Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Foley case (updated)

This may be one of those where-angels-fear-to-tread issues. But I ain't no angel. And I do have a couple of points to make about this.

Mark Foley, Republican champion of "family values"

First of all, on the facts of the Mark Foley case as established in the public record: Florida Republican Congressman Foley resigned from Congress over news of inappropriate interactions with underage male pages, including some sexually explicit IMs. (So far as I've read to this point, the publicly available evidence is all in the form of e-mails and IMs.)

The drama of the case is heightened by the hypocrisy evident in his having been an outspoken advocate of protecting kids from sexual predators. It also appears that the House Republican leadership, having been informed months ago about a potential problem with Foley's conduct, failed to take appropriate steps in response.

There are three matters of long-term interest that catch my attention here. One is the question of whether in particular with "moral" issues, especially ones dealing with sex, is some kind of indicator of an unhealthy focus. Another is the scandal itself and how much damage it's likely to do to the Republicans. A third is how the issue of "sexual predators" has become one on which ordinary people are willing to verbalize extreme fantasies of violence in terms of what should be done to the perpetrators.

Sara Robinson at the Orcinus blog argues as follows:

I've often said that:

a) everything you need to take down a Republican leader will usually be found in the dirtpile in his own back yard;

b) the more authoritarian a right-winger is, the bigger the dirt pile, and the bigger the mess he's hiding in it; and

c) if you want directions to where the really juicy stuff is buried, just listen to the issues he rails on about the loudest and hardest.
While this seems to fit the current case perfectly, I'm not at all convinced that such a generalization is valid.

Jane Hamsher has made a similar argument in Great Moments in Republican Family Values, FireDogLake blog (the original Blogspot one) 05/12/05, where she writes:

I think most of us on the left just accept the notion that the deviance and amorality these men see everywhere are really just projections of their own shadow personae thrown up against the screen of the world that surrounds them. And I have a deep suspicion that many of their supporters admire this quality in them, though perhaps unknowingly. As Jung noted, the failure to acknowledge and integrate one's shadow persona can give it incredible, near-demonic power that the individual is quite helpless to control. It may go a long way toward explaining the list of morally outrageous behavior that seems to be growing longer every day.
Apart from my not being a fan of Jungian psychology, I think she has a point. But how valid is it as a generalization?

Before going further with this, it's worth taking a step back and looking at what's happened in this particular case. One of my responsibilities in my day job is to handle human-relations issues for my department in a corporation. So maybe I frame this issue for myself in a somewhat more technical or legalistic way than the average newspaper reader.

So when I read the earliest report about Foley sending a e-mail to a former page asking for a picture and including chatty talk asking the kid what kind of things he liked to do, it didn't immediately strike me as the self-evident scandal that it did to some people in the liberal blogosphere. For one thing, if he had known the boy for a long time and his family were long-standing friends, that hardly seems that unusual on the face of it. However, the fact that the boy himself thought it was "sick sick sick...", as he put it, was an indication that there was more to it than that.

Now, in my day job, if a 16-year-old former intern were to report to me about an e-mail like that, which he received from an employee he used to work for, I would recognize immediately that it was something that needed to be followed up on. The laws on sexual harassment are pretty strict and I would have a responsibility to make sure the complaint was properly investigated.

Even if nothing more were known than what I just summarized about the initial reports on Foley, I would certainly be concerned about a man in his fifties trying to court an unwilling 16-year-old. And even if he stopped when he heard the 16-year-old wasn't interested, the case would probably leave a creepy feeling with people who knew about it.

But the reality is that it's not against the law for someone over 18, even way over 18, to have a romantic relationship with a 16-year-old. It might be unhealhy, ill-advised, unethicial or lots of other undesirable stuff. But in most states in the US, if I'm not mistaken, it is legal for a 16-year-old to marry with the consent of their parents.

It's statutory rape if the couple has sex before marriage. But the law in most states recognizes that there can be a perfectly legitimate marriage relationship between a legal adult and a 16-year-old. We can argue that the laws that allow that are too permissive. But those laws recognize that such a marriage is perfectly acceptable under current social standards. And if marriage is permissible, it's hard to see how we could flatly say that a courtship prior to marriage is wrong.

In the current case, of course, marriage would not be legal in Florida because Foley was apparently interested in 16-year-olds of the same sex. And that's a whole other layer of hypocrisy in Foley's case. But since I don't assume that its unnatural or sinful for someone to be attracted to their own sex, the troubling part of these revelations for me has to do with the age and employment relationship of the teenagers involved.

Of course, if the initial part that was reported about the e-mails to the one former page were a troubling sign, the revelations that soon followed about Foley's more sexually explicit communications were screaming alarm bells.

So it certainly appears that in Foley's case, we do have an instance of someone identifying himself as a defender of children and minors who himself had - in the most generous way of describing it - an unusual sexual interest in minors.

It's also well-known that individuals who suffer from some sort of compulsions or strong feelings of which they are ashamed, like a fundamentalist guy who finds himself attracted to other men, sometimes over-compensate in various ways to appear different from what they fear that they themselves might be. So it's not surprising that a conservative man who obsesses about underage teenage boys might be especially inclined to present himself publicly as being particularly opposed to gay sex and especially concerned about protecing minors from sexual misconduct.

But I'm not at all convinced that the reverse generalization is true, in the form that the quotes from Robinson and Hamsher above indicate. Ultra-repressed types may be especially inclined to this form of hypocrisy. But it doesn't follow that people attracted to Christian Right type moralizing are especially attracted to the type of activities they condemn. At a minimum, the picture is much more complicated than that.

Here it's worth mentioning the "Elmer Gantry" type phenomenon, the moralistic preacher who has a particular inclination for sexual adventures of a type not approved by his own official moral principles. We shouldn't get so caught up in psychological speculations that we overlook the obvious: there are lots of women who are attracted to good-looking preachers. (Most preachers are still men, though I'm confident that it's true in other combinations, as well.) Plus, those attracted to the ministry tend to be outgoing, and of necessity they learn the kind of social skills that encourage trust and put people at ease. The "Elmer Gantry" cases may often be a case of opportunity and temptation and hormones finding the right convergence.

The other two points I can make much more quickly.

Will the scandal hurt Republicans generally? Almost certainly not. There was a cynical old saying from the days when most politicians were men and most gays and lesbians were in the closet that only two things are really fatal in politics: to be found in bed with a live man or a dead woman. In other words, nobody really cares who their favorite candidate is screwing, as long as it doesn't involve something notably more socially unacceptable than adultery. In Foley's particular case, the combination of gay sex suspicions and underage boys was enough to take him out. It's virtually unthinkable that it will affect other Congressional races.

Finally, I want to comment briefly that I've gotten very disturbed by the fact that, as I said at the start, the issue of "sexual predators" has become one on which ordinary people in the United States are willing to verbalize extreme fantasies of violence in terms of what should be done to the perpetrators.

Being in Austria this summer at the time that the Natascha Kampusha case broke into the news reinforced that impression. Here is a kid who was kidnapped at age 10 and held captive in the basement by a man for eight years, until she escaped this summer. Despite the tabloid treatment and sensationalism of the story, Kampusha intentionally chose not to divulge any details about whether sexual molestation was involved. And, despite a few rightwing politicians trying to demagogue the sexual-predator issue, none of the many conversations I heard about the case over a period of two-and-a-half weeks involved people indulging their favorite sadistic fantasies about the treatment that sexual predators should receive. Which happens all the time here.

The torture scandal and the tremendous damage it has done to American democratic institutions should be a strong reminder that once we make it socially acceptable to fantasize about creatively torturing and dismembering whoever it is we take as our image of Evil People: child-molesters, The Terrorists, Muslims, whoever, if it goes far enough and becomes widespread enough, it eventually encourages and validates the real thing. I'm not promoting the idea that seeing a violent movie somehow drives people to go out and hurt somebody. Things don't work that way.

But it's also true that its an important measure of society how the most vulnerable, including convicted prisoners, are treated. Even those who do despicable things are still human beings, even if they treat other human beings as though they are not. When we start creating classes of people who we treat as exceptions to that, we wind up where the US Congress found itself this last week, passing a Torture Legalization bill that will be remembered for the lifetimes of anyone alive today as one of the most disgraceful moments in the history of the United States.

In the Republican style of governing by fear, fear of sexual predators is one that the Cheney-Bush administration has promoted, with the active assistance of Congressmen like Mark Foley. Benjamin Radford writes in the Sept/Oct Skeptical Inquirer ("Predator Panic: A Closer Look"):

To many people, sex offenders pose a serious and growing threat — especially on the Internet. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalcs has made them a top priority this year, launching raids and arrest sweeps. According to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, "the danger to teens is high." On the April 18, 2005, CBS Evening News broadcast, correspondent Jim Acosta reported that "when a child is missing, chances are good it was a convicted sex offender." (Acosta is incorrect: If a child goes missing, a convicted sex offender is among the least likely explanations, far behind runaways, family abductions, and the child being lost or injured.) On his NBC scries "To Catch a Predator," Dateline reporter Chris Hanscn claimed that "the scope of the problem is immense," and "seems to be getting worse." Hansen claimed that Web predators are "a national epidemic," while Alberto Gonzalcs stated that there are 50,000 potential child predators online.
Benjamin examines some of the common assertions made on the nature of the threat, and finds some of them are founded on questionable assumptions. He cites an 05/03/06 ABC News report saying, "One in five children is now approached by online predators," a statistic he says is frequently cited. He traces the source back to a 2001 study from the US Department of Justice, and finds that nearly half of what the study counts as "sexual solicitations" to teenagers (included as children) came from other teenagers. Not necessarily a reassuring fact, but also not exactly what comes to mind when we hear "children approached by online predators".

Benjamin isn't trying to minimize the real problem. He writes, "Sex offenders are clearly a real threat, and commit horrific crimes."

This is a topic on which we have to keep in mind the saying, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you." Because politicians like Abu Gonzales, who actively supports the practice of various kinds of sexual perversion in torture sessions in the Bush Gulag, demagogue the issue, or because sensational journalists are careless in their reporting on it, doesn't mean that there's no real problem. The problem is all too real.

My point is that if we are serious about solving real problems, we should be taking a reality-based approach toward understanding them. Whether it's sexual predators, Internet porn, terrorism, or WMDs in Iraq, solutions based on a real-world understanding of the problem are far preferable to ones based simply on fear, exaggeration or - in the case of WMDs in Iraq - flatout falsehoods.

[Update 10/01/06: Glenn Greenwald has some more legal details. My mention of the legal marriage age in the post could be misleading; as Greenwald points out, the age of consent for sex in most US states is 16. As he also points out, that is only one factor in a story that's still coming out.]

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