May 30, 2020
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From Presidents to pop icons,America is a weird mix of puritanism and prurience


I am in an atmosphere that addles the mind. My brain is moist and my hands are clammy. My spectacles—regulation wire-rimmed glasses, purchased in Janpath on my last holiday in Delhi—steam up each time I turn to CNN. America is in the midst of a morality meltdown, an ethical greenhouse-effect, a heatwave of self-righteousness, a harmattan of indignation. I breathe in short gasps as the cant and the pietism clog my nostrils. Help: get me out of here! There is no escape from Bill Clinton. There is no escape from Monica Lewinsky.

There is no escape from Kenneth Starr (I refuse to call him "Ken", for to use a diminutive is to dignify a disagreeable muck-raker). There is no escape from the namby-pamby, preachy-squeaky editorials in newspapers and magazines. Worst of all, there appears to be no escape from those talking-heads on television, whose infernal blah-blah-blah now includes references to Kant, the Bible and deontology (reach for that dictionary: I did, too). Philosophers are in their element, as are the Christian scripture-wallahs and the odd rabbi (although multicultural America, mercifully, still spares us the spouting mullah). The shrinks have floated, like scum, to the top of the pond, and the political pundits...why, that tribe can never, in the turbulent and often graceless history of modern America, have been as pompous, opinionated, verbose and self-important as they are now.

There is, above all, no escape from that M-word, "morality": this, I regret to say, means the morality of a rural preacher, a black-and-white Ten Commandments sort of morality where To Lie and To Commit Adultery are both monstrous violations of the cardinal rules of a society, a civitas, a tribe. The horror here is magnified because the lying was about adultery, and the lie was uttered under the aegis of America's other great church—the legal system.

But let's get one thing ramrod straight. Most of America has always had its knickers in a twist over morality. In fact, the only members of this vast and quixotic society who seem to subscribe to a coherent morality (even if it is their own audacious brand) are those who do not usually insist on wearing knickers—the country's pornographers. The Adult Film-Makers' Guild (which oversees the production of 35 times more films per annum than Hollywood's entire mainstream output) has pronounced that the bond between Miss Lewinsky and the Rhodes-Scholar-in-Chief was "their private business and their private business alone." This makes sense, of course, coming from people whose public business is to have sex on screen, while invoking the "free speech" right to do so under the First Amendment of the American Constitution.

It is as easy to find hypocrisy in America as it is to find good paan in Benares. Give me the pornographers any day over, for example, Senator Joseph Lieberman, the Democrat friend of Mr Clinton who said: "Whether he or we think it is fair or not, the reality is in 1998 that a president's private life is public. Contemporary news media standards will have it no other way." Excuse me? What was that again? It was the worst sort of syllogism. Mr Lieberman said this, effectively: the president has a private life; the media regards the president as a public figure; so the president's private life is public.

While I'm on a hypocrisy turkey-shoot, why not ask the following questions. What is more immoral, lying about hanky-panky in the Oval Office (and adjacent hallways, bathrooms, sinks, bidets, etc) or: giving every citizen the right to bear arms? Having tens of millions with no health insurance in the richest country in the world? Allowing abortion virtually on tap? Cloning animals? Spending two billion dollars on each state-of-the-art bomber while millions starve across the globe? Accepting dubious campaign donations from Chinamen of uncertain provenance?

Even among Mr Clinton's supporters, there is deep hypocrisy and moral equivocation. There are those who cry that the president is not getting a "fair trial", that the rules of natural justice—not to mention ordinary laws—have been breached by the "Starr Chamber" in its hounding of the president. Examples? (1) The president's lawyers were not allowed a peek at the Starr report, in order to formulate a rebuttal, before the box-loads of paperwork were carted off to Congress. Here, the president's lawyers say, the principle of audi alteram partem, or "hear the other side", was breached materially. (2) The law prohibits federal prosecutors from leaking confidential grand jury proceedings, yet Starr's flunkies repeatedly fed succulent cuts of testimony to the press throughout the grand jury stage.

Where's the hypocrisy here? Turn your minds to international affairs, where the rules of natural justice and law are just as valid as in the American domestic arena. What was Scott Ritter, an American expert, doing on the UN team that inspected alleged weapons sites in Iraq? However odious Saddam Hussein may be—and I'd rather have dinner with Mr Starr than with the murderous Ba'athist psychopath—a rule of natural justice also states that no party may be the judge in its own case (nemo iudex in re sua). Ritter, an American, had no business inspecting the sites of Iraq, with whom his country had been (and in many ways still is) at war. He was there on the insistence of the US government, as crude a form of victors' arm-twisting as one could hope to find. As for the law, the same Clintonistas who claim that their man is being wronged by the Starr team were silent when the commander-in-chief biffed poor Sudan without the slightest bit of evidence that Khartoum had anything to do with the tragic bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. (According to the UN Charter, no less a legal document than the US Constitution, force may not be used by one state against another except in self-defence.)

What sticks in the gullet of secular moralists like me—whose values are rooted not in the doctrine of a particular religion but in a rough-and-ready calculus of doing good and avoiding harm—is that the cavalry charge against Mr Clinton is being led by Christian crusaders. I accept that Mr Clinton is a sex-obsessed man, a priapic president who cannot keep his zipper in order for more than five hours a day; but to crucify him for dallying with a trollop like Miss Lewinsky is conduct more unbecoming than the president's own indiscretions. (And actually, lest we forget it, he was pretty darn nice to her, unable to tell her to go away with the bluntness that was necessary to stop her in her unwholesome tracks.) On a personal level, I have always believed that Mr Clinton was unfit to be president, even though he has presided over a strong economy and healthy race relations. Why? It's because he dodged the draft and wouldn't fight for his country in Vietnam. That, for me, was the unpardonable sin. Miss Lewinsky, "phone sex" and his odd use of a good cigar are all small moral fry in comparison. A man who turned his back on his country at a time of military need had no business running for president.

What baffles me is this: if that didn't bother the great American nation, why oh why are they so upset by his ten little trysts with a tawdry intern? Dulce et decorum est pro Monica mori. (It is sweet and fitting to die for Monica.)

(The author is a former New York bureau chief of The Times, London. He is working on a book on post-war immigration to the US.)

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