It's the Sex, Stupid:

Quite a few commentators on the Eliot Spitzer scandal are searching for some deep explanation for the frequent sex scandals involving powerful men. "Do you think men of power and success, men like Eliot Spitzer, get intoxicated with this kind of success?," asked Nightline's Terry Moran on Tuesday. "Are they reckless? Do they secretly want to get caught?" "Maybe it's the thrill, the rush of trying to get away with something. Maybe it's just arrogance," speculated the former wife of the former New Jersey governor in the New York Times.

It only takes a little bit of knowledge of how natural selection works to understand no such complicated explanations are necessary. In the evolutionary environment, men's best reproductive strategy was to have sex with as many fertile women as possible. (The incentives for women were different because of their ability to produce only one offspring per year). There were no doubt men who weren't interested in sex, or who wanted to have sex only with one woman, but they had fewer offspring and therefore failed, ultimately, to pass along their genes. The result: most men have a desire to have sex with multiple women. Men also tend to prefer younger women, because in the evolutionary environment (as now) youth is correlated with fertility. Rich and/or powerful men are no different in this respect from others, although it is easier for them to attract women. Monica Lewinsky probably wouldn't have been as interested in a middle-aged and married Bill Clinton if he were not the President, and 22 year-old Ashley Dupre certainly would not have been interested in having sex with 48-year old Eliot Spitzer if he hadn't been willing and able to shell out $4300.

That evolution provides an explanation doesn't mean it provides an excuse for selfish or socially irresponsible behavior, for Spitzer or for anyone else. The good news is that evolution has also equipped us with the ability to appreciate the consequences of our actions and exercise control over our instinctive drives. We should expect our elected officials obey the law, set a good example, and avoid putting themselves at risk of blackmail, even if they'd rather be sneaking off to the Mayflower Hotel. Invoking evolution in no way absolves Spitzer of responsibility for his actions. But if we want to understand what motivated Spitzer -- and before him the likes of Clinton, David Vitter, Gary Hart, John Kennedy, and list goes on -- to do something so risky, stupid, and potentially self-destructive, we need to recognize that drives honed by millions of years of natural selection are powerful and more difficult to resist than more ordinary types of preferences or desires. It is a safe bet that Spitzer would never in a million years consider shoplifting from a department store, even if he saw something he wanted and found he had left his credit cards at home.

To understand Spitzer's behavior, we really don't need an explanation any more sophisticated and nuanced than the one offered by former Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss on Nightline. She responded to Terry Moran's absurd string of questions about Spitzer's possible psychological motivations by saying, "he wants to get laid."

Eliot Spitzer and Anti-Semitism - The Dog that Didn't Bark:

Until his recent downfall, Eliot Spitzer was one of America's most prominent Jewish politicians. Yet his Jewishness has been almost completely absent from the public debate occasioned by his disgrace and resignation. Pundits haven't been pontificating about the implications of Spitzer's downfall for the future of Jewish participation in politics. No one of any consequence has claimed that his misdeeds reflect badly on Jews as a group. And Spitzer himself hasn't tried to "play the anti-Semitism card" by claiming that the feds targeted him because he is Jewish. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, the absence of anti-Semitism from the discussion of Spitzer is a crucial dog that didn't bark.

The lack of focus on Spitzer's Jewishness is all to the good. It shows that both the political elite and the general public broadly accept the role of Jews in public life and that anti-Semitism has largely been marginalized in mainstream political discourse. That marginalization, in turn, helps ensure that Jews are unlikely to rally to a Jewish public figure accused of wrongdoing if he makes unsubstantiated claims of being a victim of anti-Semitism. That may be one of the reasons why Spitzer didn't try to use anti-Semitism as a defense. Obviously, anti-Semitism hasn't disappeared in America. But it has been reduced to relative insignificance.

Unfortunately, however, we haven't advanced quite as far with respect to some other minority groups. Had an equally prominent black or Hispanic politician landed in the same kind of fix as Spitzer, it is highly likely that his race would be a major part of the discussion. Pundits would grouse about the implications of the scandal for black leaders more generally. And the politician himself might well play the race card in order to defend himself. The reasons for this are understandable. We have not overcome racism and its legacy to the same degree as we have with anti-Semitism. As a result, public discourse focuses on race far more than on Jewish-gentile differences. And blacks are understandably more suspicious of efforts to prosecute the alleged misdeeds of black leaders than Jews are of similar efforts with respect to Jewish ones.

However, the Spitzer case does offer a measure of hope. If this scandal had occurred just a few decades ago, Spitzer's Jewishness would have been a much larger part of the discussion, and that discussion would have been vastly more poisonous. In time, we may be able to achieve the same sort of progress in race relations. As flawed as they are, race relations today are still much better than twenty or thirty years ago. In time, if we are lucky, a public figure's race might become just as insignificant as Spitzer's Jewishness is today.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Jews, Blacks, and Political Power:
  2. Eliot Spitzer and Anti-Semitism - The Dog that Didn't Bark:
  3. It's the Sex, Stupid:
Jews, Blacks, and Political Power:

Ilya's post below on Spitzer reminds me that being of Jewish background myself (no, really!), I have found it very interesting that Obama has been receiving such overwhelming support from African Americans in this election. It's one thing to support Jesse Jackson or even Al Sharpton for symbolic reasons, but Obama actually has a good chance of becoming president.

Among Jews of past generations, and to a lesser extent even today, the last thing in the world many would want is a Jewish president. While such an achievement would undoubtedly be a matter of pride, there would also be grave concern that people would "blame the Jews" if things went badly. Moreover, there would be concern that if a Jewish president of the U.S. acted friendly toward Israel, he'd be accused of acting based on his Jewish background, while a Gentile president could be as pro-Israel as his ideology allows.

By contrast, African Americans don't seem particularly concerned about a potential racist backlash if Obama becomes president.

Why the difference? I think it has its roots in the different historical experiences of the two groups. Jews, being a minority people in exile, often were only able to protect themselves by establishing relationships with those in power. When the people turned against those in power, they turned against their Jewish advisors and allies as well, and by extension against the Jews. And when Jews were emancipated and became involved in political movements, ranging from liberalism to Communism, their ideological adversaries rarely hesitated to stir up opposition by focusing on Jewish leaders of the movement, resulting, for example, in the murder of tens of thousands of Jews by the White Russians during the Russian revolutionary upheaval. Even today in the U.S., anti-Jewish prejudice manifests itself in complaints about disproportionate Jewish political power, as witnessed by the oft-heard claim that Jewish neoconservatives manipulated the Bush Administration into war with Iraq.

By contrast, African Americans have suffered in large part because of their lack of political power. With 12% or so of the population and deep historic roots in American life, African Americans are less worried about being seen as outside interlopers seizing power from "real Americans", and more worried about the very real consequences they have suffered from being excluded from political power.

That, in any event, is my preliminary take.