society, The political use of...

The political use of public shaming

I decided that I would listen to a Ted Talk every morning while having breakfast. The point is to keep my brain going from the beginning of the day, but not necessarily on political or topical subjects. Every week, I will pick the one that made me reflect the most. I will post it here, and share my views with you.

We all know who Monica Lewinsky is. She was “the other woman”, the young lady Bill Clinton had an affair with in 1997 while being President of the United States. After years of hiding, Monica Lewinsky finally broke her silence and shared her vision of the scandal, how she regretted what happened, and how it had been a mistake. She rightly points to the fact that everybody makes mistakes in their early twenties; but her mistakes had far greater consequences than the average person’s. Lewinsky dwells on the changes that internet brought. The news of her affair with Clinton was everywhere, every time and for everybody who looked for the information. It triggered a scandal with unprecedented dimensions. The scandal had life-threatening consequences for her. The scandal was not just ethical – it was political. Lewinsky’s humiliation was just the byproduct of a political confrontation between Clinton an his opponents.

Clinton must be taken down 

Clinton was elected President of the United States in 1992, preventing George Bush from a second mandate at the White House (Clinton’s campaign focused on economy while Bush’s hinged on foreign affairs). The new democrat president is not accepted by a large portion of the most conservative politicians, who criticized Clinton for being too lax, for lacking of leadership and experience, and for including his wife in the government’s affairs. Refusing to accept Clinton, his detractors monitors his every move hoping to dig out some dirt which could ruin the president’s integrity and standing. Several stories were brought to the news, such as the Whitewater affair, Troopergate, Filegate or Travelgate, all started by the American Spectator, the same newspaper which launched the anti-Clinton campaign during the elections. The American people did not pay much attention to those affairs, too preoccupied by the stagnation of the national economy.

Monica Lewinsky’s affair with the president, while not being related to the affair that was being investigated at the time, was brought up and added to the list of accusations against Bill Clinton. The conversations the young woman had on the phone with Linda Tripp, Lewinsky’s confident at the Pentagon, were tipped off to the prosecutor in charge of investigating Clinton’s past. Clinton was summoned to the Court where he deliberatly lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. This triggered a political spiral against the president, which went as far as an impeachment procedure against Clinton.

This case shows how adultery was used and distorted by Clinton’s political opponents, for political reasons. This also shows how Clinton’s political decisions as President of the United Nations did not matter in this story. His detractors tried to get him humiliated for his character because they did not support his political agenda. This is not democracy, and this is not justice. Lewinsky got caught in between conflicting political interests disguised as moralism. Clinton’s opponent did not play fair or by the rules.

Judging a president by his personal life

There are many examples of presidents, prime ministers or politicians whose personal lives were used to temper with their careers. Take France: we are probably the champions when it comes to being apologetic with our politicians’ personal faux pas. François Mitterand had a double life which was revealed after his death. Although morally wrong from a marital point of view but also because both wives and children were supported by public finances, did it make Mitterand less of a president? I am not saying that his politics were right. I am saying that what he did in his private life and what he did as the French President were two separate things that did not affect me the same way.

A more recent example: François Hollande was witnessed sneaking out of l’Elysée to go visit his mistress at the time. Same for Mitterand, this shows that he is someone I would not be willing to be friends with, no more no less.

Collage of cover pages of newspapers about scandal of Dominique Strauss Kahn

Innocent until proven guilty? Will ‘DSK’ survive the sex scandal? AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX

The most extreme example of distorting a politician’s personal life is that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Former president of the IMF, Strauss-Kahn is – or was – also a French politician who was rumored to have been preparing his candidacy for the French presidential elections  of 2013. He was accused of “aggravated-pimping”, sexual harassment and other terms of the sort, and finally acquitted. I am one of those who believe that this was a conspiracy, just like in Clinton’s case(You can read more about the scandals here). Because of the scandals, Strauss-Kahn was fired from the IMF and put to the sideline in France, thus annihilated (or at least greatly postponing) his possible candidacy for the presidential elections.

Find me cynical 

Now, find me cynical, but I believe every single politician has something to hide. We would like for them to resemble the general public, to be just like us, or at least reflect what we would like ourselves to be like. But we are not perfect, we also have things that we do not want to be made public. Because they have a public life, politicians’ private lives are more likely to get exposed. But think that we hope to be judged on our skills and capacities when we are at work. Let’s judge politicians on the same ground, in their case for their abilities to govern.

Do not get me wrong: adultery, sexual harassment, and so forth, are terrible things and they should be addressed. They should not, however, be used as political daggers to get rid of an opponent. Those defects should be exposed before they become liabilities for a nation. Everybody knew Clinton had had several affairs before going to the White House, but nobody did anything about it and it did not prevent him from becoming the president of the US.

The French (and others) political scene is sexist, which is only a reflection of our society. Change this approach and you will change the politicians. As long as this has not changed, I will continue judging my political leaders based on their capacities to govern, and not on what they do with their personal lives.

In the name of transparency, I would ideally like my politicians to be angels. But none of them are. Someone still has to run our countries. Does that make me cynical?


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