The Personal Might Actually Be Political After All

4 Dec

Anne-Marie Slaughter really likes to talk about the private/public divide these days. After her article  on how illusionary it is for women to be both super moms and super careerists (which might be true, I just don’t understand how this is any different for careerists who are both male and fathers), I just read an article by her on the private life of public persons got me thinking.

She started off by wondering whether Petraeus had an obligation to step down because he betrayed his family and the marriage vows he gave to his wife, indicating a betrayal of intrinsic values which the general public believed he stood for.

Now, I find this a very tricky subject. On the one hand, such claims – that a leader did not live up to a perceived set of moral standards opens the door to all forms of hypocrisy and political exploitation. On the other hand, does it really say nothing about you as a human being that you accept that your partner, to whom you owe your family life, upon discovery of the affair, might be exposed to public humiliation and ridicule?* Yes, I know it is a dangerous terrain with the risk of self-righteousness looming nearby.

I talked about the Petreaeus affair with a Hungarian friend over lunch the other day. Or, more precisely, she started talking about it, invoking it as one of the reasons why she found the US such a weird country. ‘It’s not anyone’s business. It is so different. Here (meaning Hungary) or in France, the guy would receive a pat on the back and would be cheered on’ she said (or something along those lines). Yes, he stepped down because he was no longer sustainable in a position in which it is crucial to not make yourself vulnerable to being blackmailed. But still, the fact that he cheated on his wife and what that means for him as a man with values was discussed in the US (the above-cited article may be cited as proof). 

Again, I do think it is generally a good idea not to judge the personal lives of people and their mistakes unless you know all the circumstances. So that is not the point of this post. But this whole affair (no pun intended) got me thinking of the differences in society and in what is considered private/public that contributes to these differences? For I think my friend was right, this discussion would have been totally different in most parts of Europe. Why is it that we very easily refer to something being private, being their own personal business when it comes to how public figures arrange their family lives, even though we know, we accept that by exposing their own personal mistakes in the public forum, someone else’s life achievements (the building and maintaining of a family life) were also reduced to nothing? 

Countless politicians, CEOs, persons holding similar positions of power do work more or less constantly in their waking life to achieve, maintain, foster, or increase something. Most men in such position have a family. Many women in such position, few as they are in the first place, have not. The reason is that when you are such a high-flying power person and you do want to have a family (and you do accept that your day holds merely the 24 hours it has in stock for everyone else), this is virtually impossible if you do not have a partner who stays at home to manage family and household (yes, there are exceptions. But if you chose a career that demanding that it needs your constant attention, you do inevitably accept to cut back in other parts of your life). You need someone who, out of passion, pragmatic consideration or bowing to expectation dedicates their life to your career and your family. Something that – given history, tradition, and societal expectations – women are far more often inclined to do than men. This alone could make us question the admiration for a specific group of public figures and their life achievements, in which it is traditionally forgotten that none of this happened in a private vacuum and none of this would have been possible without the compromise of someone else. Why do we consider someone a role model for undoubtedly morally valuable or even heroic acts without taking into account whether or not they able to live up to the same moral standards with regards to a person at home who enabled them to have some sort of family life in the first place. Someone in the comments section to AMS’ article mentioned JFK as an example, a person you would probably not have wanted for a friend and most certainly not for a husband. Another example I think about is HanneloreKohl, Helmut Kohl’s wife. After she killed herself in 2001, much had been speculated about the reasons for her suicide, which is mainly attributed to a rare photo allergy that had made her a captive in her own house. However, since then, both of the Kohls’ sons also came forward with accounts of how terribly their father failed as a husband and as a father, being constantly absent and, when physically present, uninterested and condescending. In an interview that Hannelore Kohl gave in 1992 she stated that “after four or five hours of real waiting, one can expect only of a dog that he is still looking forward (to seeing someone) (…) I have learned from our dog “.  Does it not have an implication on our judgement of the person as a decent human being if, notwithstanding any public mighty deeds, he fails so miserably in being there for the persons he loves?

So, is it really a sign of a more liberal society of Europe when we refrain from discussing our leaders’ judgements with regards to their private lives? Or is it an indication of some boys-will-be-boys-attitude coupled with an internalisation of traditional gender roles that assign women the role of an auxiliary and make their lives and how they live them matter less than their partner’s. The answer to that question does not mean that a public person who is highly competent and exceptionally skilled and generally amazing at his or her job should step down for any sexual or emotional mishap (unless you are the CIA director, I’m afraid). But it should be clear that they did not get there in a private vacuum and when they depend on the understanding and support of the people close to them in order to climb the career ladder, how they relate to these persons in private cannot be totally disregarded in the evaluation and definition of their success.

* (By the way, family here means people who are a couple, with or without kids. I don’t feel confident making vast assumptions about gay families with kids and high-flying careers and the issues they have to deal with (subtract everyday gender crap and the expectations it brings, insert everyday homophobia its effects), so I won’t write about them. Whether two people are married or not does not matter as I do not believe that any vow makes any relationship more legitimate or stable or sacred).

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