Private sins, public punishments

A four-star general falls from grace. The American media is buzzing with “The Petraeus Affair” (as this latest sex scandal is dubbed). The empty-headed Talking Heads are breathlessly talking about what a horrible scandal it is, what shame this scandal has generated, blah, blah! Over at the Fox News the right wingers are trying to tie Obama, Benghazi, Afghanistan Commander John Allen and the Petraeus infidelity into one big Nakshi Katha. Their objective is to somehow damage the newly re-elected Obama and his administration’s reputation. The drumbeat may actually do some damage to Obama because he is not a street fighter. It is likely that he will bring a knife to a gunfight when it comes to going against the right wing.

I find it very odd that marital infidelity is the primary mover in the dismantling of careers of accomplished soldiers and leaders. This is happening in a country where some 30% of the marriages end in divorce within the first ten years of marriage. Over a longer period, some 50% of the marriages end in divorce. A more striking data (OK, somewhat less concrete) is how many people cheat on their spouses in America and throughout the world. Some 30% to 60% of all married individuals cheat on their spouses at some point during their married lives. This is probably under-reported by as much as 30%. There has been a demographic shift in attitude towards sex and sexuality. Many a younger people have more than one partners and do not think of infidelity in the same way as the older folks do. They have many partners and they change partners far more casually. It is a changing world. The Wall Street Journal reported “Between 1991 and 2006, the numbers of unfaithful wives under 30 increased by 20% and husbands by a whopping 45%”.  So, you have a world where the so-called infidelity is almost the norm but when someone is caught doing the thing that almost everyone else is doing then the sky starts falling.

1101940815_400The question is not whether or not the act of infidelity is morally wrong or sinful. I know for sure that it is hurtful to the people involved. However, that does not explain why a private act should automatically disqualify someone from his/her public and work life. I know this is a contrarian view but infidelity is mainly a matter of opportunity and a certain personality type. The risk takers and adventurers tend to be more prone to infidelity. Petraeus had the opportunity with all that one-on-one time he spent with Paula Broadwell and he is the adventurous type. There are enough studies to support the notion that there is a genetic marker for the adventurous and hence the cheating type. This was a case of all the ingredients ready and mixed for a little spark to ignite the explosion. Well, it did happen and now America has lost a very competent war fighter in the middle of two hot wars, an explosive Middle East and an uneasy East Asia. The back and forth aggressive notes between China and Japan for the control of the six tiny islands in South China Sea is probably one of the most disturbing aspects of today’s fragile world.

It is interesting that the attitude towards infidelity has hardened while the actual behaviour has become more permissive. It is as if the whole world has subscribed to, “do what I say, not what I do”. Full 90% of the respondent to a University of Washington study said cheating is bad under all circumstances. But, if we tabulate the behaviour of people then we would see that infidelity is on the rise for everyone. It has been the domain of the rich and the powerful from the beginning of time. If private behaviour was punished in public sphere even in the 1940’s then we would not have Dwight Eisenhower or FDR as presidents. Neither would we have Churchill or so many others who did not have exemplary private lives but important public service record. So knowing that humans are flawed and opportunities to stray are on the rise, can we not come up with a way to separate the private lives of people from their public lives?

France is probably the only country in the world which has developed a much more nuanced approach to the reality of imperfect private lives and temptations to stray from the rigid code of fidelity. Most French presidents I have had in my lifetime have had at least one paramour or mistress if you want to use the vernacular. The French still believe that marriage is a vow of fidelity and loyalty, but they are willing to make concessions to the flaws that seem to be inherent in human.

infidelitystayTaking a lover by either gender is frowned upon but tolerated. This does not cause the great big humiliation and resignation from offices. They preserve the human capital by admitting the human flaws. Some argue that little straying every now and then make the marriages stronger. In 2002 the French divorce rate was 38.3% of the marriages over 10 year span, the rate was 2 divorces per thousand residents. The French rate was effectively half the US rate. The surprise winner in this category was Maldives with 10.97 divorces per thousand residents. Yes, I did take a double take at those statistics. It seems divorce is also a matter of opportunity and economic independence. Maldives has a tolerant world view and there has been fair amount of economic development.

I must say I am ambivalent about Petraeus’ personal fate. He is a flamboyant character and will probably land a seven figure job. His ambition for running for president is over though. But, that is the question. Should our private failings and limitations as human beings be punished in our public lives?

Kayes Ahmed lives in Boulder, Colorado, USA with his three dogs. He runs a small yet global apparel and design business based in Boulder.


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