Tuesday, October 03, 2006


One reason the Mark Foley scandal may cause right-wingers to stumble is that they think we can't make a case against him without coming off as self-evidently hypocritical. They don't understand that contemporary social liberals have a sexual moral code that accommodates both our disgust with Foley and our tolerance of other behavior that disgusts them -- and this code is fairly simple to understand.

We think it's wrong for an adult to have sex with a minor. This applies to male-female sex, male-male sex, and female-female sex. There might be wiggle room if both partners are within a year or two of legal majority, or at least of the age of consent, but that's it -- apart from that, adult/minor sex is bad news, and it's reasonable for society to intervene in order to stop it.

(This distinguishes it from, say, adulterous sex between consenting adults of widely disparate ages, which is wrong but, in the absence of actual or implicit coercion, is considered a matter best left to the affected parties to work out.)

Republicans can't get their minds around this. They don't understand that people who support abortion rights and gay rights and condom use and R-rated movies are capable of making a moral judgment about Mark Foley. They think we think "anything goes." Hence, Cal Thomas, trying to read our minds and failing miserably:

...Right? Normal? Detestable? People who mock such notions ask, "According to whom?" Public schools, popular culture and editorialists at major newspapers have hammered into us this aversion to trans-generational morality. They proclaim that one person's concept and definition of "right" is as valid as another person's and to assert that there is only one right, one normal and one course is to be "judgmental" or "bigoted," attitudes modernity considers a worse "sin" than the behavior that used to be called sinful.

...Behavior once thought shameful is now paraded openly and promoted proudly to sell books. Former New Jersey Democratic Governor James McGreevey tours the talk show circuit. His presence dares anyone to question the legitimacy of his dumping two wives and having sex with men. He apologizes for his extramarital sexual relations and for putting people on the state payroll that didn't belong there, but he has no intention of changing his behavior.

Bill Clinton has recovered from sex with an intern in the White House and impeachment. He doesn't suffer for having practiced aberrant behavior. Few see him as having disgraced himself. Clinton takes in six figures on the lecture circuit and enjoys rock star status wherever he goes....

But we do think Clinton did a bad thing. McGreevey, too -- he cheated on his wife while she was giving birth. But the issues in the Clinton and McGreevey marriages were, at worst, matters for divorce courts, not criminal courts. Beyond that, we care about elected officials' competence. McGreevey put his lover on the payroll, in a homeland security job for which he was unqualified; there's no defending that, and you'll notice that nobody marched in the streets to demand that he stay in office.

Tom Maguire is singing the same tune as Cal Thomas:

...Does anyone seriously think that the Democrats can position themselves as the party of sexual restraint? The party that will be tough on gay men, straight men, or anyone else who gives off even a whiff of impropriety?

Please -- this is not a bidding war the Democrats can win and I am reasonably certain that, after years of "sex is a private matter", it is not a war the Democrats want to start....

Sure we do. Why not? You don't get it, Tom -- we don't think all sex is a private matter. Mark Foley having IM sex with a high school student? Not a private matter. Bill Clinton having sex with a person legally able to vote, drink, and own property? Icky, but, purely as a moral matter, not really our damn business.

This is what righties didn't get while the Catholic Church pedophile scandals were unfolding. They kept assuming that liberal critics of predator priests were cynical hypocrites; they thought we didn't really think molesting boys was bad, and that our poisonous moral relativism had so permeated the culture that no one else really thought molesting boys was bad. Except right-wingers -- right-wingers thought molesting boys was bad. Or so they told us.

Except they didn't think molesting boys was bad. They thought society was bad -- the society they felt we'd created -- and thus we were to blame, not the priests (or the church that concealed their deeds). Oh, and they focused on cases involving older teenagers and downplayed abuse of younger boys. They were the moral relativists. We stood firm -- it was adult-child sex, it was an abuse of power, so it was wrong. Full stop.

The right-wing rebuttal to this is: Democrats stood by Gerry Studds. But the revelation of his sexual relationship with a 17-year-old page came in 1983. The reaction simply wouldn't be the same 23 years later. We'd say he made a very bad choice and abandon him to his fate.

They think we can't convincingly make a case against Mark Foley. They think we're all being phonies right now. But we have a sense of right and wrong. Our moral code may not jibe with the right's, but it's real.


UPDATE: As Avedon Carol notes, the age of consent in D.C. is 16, and Gerry Studds had sex with a 17-year-old page -- but a law championed by Mark Foley made it illegal to have online sexual contact with anyone under 18. That's a significant difference from a legal point of view -- though I still think Studds would be abandoned by supporters if his conduct came to light today.

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