We children of Rousseau

Anyone looking for blame in the John Edwards scandal should first read Rousseau and then look at themselves. Throughout the Edwards new cycle, New York Times columnist Judith Warner has been reading Rousseau, focusing on what she calls his "dream of transparency" -- the idea that through self-examination we can all be true to ourselves and reveal our innermost truths in society. In an excellent column today entitled "Starve the Beast", Warner traces this unrealistic idealism about the perfectibility of human nature to Edwards' masochistic public confession of his sins.

Through it all, I heard echoes of Rousseau. I heard Rousseau – who believed man’s inherent goodness was corrupted by society’s worldly institutions – behind John Edwards’s explanation, on “Nightline,” that he was a “small-town boy in rural North Carolina” who “came from nothing” and had been led astray by fame and fortune. I heard Rousseau’s belief in the noble cause of self-examination in Edwards’s approach to his own guilt: “The important thing is: how could I ever get to the place, to that place, and allow myself to let that happen?” And I heard Rousseau’s dream of transparency – of individuals being true and honest to themselves, and fully open to one another in society – in Elizabeth’s sad, sad belief that telling the truth would somehow bring her family peace.

Much as it would be nice to blame Rousseau for everything wrong with contemporary society, we also have to blame ourselves. The John and Elizabeth Edwards spectacle -- an appropriately sado-masochistic public circus for our voyeuristic age -- reflects both our desire for public officials to be absolutely pure and then our horror when the truth of their all-too-human indiscretions are exposed:

But it also seems to me that, in this affair, Elizabeth has been doubly duped, once by her husband and again by the fetish we children of Rousseau make of transparency: demanding Truth, at all costs, declaiming faith in the Justness of public opinion, maintaining that, armed with the truth, we will together be good and fair.

Exactly. We children of Rousseau need to get beyond our hypocritical unrealistic expectations of elected public officials. There's nothing wrong with politicians having extra-marital sexual affairs. Nor, indeed, is there anything wrong with a degree of moral hypocrisy in public life -- provided that it doesn't have a destructive impact on the community. Indeed, given the opportunities of powerful men, I'm always suspicious of the powerful politicians (Bush, Cheney...) who fail to have affairs. Any public figure -- married or otherwise -- who fails to take advantage of the occasional available thong will, I suspect, live to regret it.

For a nuanced take on the idea of hypocrisy, I've been reading David Runciman's very interesting "Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond". Unfortunately, there's no chapter in Runciman's book about Rousseau. Perhaps Judith Warner could expand her column today into a book entitled We Children of Rousseau which traces the intellectual journey of "Truth" & "Justness" from Rousseau to our modern age. To learn how we got from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions to John Edwards' confessions would be a fascinating read.