Why Do We Care so Much About this Affair? Because We’re Prudes.

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Nov. 13 2012 1:56 PM

Stop Judging, You Prudes

The real reason we care so much about the Petraeus affair.

CIA Director David Petraeus prepares to ring the Opening Bell of the New York Stock Exchange.
Why are we so interested in David Petraeus' affair with Paual Broadwell?

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

In the unfolding affair of David Petraeus, it is difficult to separate the outsized fantasies of a puritanical nation from legitimate questions of national security.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

We seem to be groping for hard, substantive reasons to justify our prurient interest and the general feeling that he was right to resign.

According to a Washington Post editorial, Petraeus was right to resign because he “recklessly used a Gmail account to send explicit messages.” They explained further:  “Such behavior would not be acceptable in the private sector, or in the military.” This is a flagrantly strange assertion, as recklessly using Gmail accounts to send explicit messages would seem to be not just acceptable, but pandemic in the private sector.  Should everyone who has sent an explicit message on Gmail leave their jobs, and if they did, would the work of the country ground to a halt? Would the Washington Post itself be able to put out a newspaper if they declared “unacceptable” that sort of “reckless” use of Gmail?  And if in fact, that reckless use of Gmail is so acceptable as to be banal, then what exactly did Petraeus do wrong?

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The somewhat antiquated rationale behind his wrongdoing is that spies could be blackmailed if they have high stakes secrets like adulterous affairs. But what is the practical application of this concept? The notion that you could fill an entire government agency (let alone one filled with Men Who Keep Secrets) with men who have never cheated on their wives (and women who have never cheated on their husbands) is clearly absurd.

If what the public is truly concerned about is that Petraeus, because of his affair with Mrs. All In, would be vulnerable to blackmail by enemy spy services, then that concern should have dissipated once news of the affair was splashed across every tabloid in the world. Once everyone not living in a remote hut without wireless knew about the affair, those devious spies plotting their grand blackmail would have nothing to work with. Petraeus, and our country’s secrets, would be safe.  So why should he need to resign after it all came out?

Our concern is not about military law, or the correct protocol of the CIA. Our concern is an unacknowledged prudishness, a stubbornly old-fashioned sense of family. Petraeus’ resignation is not about actual concerns about his integrity as a leader, or any true concern about blackmail. The resignation is over something much murkier, and ambiguous, something that engages on the deepest level our most fantastical ideals of generals and leaders, of men in positions of power. It taps into a deeply conservative, 1950s picture of family life that has yet to adapt and evolve with the times. Adultery may be a crime, according to a military law that is apparently pretty spottily enforced and frequently disregarded. But that is no reason for the public to accept its premises, that there is some mysterious violation of law involved in all of this private sleaziness. It is not 1950, and we should not accept that adultery is a crime, any more than we accept that sodomy is a crime.

What we are seeing is the very pernicious downside of the ‘70s feminist truism: “The personal is political.”  Gen. John Allen, for instance,  is now being investigated for “inappropriate communication” with another character from Petraeus’ scandal, Jill Kelley. But is this really a felicitous use of our tax dollars? The weeding through emails for dirty passages? The scolding school-teacherish search for “inappropriate communication”? Isn’t there some other more pressing use of all these resources, some matter of national security these agents could address? And perhaps more importantly, is this the country we want to live in? 

In his resignation statement, Petraeus said: “After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours.” But the logic here is questionable: can a terrible husband be a great leader? History would of course be on the side of, “yes.”

In a series of recent scandals, we seem to be having trouble separating public responsibility from private life, the breaking of marriage vows from the breaking of laws, a vague sense of wrongdoing from a rational assessment of the facts. Many news organizations seem very desperate to make the Petraeus affair about more than sex. Take CNN’s headline “The Petraeus Affair: A Lot More Than Sex” for a piece that proceeds to dwell on sex and circle obsessively back to it. 

In fact, if we are being honest, this is not even a “sex scandal.” This is just sex.