This is a tale of two predators. The first is a congressman who befriended teenage pages. He sent them cajoling instant messages asking them to describe their sexual habits, so he could get his jollies.Today, we get the letters to the editor. Gotta defend the iconic monologues, you know. The first letter says Brooks "misses a key point, and that is power":
The second is a secretary, who invited a 13-year-old girl from her neighborhood into her car and kissed her. Then she invited the girl up to her apartment, gave her some vodka, took off her underwear and gave her a satin teddy to wear.
Then she had sex with the girl, which was interrupted when the girl’s mother called. Then she made the girl masturbate in front of her and taught her some new techniques.
The first predator, of course, is Mark Foley, the Florida congressman. The second predator is a character in Eve Ensler’s play, “The Vagina Monologues."
Foley is now universally reviled. But the Ensler play, which depicts the secretary’s affair with the 13-year-old as a glorious awakening, is revered. In the original version of the play, the under-age girl declares, “I say, if it was a rape, it was a good rape, then, a rape that turned my [vagina] into a kind of heaven.” When I saw Ensler perform the play several years ago in New York, everyone roared in approval. Ensler has since changed the girl’s age to 16 — the age of Foley’s pages — and audiences still embrace the play and that scene at colleges and in theaters around the world.
Mark Foley, a congressman, had a certain amount of power, and many of the pages were responding to that power. Most were afraid to offend him or to break off communication because Mr. Foley might become an important ally in a future career.But power is always the problem when an adult goes after a child!
In my mind, this is more a story of abuse of power and covering up that abuse of power by the Republican Party.
The second letter makes the big art/life distinction. "The Vagina Monologues" is a play:
Does David Brooks mean to suggest that it is not the job of the theater to provoke us, to be equivocal, to reflect our best and worst selves, then leave it to us to choose good behavior when we exit the lobby?But "The Vagina Monologues" is presented as propaganda, isn't it? Brooks made a point of the audience's approval. And consider the extreme enthusiasm for producing this play, which is out of all proportion to its artistic value.
If so, then Mr. Brooks is asking for the ostensible rectitude of propaganda.
The third letter notes Brooks's omission of the "simple point" that what Mark Foley did was "real" and "The Vagina Monologues" is "make-believe." But, again, the enthusiasm for "The Vagina Monologues" is very real.
IN THE COMMENTS: Some blogger's minions come by en masse to call me (and Brooks) idiots for not knowing the difference between real life and fiction (rather dimly redoing the NYT's letters that I'm writing about in this post). Palladian says something really smart:
No one's pointed out that the Foley's instant messages are, in one way, exactly analogous to a monologue-style play in that they were written words; dramatized sexual conduct rather than physical acts. This is not a defense of Foley, merely an observation that Brook's analogy (yes, he was making an analogy!) is not as far off as the suddenly fundamentalist, literalist "liberals" are suggesting.
And a couple comments later, on seeing a sexist insult hurled at me by one of the liberal blogger's minions:
Wow, not only do we have "liberals" on a moral crusade against a gay man, and asserting that art is meaningless, but now they're making sexist insults toward a woman with whom they disagree.
Have I fallen into some weird alternate dimension? What the hell?
ADDED: This post is getting a lot of attention, and I feel bad that you can't read Brooks's whole column. I wish the NYT would have some way to release a TimesSelect piece for general viewing once there's a big blog discussion going on. It seems unfair to Brooks that everyone can read the letters (and blogs) criticizing him, but they can't see exactly what he said. I'm not going to reprint any more than I already did, but let me summarize what he says.
Brooks wonders why the sexual predator in the play makes people cheer when Mark Foley brings hoots of disgust. Noting first that female predators tend not to scare us, he observes that in the play, we are seeing things from the minor's point of view and that she presents herself as breaking free from social conventions and finding personal fulfilment doing something that society tries to suppress. She's the feisty rebel who evinces the "moral code" of "expressive individualism."
The news about Mark Foley is told in terms of a more old-fashioned moral code that defines people by their social roles. (We certainly don't hear the teenager's point of view.) This code categorically rejects adults in sexual relationships with youngsters. In this way of thinking, there is never a rebel to cheer on. Our reaction is to feel ever more strongly committed to preserving the moral order. Since the real significance of the Foley story is as a reminder of the grave threat to the conventional moral order, Brooks thinks, the way for a party to benefit from the scandal is to present itself as the champion of the moral order.
Now, what's my reaction to that? First, I don't think people (or parties) have to adopt one or the other of these "codes." Like many from my generation, I am very strongly dedicated to the ethic of individual expression. That does not, however, in any way make it hard for me to acknowledge the absolute rule against adults doing anything sexual with children. I think you can flatly reject what Foley did and still believe in the value of individuals finding their own way around conventional morality and making their own rules about what is good. Obviously, social conservatives are the big champions of the moral order, but that doesn't mean that to oppose what Foley did requires you to become an all-out social conservative. A responsible, freely expressive individual recognizes the need for some rules.
But I do think there is a danger that liberals are getting so jazzed up about making political progress over Foley's folly that they carelessly present themselves as champions of the moral order, something they really don't want to do in the long run. They surely ought to pillory the social conservatives whenever they get caught violating their own moral code. Pointing out hypocrisy is usually an excellent move. But they should be careful not to stumble into hypocrisy of their own by overdoing the sanctimony about sexual morality and making it seem as though they are the social conservatives. Ugh! I'd like to end up with less social conservatism through this episode, not more.