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Original Sin

Thank God for the meta-sin. Otherwise the Chicago journalists who are currently tearing into Jack Ryan--the Illinois Senate candidate whose recently unsealed divorce papers allege that he took ex-wife and actress Jeri Ryan to sex clubs, where he tried to cajole her into having public sex--might have to ask whether there really is a scandal to write about. But thanks to the logic of the meta-sin, they need engage in no such self-examination. Instead, they are condemning Ryan for everything except what is actually in the divorce papers.

In an editorial in Wednesday's Chicago Sun-Times titled, "Time for Ryan to Hit the Road," the paper, after managing to work a reference to "kinky sex clubs" into the first sentence, assured readers that the details of Ryan's private life "don't concern us as much as the U.S. Senate candidate's willingness to mislead people into believing there was no cause for concern in the court records he was trying to keep secret. Those included voters, supporters, officials in the Republican Party and the members of this editorial board, which endorsed him in the March GOP primary." The Chicago Tribune went with a similar setup, mentioning "whips," "cages," and Eyes Wide Shut in the first two paragraphs before soberly intoning, "More troubling--and more certain than the allegations in a divorce file--is that Ryan was not honest with Republican primary voters." Phil Kadner, a columnist for the Daily Southtown, another Chicago paper, had this to say: "I don't hold Ryan's behavior with his wife against him. I am bothered, however, by the way Ryan symbolically holds his son up in front of his face whenever the news media starts taking shots at him." And Neil Steinberg of the Sun-Times seemed to sum up the prevailing attitude among Chicago journalists best when he wrote, "Far be it from me to judge Ryan's sexual peccadillos. The true shame lies, not in whatever perversion Ryan may or may not enjoy, but in the testy, oblivious, flailing performance Ryan put on trying to shuck them."

It's true that Ryan's handling of this controversy has been truly boneheaded: When word of the sealed divorce papers first surfaced during the primary, Ryan said he wouldn't release them to protect his son, seemingly hinting, though never explicitly saying, that the contents of the files had to do with his nine-year-old. He managed to win the primary, but had to reassure worried GOP leaders that there was nothing "embarrassing" in the file. Meanwhile the local ABC affiliate and the Tribune sued to have the papers released, and just about everyone in the entire state except, apparently, Ryan knew they'd get out eventually. For state Republicans, watching the whole thing develop has been like seeing a pigeon get hit by an SUV in slow motion.

But the logic that impugns Ryan for the meta-sins of mishandling the files, stonewalling the press, and hiding behind his son is as tortured as it is circular. Condemning the meta-sin has become a popular way for pundits, politicians, and others to chide those embroiled in sex scandals without actually, you know, talking about sex. And while the logic of the meta-sin is always dubious, it is particularly empty in this case. That's because, unlike, say, Monicagate, the case of Ryan's divorce papers is all meta-sin and no sin. It is the reductio ad absurdum of the American fetishization of the meta-sin; if any good can come of this episode, it should be to expose the meta-sin for the hollow political tactic it is.

To understand why, you have to ask whether there is actually an original sin here--whether anything contained in the divorce papers is really so objectionable. And the answer is no. What is scandalous about the fact that three or four times Ryan cajoled his wife into going to racy clubs? They were married; maybe he thought this would inject spark into their sex life. Or maybe he had a fantasy about public sex and wanted to try it with the woman he loved. That is weird, but is it really so terrible? Is it even morally wrong in any serious way?

As the inimitable Dan Savage, author of the sex column "Savage Love," has pointed out time and again, lovers will always have different conceptions of what is sexually exciting and what is sexually strange. An admirable partner is one who, in Savage's words, is "good, giving, and game"--someone who is open-minded, but knows when to give a hard no and respects and recognizes the same from the other. Even if these allegations are true, Ryan was at worst guilty of being a bit of a bully, and that's condemnable. But what American politician isn't a bit of a bully? It's certainly not front-page news.

The logic of Chicago pundits in condemning Ryan has been circular. They condemn him for saying there was nothing "embarrassing" in his divorce file; he was lying, they say, because there is something embarrassing. But the only reason there is something embarrassing is because the papers say it's embarrassing, slapping headlines like "SEX FILES" on the front page in an enormous font. Ryan tried to keep this stuff under wraps using a variety of lame tactics because he no doubt knew the media would have a field day when the sex club revelations came out, despite the fact that there is nothing egregiously objectionable about them. There can't be a meta-sin without a sin; the only reason there's a sin in this case is because journalists are incapable of writing about sex and politicians in any kind of considered or nuanced way--that is, incapable of distinguishing between a sex scandal in which someone did something wrong and a sex scandal in which someone did nothing wrong.

For comparison's sake, consider two recent sex scandals. Bill Clinton cheated on his wife with an intern. Cheating on one's partner is a terrible thing to do to someone you love. It's a bad moral failing, though one that a significant percentage of adults have indulged; and becoming sexually involved with a young intern is also an abuse of power. Bad? Yes. Worthy of condemnation, and political censure? Sure. But it wasn't the original sin that led to a multi-million-dollar investigation, hundreds of thousands of column inches, and an impeachment; it was the meta-sin of lying about the affair. So this was a case where an original sin existed, but where the meta-sin took on a life of its own and became much bigger than the original sin really warranted.

Then there was the governor of California. The Los Angeles Times, you'll remember, broke a story a few days before the recall election that Arnold Schwarzenegger allegedly had a pattern of groping and fondling women against their will. Here there was an entirely different universe of related issues and serious violations. A consensual affair with an intern is sleazy and deceitful, but it's not illegal, whereas sexually fondling people against their will is. More than illegal though, fondling and grabbing people violates the bedrock principle of modern secular ethics: You don't do things to people against their will. (It's for this reason that the Paula Jones accusations were far more serious than the Lewinsky affair, the media's excess interest in the latter notwithstanding.) But in the waning days of the election, it was somehow impossible to make this kind of distinction. Republicans threw the Democrats' rhetoric in defense of Clinton--that sexual peccadilloes were not a matter of political import--back in their collective face, and the governor got off by gamely conceding that "where there's smoke, there's fire." By coming clean, Schwarzenegger foreclosed the possibility of a meta-sin, and so, despite the fact that the original sin was both real and serious, he was immediately forgiven. In this case, the absence of a meta-sin minimized what properly deserved to be a much bigger scandal.

Now consider the scandal that directly preceded the Ryan fiasco--the case of Blair Hull, a Democratic candidate for the same Illinois Senate seat whose own sealed divorce files rightfully became a campaign issue in February during the primaries. During Hull's divorce, the self-financed millionaire's ex-wife had obtained a civil order of protection against him, generally issued to women who fear abuse from their partners. Since the order of protection was public record, reporters and primary opponents pressed Hull to release his sealed divorce files, and after some initial resistance, he did. They were disturbing to say the least. In the files, Hull is accused of calling his ex-wife a "fucking cunt," threatening her, and punching her in the shins. Hull was toast, and he deserved to be. For once, the media didn't let the relative severity of the meta-sin obscure the relative severity of the original one.

The problem, though, is that the Illinois media is making no distinction between the release of Ryan's file and the release of Hull's, even though the allegations contained in both aren't even in the same ballpark. The result is that a violent, abusive outburst against a spouse is presented in the same light as a few surprise visits to kinky night clubs. Why? The media was able to evaluate the actual merits of Hull's actions because--unlike the Clinton, Schwarzenegger, or Ryan scandals--the scandal wasn't about sex. It was about abuse and that was a much easier thing for the media to judge. But once the topic changes to sex, writers and pundits become unsure whether to proceed. Is it a story? Is it something worth condemning, or even judging? So they take their cues from the absence or presence of a meta-sex-scandal. In the case of Ryan, that meta-scandal is filling the vacuum created by the absence of a real one.

Now, the divorce files aside, Ryan has run a dreadful campaign. He went negative early and clumsily, and he has completely failed to present a coherent message. (Full disclosure: I've had two modest fundraisers at my house for his opponent, Barack Obama, so you can take those critiques with a grain of salt.) But he still deserves better than this. He's got an MBA and JD from Harvard and left a lucrative job at Goldman Sachs to teach high school at a boys parochial high school in an impoverished South-Side neighborhood. He's a smart, thoughtful guy with a compelling story, and though he's very conservative, he has what seems to be a legitimate and genuine commitment to discussing issues of poverty and justice.

The point is not that a candidate's private life is sacrosanct; it's fine for the press to inform us of the personal moral failings of our potential elected officials. The point is that Ryan shouldn't be taken to task by scolds for mishandling embarrassing allegations when it is these same scolds who incorrectly define the allegations as embarrassing in the first place. The twisted logic of the meta-sin has reached its zenith in the case of Jack Ryan, and it's time we understood it for what it is: the smoke that only sometimes indicates a fire.

The Nation

By Christopher Hayes