By James Petras
In a month in which the US Congress voted to legalize torture, discard the US Constitution by abolishing habeas corpus and increase the military budget to prolong the daily slaughter of hundreds of Iraqis and Afghanis, the big controversy among the mass media and elected officials is the sexual overtures of a Republican Congressman to adolescent boys employed by Congress.
Millions of fundamentalist Christians, who blindly supported the Republican Congress’ deadly ‘War on Terror’ are in revolt against their Party because of its tolerance toward a single pervert – overlooking the torture at Abu Ghraib, Israel’s massive bombing of Lebanon and the Bush Administration’s criminal abandonment of the hundreds of thousands of poor (mostly black) citizens in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Why do US Congress members and the mass media go into a political feeding frenzy over personal sexual transgressions like Congressman Foley’s nasty e-mail flirtations with teenage boys or former President Clinton’s office adventures in extramarital sex with a White House intern and not over issues of great consequence for peace or war, democracy or authoritarianism, torture or human rights?
Superficial commentators trot out our Anglo-American ‘Puritan heritage’: a pseudo-explanation, which overlooks the US democratic-constitutional heritage, our recent history of opposing the Vietnam War, and our signing of the United Nation Charter on Human Rights. Since there are numerous historical pasts, there is no single ‘heritage’ that dominates others, especially when the so-called ‘Puritan’ past is overlain with a highly sexualized mass culture over the last 50 years.
We should leave aside dubious psycho-cultural explanations because they fail to explain political behavior. Specifically, even if ‘Puritan morality’ were such a dominant aspect of US political life, it cannot explain why one should focus only on sexual misdeeds of individual politicians and not the immorality of the widespread, systematic use of sexual torture practiced by US interrogators in Iraq, Afghanistan and at the Guantanamo prison camp and specifically approved by the Bush Administration.
To understand the perversity of US politics, where great crimes are approved by Congress and the President and minor sexual misdemeanors become an obsession, one has to turn away from the amorphous notion of the ‘US public’ and examine what the mass media and opinion leaders find acceptable as the basis for electoral competition.
The political elite of both parties and the leadership and minority in Congress do not differ on substantive questions of war and peace: both supported the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq from the beginning and have just approved over $400 billion in war spending for 2006-2007. Both parties, Congress and the President supported Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, its deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure and the dropping of 1 million cluster bomblets as well as the blockade and rape of Gaza. Both parties supported the extension of the Patriot Act, which suspends the democratic guarantees and personal freedoms protected under the Bill of Rights and Constitution. Neither Congress nor the White House differ in opposing a National Health Policy, since both parties receive millions in election financing from the big pharmaceutical and private health insurance companies and their lobbies. Since there is a consensus between the two official parties on the issues of war, authoritarianism and big business, the political parties can compete only on ‘personality’ and issues of private morality. The parties justify their separate existence and compete for office by avoiding the issues which antagonize the economic elites, the civilian militarists and the powerful pro-Israel lobbies and focus on ‘antagonizing’ other politicians, which is considered ‘fair game’ in the highly constricted US political system.
In the first week in October, 30 US soldiers were killed in Iraq and scores were wounded, 580 Iraqi civilians were murdered, 20 Lebanese civilians were killed or wounded by leftover Israeli cluster bombs, tens of thousands of US telephones, faxes and e-mails were intercepted without judicial order, thousands of Argentine rightists marched in Buenos Aires in defense of the former military dictators, thousands of peaceful striking school teachers in Oaxaca, Mexico were threatened with massive military repression, 13 Bolivian miners and Indian peasants were killed by the government and its supporters in a possible lead up to a civil war, and a beloved bishop in the Philippines was killed by death squads for his human rights work joining the hundreds of murdered and disappeared activists there. and yet none of these reports appear anywhere in the major US television and radio programs and are barely mentioned by the principal newspapers. Instead we hear and read daily and even hourly reports revealing the lewd e-mails of Republican Congressman Foley with the Democratic Party leadership issuing press releases and denunciations and calls for investigations and resignations.
“Corruption, depravity, perversion", the Democrats tell us, "in high places is unacceptable". And the Republicans, so bold in defense of torture and secret abductions, and so audacious in signing hundreds of millions of dollars in additional military aid to Israel are shirking, cowering, stuttering and stammering that they have ‘cleaned house’ with the resignation of their Congressional pervert; they need to press on with the ‘war against international and domestic terror’ unmolested.
What is essential in perpetuating the charade of basically a ‘one party’ system, dedicated to defending imperial wars abroad and overseeing decay and authoritarianism at home, is the illusion of ‘party competition’. To maintain this illusion of choice in the face of a wide elite consensus, a ‘sideshow’ is needed; preferably a show in which the minor perverts of one party can be paraded and denounced by the puffed-up moralists of the opposing party. Without this show of moral indignation and a dose of salacious titillation, voter abstention might even exceed the usual 65% for US Congressional elections.
-James Petras, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, owns a 50 year membership in the class struggle, is an adviser to the landless and jobless in brazil and Argentina and is co-author of Globalization Unmasked (Zed). His new book with Henry Veltmeyer, Social Movements and the State: Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina , was published in October 2005. He can be reached at: jpetras @ binghamton.edu