation in watching the crisis bubble to a head. It’s sort of like stumping on a populist platform to boost the fortunes of the common man while promoting economic policies that screw that self-same common man. (And that really would be despicable, wouldn't it?) In both cases, self-delusion rules the day. But whether it comes to personal finances or media-bashing, it may feel good to make believe we are something we are not-but the price we pay for that fantasy may prove too high to bear.