The Germans have a word for it—schadenfreude—joining the words for joy and harm to mean taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune. The Eliot Spitzer scandal fascinates me because it offers a veritable typology of schadenfreude.
Most everyone was briefly shocked—I say, shocked—to learn of the New York governor’s involvement with prostitutes, which we all immediately filed under the bulging category of hypocrisy in high places. But in a split second, that shock gave way to prurient delight as I read every word of the New York Times coverage. I’m not exactly proud of this reaction, so I am trying to understand it.
On the surface, it’s easy: Governor Spitzer is the same sort of personality—self-righteous, repressive, moralizing, self-regarding—as the disgraced televangelists and moral-majoritarian politicians whose decline and fall have provided so much lascivious amusement to media viewers. Just like an anti-gay politician caught cruising public restrooms, Spitzer condemned and vigorously pursued prosecutions against prostitution enterprises, crowing in 2004 headlines that he had busted “a prostitution ring, and now its owners and operators will be held accountable,” then channeled many thousands of dollars to a prostitution ring in exchange for his personal use of its employees’ services. When someone loudly and publicly denounces certain types of behavior and then indulges in them himself, the pleasure is in seeing the self-righteous exposed as human and flawed, in hearing the denouncer’s own words rebound to his discredit.
There is a great passage in the Book of Esther, the reading for the holiday of Purim, coming right up. To express his resentment at a Jew’s refusal to bow down to him—the insubordinate one is Mordechai, Esther’s guide and guardian—the king’s trusted advisor Haman tells the sovereign that the Jews plot against him, receiving the king’s permission to proceed with his elaborate plans to execute all the Jews of the region. Queen Esther is persuaded to reveal to the king that Haman is an evil man, that his plot is against her own people, who have been loyal. Esther induces the king to turn Haman’s vile plans on their maker, and Haman is impaled on a stake he has erected to execute Mordechai. At this point in the retelling of the story, everyone cheers: the simplest type of schadenfreude is when the sadistic doctor is given a taste of his own medicine.
But the next layer of schadenfreude is more complicated. Eliot Spitzer is no Haman. While he is widely perceived as abrasive and egotistical, those are personal qualities. In the social realm, he has done a great deal of good, pursuing corruption on Wall Street, calling banks to account for the sub-prime mortgage mess, and so on. Purchasing the services of a prostitute hardly seems to outweigh this on the scale of public good: as Robert Scheer pointed out in an interesting TruthDig piece, “Why is Spitzer’s paying for sex more disgraceful than [Bill Clinton’s] ripping it off?” The loudest rejoicing over Spitzer’s downfall has been on Wall Street. The subtext of that schadenfreude makes me feel like washing my hands: fat cats dancing on the grave of one of the few public officials to successfully disrupt their orgy of consumption at the public trough.
Drill down another layer and you start to get involved in complex spiritual questions. By now, we have seen enough moralizers defeated by the sins they condemn in others to begin to understand that there is an intrinsic—not merely an incidental—relationship between crusading moral virtue and overwhelming temptation. As has been taught so often by sages, wherever the Yetzer HaTov (the Good Inclination) is strong, the Yetzer HaRa (the Evil Inclination) is drawn. In someone who cannot understand or accept his own pull toward whatever he condemns, someone who so cherishes his righteous persona that he cannot admit he is merely a person, this contest can be a battle to the death.
All the articles about Spitzer point out that the financial transactions that exposed him to press scrutiny were exactly the same type that had alerted him as prosecutor to the crimes of the prostitution rings he pursued. He made a dumb mistake, one might say. But really, I can’t see it as anything but an unconscious desire to be exposed or a willful carelessness grounded in a sense of narcissistic invincibility—or both. This is a reminder that if we insist too hard on suppressing the parts of ourselves that evoke moral judgment, they will pop up and bite us, hard. It teaches a lesson about human nature and its challenges, and takes the edge off the feeling of superiority that comes with schadenfreude.
I don’t have too much more time to drill this morning (if I did, I imagine it would be possible to keep going all day). Just one more layer. Almost always, the people caught in Spitzer’s position are men. So there is an extra frisson of schadenfreude that many women feel here, and often, without much explicit acknowledgment, questions concerning women become the subtext of these stories. Many women are strongly opposed to prostitution, denouncing it as dangerous, degrading, a form of economic or social coercion rather than a profession. Personally, I think that in the absence of coercion, some people might still choose to trade in their bodies the way others sell their hearts or minds for a living, and that is their right.
I assume this argument has been resonating in reporters’ and commentators’ ears, because they have made much of the high fees charged by the prostitute Spitzer patronized—almost on a par with CEO salaries—as if his choosing a “low-priced prostitute” would have changed the story in some important way. (Of course, the questions I have about corporate CEO salaries also arise in this context: if someone is being paid $1,000—or $5,000, $10,000 and more—for an hour’s work, what does it mean that they in effect collect a few hundred dollars every time they excuse themselves to use the toilet, or that every swallow of coffee, every momentary distraction, every gaze out the window carries a price tag worth one of someone else’s days at work?)
This morning, commentators are remarking on the way men caught in Spitzer’s position inevitably wear their wives as a podium accessory. People are asking how these women can allow themselves to be used that way, why they don’t just stand up, denounce the husband and call the movers. I don’t think it’s possible to drill down far enough into the human heart to decode love’s reasons, but that’s obviously one answer. Another is a form of very high-priced prostitution, allowing oneself to be used in exchange for the considerable perks of first lady-status. Or even political expediency: a woman with ambitions of her own may not want to risk them by divorcing, which reduces the chance of being elected to one of our highest offices. I can’t pretend to understand these loyal spouses—I don’t think I would choose that much public humiliation, and I have a hard time respecting that choice in others—but when I think about them, my schadenfreude curdles into something not at all pleasurable.
And then I start to think about what Robert Scheer said in his TruthDig piece, that on the day the papers were crowded with Eliot Spitzer’s public disgrace, our president vetoed a bill banning torture. Which story led the news? Who’s laughing now?