09/09/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sexus Perplexus: Prurience, Politics and Piety

Poor John Edwards. He should have known better. Illicit sex is the ultimate American no-no. It's the "black act" we love to hate; visions of all that sneaky, naked panting and groping dance in our little heads like sugar plums. It's all so deliciously obscene.

It's also the ultimate political "Gotcha!" And it's the ultimate national exercise in sheer hypocrisy. We American moralists are highly offended by sex. We can't stomach filth like sexually explicit song lyrics. Or frontal nudity on the big screen -- or the small one. We'll condemn, boycott and Triple X that immorality every chance we get. It's nasty. We're decent folks who do not tolerate obscenity.


But we tolerate gore. We like our bloody slasher flicks, action movies with heroes decapitating bad guys, fantasies with dripping arms and legs flying off the torsos of enemies everywhere. Eyes wide with the stunned expression of sudden, violent death; bullet holes through the forehead, scarlet splatter on white walls. Bring it on. That's exciting. That's not nasty, like sex.

And wars. Even illegal wars, immoral wars fought for an ideology of supremacy or for profit. For oil. We tolerate them just fine. We sanitize the language of bloody violence perpetrated en masse on innocent women, on the elderly. On babies and children. They become collateral damage. That's not obscene. It's war, it's our war -- and it's always justifiable.

We turn on our dirty little corporate war only when it drags on too long and we have to pay a personal price. Like sacrificing our own kids -- over and over and over again. Or finding we're in debt up to our sanctimonious necks, the Iraq War didn't pay for itself as promised, money's really tight and we're paying $4 a gallon for gas.

We tolerate the obscenity that is poverty in a nation of great wealth. The American homeless, the hungry, the uninsured. We tolerate rape and genocide. In Rwanda. In Darfur. Poverty, disease, malnutrition, gang rape and genocide aren't nasty. Like sex.

List, if you will, the political leaders in America who've done pretty much what John Edwards did. John McCain. Rudy Giuliani. Bill Clinton. Newt Gingrich. Larry Craig. David Vitter. Eliot Spitzer. Want to take an historic look at the personally morally-challenged? Thomas Jefferson. FDR. JFK. LBJ. There are plenty of flawed men to add to your roster.

List those who've done worse. Like Mark Foley, crusading publicly for abused and exploited children while preying on young congressional pages.

Now list the crimes committed by the Bush administration. The lies that led us into war. Black sites, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, all of which violated morality, American democratic values, federal and international law. The suspension of habeas corpus. War profiteering through no-bid contracts for crony corporations in Iraq. Warrantless wiretapping. Outing a CIA operative. Corrupting the DOJ for political purposes. This president might have been an intellectually barren candidate, a wastrel, a substance abuser, but he was no wayward Bill Clinton; he may have violated the law, trampled over the Bill of Rights, made a mockery of the constitution...but he never cheated on his wife. Ask any moralist. He's one righteous dude.

What's obscene here? What moral and ethical failures actually threaten this country?

We need to get off our pious high horse. We have our national panties in a wad (at least for the present news cycle) because a presidential wannabe had dirty sex. What defines the tainted soul of John Edwards? Not Rielle Hunter. Two things should bother us far more than his antics with a blonde in a hotel room.

One (and this one has bothered me since the advent of primary season): His 20,000 square foot home in North Carolina. Twenty thousand square feet. Why, that's as big as my local Wal-Mart -- and wa-a-ay more elegant. How much cushy space does a family of five need? What do you say when the kitchen's dirty -- "Clean-up on aisle four"? When you've grown up as poor as Edwards did and you run an eloquent campaign on the issue of a "Two Americas" war on poverty, where's your social conscience? How do you justify that kind of self-indulgence?

Two: John Edwards' own words about his infidelity. "I did have an affair. But I did not love her." I did not love her. Well, as long as he didn't get emotionally involved... that makes it all better! Doesn't it?

"I-did-not-love-her" Edwards, meet "My-wife's-a-trollop-worthy-of-the-Miss-Buffalo-Chip-title" McCain. You guys have a lot in common: the shameless objectification of women. Use 'em as the target for your vile temper, use 'em as the butt of your vulgar jokes, use 'em for no-commitment sexual gratification. The violation of a gender for convenience -- of any kind -- is a tad obscene.

Too bad for John Edwards that he couldn't just pull the plug on his inflatable gal pal, let the air out and forget the whole thing.

America, we need to re-examine our sexually-based standards for what's obscene and what's not. We have the power to change the definition of true obscenity. The act of illicit sex? That's the least of John Edwards' problems.

And it's the least of ours.