What with Arnold and DSK, male transgression is once again in the news. Let’s not equate the two cases—one is forgivable, the other, if the accusations are true, is not. Together with these male transgressions is the reaction to them, still more interesting. The reaction shows the power of morality to produce disgust and disgrace at the sight of these male weaknesses. Even though morality can’t prevent such excesses, it won’t let go of us. Just when we think we are too advanced, too sophisticated, too New York to care, we all have to stop and gasp and exclaim to one another.
Look at the old-fashioned, home truths that are vindicated in these spectacles, some obvious, some less so.
(1) Men are more adventurous and aggressive than women. This is true for good as well as ill. Men are much more violent, but also more given to innovation and invention. Most science and all common sense says this, but our society now wants desperately to be gender-neutral, and it has great difficulty in admitting this obvious difference between the sexes. Many think that admitting such differences will hurt the chances of women to gain for themselves formerly male occupations that require initiative and drive. It certainly seems strange that being capable of rape can make a person better qualified for greatness, but it’s probably true. Yet it’s not surely true; some women do have these manly qualities and do succeed.
(2) Women are more vulnerable than men. They are not rapists but victims of rape. Being mothers, they are closer to their children, and usually suffer more from divorce. Because women are weaker and closer to children than men, the equality of the sexes cannot rest on their being the same. Nor can women be independent, or “autonomous,” certainly not as much as modern women want to be. As vulnerable, they depend on law and morality for protection. The enforcement of law and morality is done mainly by men or by women with the strength of men. Martial arts! But it’s better usually to call the police. Women need men to save them from men.
(3) Sex is not just pleasure. Only young men in passion and the deluded friends of sexual liberation believe that this is all there is to it. Sex is not like a cup of coffee or a glass of beer, a harmless, passing pleasure. It is different because it involves honor and shame. Casual sex when young can give you bad habits, and you find yourself unprepared for the trouble you encounter when you see that sex matters. If you are young and unsuccessful in love, be glad. But of course you won’t be.
A woman has the right to consent, but if she consents too easily, she easily begins to think less of herself, and others think less of her. When she defends herself like DSK’s alleged victim, however, she may be frightened, but people, and especially other women, will be proud of her. The casual promotion of casual sex, seen in many colleges including the one where I teach, is irresponsible, to say the least. The basic reason for this is that life is about honor, not only pleasure, and misbegotten sex when it violates honor can make people very angry. They will come after you, one way or another.
(4) The gentleman is not obsolete. A gentleman is one who does not take advantage of those who are weaker than he. So defined, a gentleman could be a woman, but men like to be protective, and convention gives a woman the chance to be a lady instead. A lady is a person who keeps her dignity in every situation, even one in which a gentleman would lose his. A lady doesn’t swear; she knows that the gutter is not where women thrive and rule.
(5) Morality can bring you down. So we see in these two cases, one a governor, the other a leading statesman on his way to becoming president. Of course the first is a Hollywood star, the second a Frenchman; no surprises there when it comes to erotic shenanigans. But Arnold was in high office and well married. He has taken a hit but will survive because he did take responsibility for the love child—after leaving office. DSK is a much more serious matter. Frenchmen are known for making love, not for rape. His disgrace is a dramatic fall from a $3,000 room, a first-class cabin, and probably the presidency of France. Rather than gaining a triumph to his glory and his country’s benefit, he has humiliated both himself and his country. Morality has a hold on all human beings, and it does not easily accept excuses. It is more powerful than the cynics believe. It can be very democratic in raising the low and abasing the high. Morality and democracy are both levelers; they encourage each other and they take satisfaction in each other. Democracy on its own doesn’t care for moral relativism; only democratic intellectuals want that.
But let’s not leave with morality altogether secure in the saddle.
(6) Morality wants to be sovereign over all other considerations, but it doesn’t deserve to be. Morality when sovereign makes moralism, an ugly posture that breeds fanaticism.
So, whether it’s because I have studied Machiavelli or am now a grand--father wise in the world I couldn’t say, but I can think of scenarios in which Dominique Strauss-Kahn might be excused (still assuming he is guilty). Many French now think that he has been the victim of a plot, which seems far-fetched and against the evidence. But suppose he were; could that plot not be justified if it removed a very bad man from a situation in which he could do much harm? And, on the contrary, supposing he were a very good man essential to the good of his country, could not another plot have been mounted to cover up his unfortunate moral failing? Working out these possibilities will keep you from feeling too much moral indignation. Not too much of it, but not too little, either.
Harvey Mansfield, recipient of a 2011 Bradley Prize, is professor of government at Harvard University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.