Why do we so love scandal?

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.

1875 cartoon. Obviously not everyone thought Beecher so innocent!

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.

Henry Ward Beecher

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.

The peril of watching television in the morning

I don’t usually watch television in the morning, but it was Saturday and it was on, and one of the morning hosts was doing a special on the increasing theat to privacy in our culture, especially because of the Internet, as well as all the cameras perched in stores, on city streets and highways.  The consensus was that it’s too late to do much about it, either as a society or as an individual. The invited expert suggested we each had two choices: live with it or seek out a unabomber’s shack in the mountains somewhere.

But this invasion of privacy—which is presumably not of our own choosing—is only part of a much wider phenomenon, where the private has become increasingly public. Reality TV is the most obvious example, but the Internet and the newsstands are full of the stories of “real people.” The details of the lives of celebrities are the most sought after, but as a nation we avidly watch people “just like us” in small claims court, getting counseling and therapy from Dr. Phil, financial help from Suzie, swapping wives and getting makeovers.

According to Ben Yagoda in his book Memoir: A History, nonfiction currently outsells fiction four to one and “total sales in the categories of Personal Memoirs, Childhood Memoirs, and Parental Memoirs increased more than 400 percent between 2004 and 2008.”

It may be that fiction has been threatened since 1966 when Truman Capote published In Cold Blood, the original non-fiction novel, although other writers had already explored the genre. Tom Wolfe wrote in his essay Pornoviolence: The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset … Instead, the book’s suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end.

Much of our interest in the details of other people’s lives lies in our love of the sensational, and in what is, in essence, gossip. Most of us—even those of us who don’t want to admit it—like gossip. And even though it’s been characterized as mean-spirited, it just as often isn’t. It’s about hearing a good story, and even more, a story about someone we know, or feel we know. The key is that the story has to be entertaining, and it has to be about someone “real” that we feel kin to.

Gossip can’t be about fictional characters.

I still haven’t answered the question: Why are so many of us so thirsty for the details of the lives of others? And again: Why are so many of us eager to share our own? Is this a good thing?

I’m groping here, but I might be getting closer. Could it be that as we lose our privacy and our private lives, fiction seems less relevant? Could it be that we’re all in the media? We’re so immersed in the drama of it all. As people are sometimes said to say at the scene of a murder, “It’s so real. It’s just like the movies.” We can no longer contemplate our lives. We’re all in the movie. There’s no distance and no place from which to view ourselves. What we have to do is stay on the screen and keep moving, while we all the time keep track of ourselves and of everyone else.

Then again, maybe I just shouldn’t watch television in the morning.