The other evening Charlie Rose talked to New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik, who has lived in and written about France for many years, about Dominique Strauss Kahn, the International Monetary Fund head who is alleged to have raped a housekeeper at a very expensive New York City hotel. What interested me wasn’t the man’s probable guilt (“innocent until”or no….), or the effect of the scandal on French politics. What fascinated me was Gopnik’s comments about the French public. People in France were “genuinely startled and even shocked by the perp walk and all that kind of shaming aspect of American justice.” France, in contrast to the United States exalts the “idea of privacy even at the expense of transparency.”
I’ve worried about the American obsession with the private lives of others before on this blog, but I haven’t written about it as a Americanl phenomenon (and certainly not one peculiar to Americans because the English seem to be even worse than us). I’ve written about it because I believe it’s become epidemic in the last few decades. I’m old enough to remember that none of us knew about John Kennedy’s sexual activities when he was in office because some in the media chose not to tell us. Since then our love of scandal, our out-and-out nosiness, has crossed many lines.
But while no one can deny that we’re more enamored of scandal than ever, it’s also true that we’ve been this way for a very long time and I wonder why and if being American has anything to do with it. In 1874, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, who was one of the most popular and influential people of his day, was accused of committing adultery with the wife of his best friend and protegé. The story was given more headlines by American newspapers than the Civil War. For six months, the public could talk of little else. The story achieved this kind of notoriety partly because of a new and thriving media: the newspaper industry, the telegraph, even the coast-to-coast railway. The media then, as now, made it all so much more accessible, so alluring, so very, very entertaining.
The Beecher trial also signified something else. Henry was the middle-aged, middle class liberal icon of his time—the writer of many books and preacher of many sermons, an abolitionist, a reformer, the man who represented all that was best about the country. Honest and honorable, charming and kindly, idealistic but not eccentrically so, he was the kind of man Lance Armstrong was until the other day. We knew who he was; we trusted him. When Beecher’s best friend charged him with adultery, when Armstrong’s cycling partners accused him of cheating, it was like a punch to the gut. It hurt. Much worse in the case of Beecher than that of Armstrong, because Henry Ward Beecher represented so entirely what Americans wanted to believe about themselves.
I’ve always thought the Beecher trial would make a wonderful movie, or better, a television series, except that the trial became so complicated. It bred books full of documents and testimony. It involved people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Victoria Woodhull and her lover, Col. Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the country’s richest and most powerful men. And, of course, others of the Beecher family, as well known as the Kennedy family today, Harriet Beecher Stowe chief among them. At the end of the six months, the jury was declared “hung” with nine voting to acquit and three to condemn. Poor Theodore Tilton, Beecher’s accuser, slunk off to take refuge in France while the nation’s newspapers celebrated their hero’s vindication and he continued to enjoy fame and fortune.
In retrospect, many historians believe Beecher won because his reputation was too important to the American public. The facts weren’t what counted. People needed to believe in the values he stood for. We no longer have that problem. Most of the time we expect the worst of our celebrities and, if they don’t show it to us, we dig and dig until we find some sign of scandal, some deeply engrossing malfunction of character, something, anything for a good story. Privacy, at least that of other people, is less and less important. And the confessional that Dr. Phil and Jerry Springer provide suggests that even our own privacy is beside the point. Celebrity is what counts, no matter what form it takes.
The late French president, Mitterand, apparently had two families—one by his wife and the other by his mistress. The French public accepted his situation. It didn’t bear on his political activity, and so it remained private. No scandal magazines competed to uncover every detail.
Perhaps it’s the ethic that Beecher’s infidelity breached that makes us this way? Perhaps, unconsciously, we’re still holding on to the same values that sent Tilton into exile and vindicated Beecher, it’s just that now we really need to “stick it to Beecher” for his betrayal of those lingering ideals?
Of course, there’s almost certainly much more to it than that. I’d welcome comments.