Quick history quiz, comrades: Which of these three men would you say was the most morally admirable: A) King George III of Great Britain, the one the founding fathers rebelled against; B) Benjamin Franklin, genius and inventor; or C) Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and later the president who doubled the size of our nation through the Louisiana Purchase?
Well, if todays media watchdogs had been on the job during the American Revolution, there is no doubt that the hero of our story would have been George III. According to the brilliant David McCulloughs new bestseller 1776, while all the courtiers around him were flaunting their infidelities, old George remained steadfastly faithful to his very plain Queen.
Meanwhile, those horrid Americans were getting themselves talked about. Franklin had an illegitimate son, and then later neglected his common-law wife and went off to be a famous womanizer in France. And thanks to the wonders of DNA, we now know that the gossips of the day were right, and Thomas Jefferson did indeed father a string of children with one of his slaves, beginning when she was a teenager and he was middle-aged.
Even George Washington once made a play for a married woman. No doubt about it, the Revolution would never have had a chance if theyd had the media sex police and a 24-hour TV news cycle back then.
What the opinion leaders back then did have was a sense of proportion. That doesnt mean that Jeffersons behavior ought to be approved. (He never freed his slave mistress, the cad. His white daughter freed her after he died.) Ben and Tom even got their share of nasty press.
However, the big difference was that however backward 18th century society otherwise may have been, it was generally accepted that a mans whole was more than the sum of his parts. Jefferson and Franklin were busy not only with petticoats, but with inventing this nation and our concepts of freedom and democracy, which is why we still study their work and honor them.
Today, however, we all seem to live on some sort of sexual monkey island, where the rules are constantly changing the only constant is voyeurism and where sex is allowed to blot out anything and everything else.
Invent a cure for cancer? Figure out how to save the nations decaying infrastructure in a way we can afford to pay for it? Thats fine, but your career will be toast if you are caught in some embarrassing sexcapade.
What is worse, you are guaranteed to be remembered for nothing else. Once there was a president whose administration balanced the budget and presided over peace and prosperity. That was ages ago, back in the 1990s.
Yet what do most people remember Bill Clinton for? Thats right, and thats the only thing most of my college students know about him. But at least he (barely) got to keep his job.
Last week, one of the nations highest-ranking military officers, Kevin P. Byrnes, a four-star general, was abruptly relieved of his command, for what the Army said was an issue of personal conduct.
When I saw that, I assumed he was caught in a gay relationship, had promoted his girlfriend to colonel or was forcing himself on the steno pool.
Not at all. Byrnes, now divorced from his wife, began having a relationship with a civilian after he separated from his spouse. Thats what his lawyer said, and the army didnt contradict him.
The woman was an adult, and had nothing to do with the army or his job. Later, Army sources said he wasnt cashiered for the affair, but for not ending his relationship with her after the Army told him to.
Hopefully, he told them to go to hell. The U.S. Army is not like any other employer, and he knew that going in. But absent professional or national security reasons the Army ought to have no right to meddle with whom the general sees socially. What if they decided they dont like his religion?
Something else is almost certainly going on here. The blogosphere is full of stories, some of which sound credible, that Byrnes was a very fine military officer who, however, crossed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on more than one occasion, principally by pointing out that his policy in Iraq wasnt working.
Rummys revenge, they say, was firing him for fooling around.
If that is so, it is especially outrageous, given that no high-ranking officer has been seriously punished for the prisoner torture scandals at Abu Ghraib prison or Guantanamo. The Washington Post got it about right:
From this incident it is possible to draw only one conclusion: Its OK for officers to oversee units that torture civilians and thereby damage the reputation of the United States throughout the world. Falling in love outside marriage, on the other hand is completely unacceptable and will end your career.
Outrageous? Yes. But so is the place todays media give sex in the great scheme of things. As I write these words, a tiny moth is flying around my office. So far as I know, we have one thing in common: interest in sex.
Granted, we are aroused by different things; I am turned on only by brightly colored early 1950s photographs of Richard Nixon, for example, while the moth is presumably attracted by other moths.
But once any species has food and water, sex is the strongest and most powerful instinct affecting individuals. In human terms, it is one of the few things a scientist and a slow learner can relate to equally. Trouble is, when sex is injected into a story, it dominates it, like a drop of the powerful poison dioxin in an Olympic swimming pool. That might not be bad, if life were a stag party.
Yet unfortunately, sex isnt all we need to think about.
This nation is borrowing $665 billion a year to keep our consumer-goods-driven economy temporarily afloat. Daily, China gets more powerful, uses more petroleum (close to twice as much now as on 9/11), and we borrow more and more billions from them to keep the party rolling.
Do you have any solutions for that? Were you even aware, before you just read those words, that we are allowing an Asian dictatorship to hold our economy hostage? If not, why do you suppose you didnt know?
Have you noticed that paying for college is getting harder and harder? Do you suppose that could someday be as important to you as who Jennifer Aniston or Jennifer Lopez next get it on with?
A century ago, J.P. Morgan, the crusty old financier, reprimanded a young protégé for carrying on in public. The young man was irritated, especially since it was well-known that old J.P. was far better at matters fiduciary than at marital fidelity. He told the boss he thought it was hypocritical to live behind closed doors. Thats what doors are for! old J.P. roared.
Reactionary, but right on. Most people today get most or all of their news from television. Ask yourself what important stories TV might be forced to tell us about, if programmers had to take a break from analyzing who was diddling who.
By the way, years after he lost the American Revolution, George III went mad. When this was known, the experts, and the media of the day, didnt speculate on his sex life. They studied, and reported on, the condition of his motions, which we know as ... bowel movements.
Which proves the past wasnt perfect either. Now please pray that what I just told you doesnt give some TV producer any ideas.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org