What a pity Aristophanes died c. 388 B.C: That classical Athenian comic playwright knew politics and politicians. They kindled his comic wrath. “O, thou that shavest close thy passionate arse!” he wrote of one politician. Of another: “Noisome was the stench that issued from the brute as it slid forth, with camel’s rump and monstrous unwashed balls!”
Do they have news media in Hades, the Greek afterworld? Imagine him chuckling over the headlines of spring 2011. Dominique Strauss-Kahn. John “I’ve done wrong” Edwards. Anthony “I am deeply ashamed of my terrible actions” Weiner. Is this tragedy? Comedy? Politics as usual? Or what?
In Japan, meanwhile, there rises a stench of a different color. No sex, there’s that to be thankful for, if little else. A failed no-confidence motion against the hapless prime minister, Naoto Kan, was the last straw for much of the Japanese press and public. Incompetence is bad enough, but the fiddling at Nagatacho while Japan melts down is beyond disgraceful: It’s a threat to democracy. The weeklies chorused as one: “Nagatacho! Don’t be utterly stupid!” (Shukan Asahi). “Get lost, all of you!” (Shukan Gendai, addressing opposition leader Sadikazu Tanigaki and two leading governing party politicians, Ichiro Ozawa and Yukio Hatoyama, who turned against Kan and supported the motion). “Farewell, ‘Swindler,’ ‘Space Alien’ and ‘Sulky!’ (Shukan Shincho, using long-standing or recently acquired nicknames for Kan, Hatoyama and Ozawa respectively).
Last month, this column quoted the influential conservative journalist Yoshiko Sakurai as saying, in a dialogue published by Shukan Post, “When the political process is paralyzed … the Imperial Palace … fills the vacuum.” Her apparent hope is other people’s nightmare, but historically she’s on solid ground. German, Italian and Japanese fascism of the 1930s swept aside democracies or quasi-democracies that had rotted. Many people bid them good riddance.
Are our democracies rotting?
If you’d been asked on May 13 to name the world’s 10 most influential statesmen, Strauss-Kahn may have made your list. He was chairman of the International Monetary Fund, a leading candidate for the presidency of France, an important socialist thinker notwithstanding his vast personal wealth. That’s having your cake and eating it too, as is having a wife who says of your notorious philandering, “It’s important for a politician to be able to seduce.”
Perhaps, of course, he didn’t do what the New York hotel maid said he did to her on May 14. A charge is not a conviction. The courts should deal with him before the press does. But, innocent or guilty, he is one of the three figures currently making it impossible not to think about sex as it relates to politics, and vice versa.
Sex and politics. Seen from one point of view they seem mutually exclusive, the one intensely private, the other intensely public. Politicians live in the public eye. They court it, need it, crave it. Out of that eye, they scarcely exist. Did two-time U.S. presidential candidate and former Senator John Edwards seriously believe he could cheat on his dying wife and father his girlfriend’s child (never mind the campaign funds allegedly disbursed as hush money) without it eventually coming to light? In this day and age, when the pursuit of sordidness is synonymous with the pursuit of truth, and the only way to attain privacy is to make sure no one is interested in you?
Likewise Weiner, the rising-star congressman. Men make asses of themselves; that’s nature. A fully dignified sex life is probably impossible, an oxymoron. But most men are not congressmen. Most men do not live in the media glare. Didn’t he grasp the difference? If he didn’t, what’s the issue — his lack of brains, or a sex drive so insatiable he simply couldn’t help tweeting photos of his aroused crotch to various online “friends” and, indirectly, to you and me? If the latter, is it to his credit, or to his discredit?
The answer to that is, strangely enough, not obvious. We voters demand, after all, that our leaders be trim, fit, dynamic, charming, charismatic, photogenic, telegenic — in a word, sexy. Do we know what we want? Maybe it’s the public that’s confused, and not the politicians. To be sexy means to be sexed. Sorry, but that’s life.
Japanese politicians at the moment are not sexy. So much the better — or … maybe not. They are the opposite of sexy — tired, sluggish, uninspired, pitifully inadequate in the face of one of the worst peacetime crises in modern world history. Sex is energy and energy is sex. Knowing how to channel it — not being devoid of it — is the trick.
Aristophanes’ spirit lives today in comedians and TV hosts. They’re having a field day — with Weiner in particular. One joke making the rounds: “It turns out that one of the women Congressman Anthony Weiner was communicating with was a porn star. When asked how it was possible to get involved with someone in such a sleazy business, the porn star said, ‘I don’t know.’”
Funny, and yet not. As the conservative journalist Sakurai reminds us, not everyone is a confirmed democrat. If democratic politicians sink low enough, righteous disgust could turn to righteous fury, with tragic consequences. It’s happened before.