/ 16 February 2009

The personal is political

If evidence were ever really needed to show that ”the personal is political”, then Pallo Jordan’s attempt to wave his flaccid intellect in the Mail & Guardian editor’s face provided that evidence in spades.

The patronising tone, the intellectual dishonesty, the preoccupation with elite egos rather than ordinary lives: all are emblematic of much of the ANC leadership.

Jordan’s argument — full of straw men — is an exercise that might embarrass even Thabo Mbeki, who made the baleful non sequitur his weapon of choice.

Jordan claims it is only in repressive, puritanical societies that the private lives of politicians make headlines.

In doing so he implies that tolerance of the middle-aged fling (such as that indulged in by Bill Clinton) somehow goes hand in hand with some kind of progressive politics.

The evidence for these assertions goes no deeper than a weak joke: one that embodies factual distortions that are evident elsewhere in Jordan’s so-called ”riposte”.

Actually, there was a response to the Watergate break-in. Congress had begun work on impeaching Richard Nixon when he resigned.

Not long ago, Italy — one of Jordan’s examples of benign indulgence — was enthralled by the spat between Silvio Berlusconi and his wife, who demanded an apology in public after he flirted sleazily on television.

I’m willing to wager that Carla Bruni, trophy wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, makes as many headlines in France as anywhere else.

And in the Clinton example, the joke ignores the fact that the president’s infidelity was exploited using powerful legal and publicity machinery available to the neo-conservatives to achieve hard-nosed political objectives that had nothing to do with genuine moral outrage.

Jordan glides over the possibility that the same kind of process may be operating here. Indeed, we have it on good authority that the story about Kgalema Motlanthe’s extra-marital sex-life was initiated by the denizens of Luthuli House, not the hacks in the Star building.

There are grounds to criticise the story, but they have mainly to do with whether enough was done to check the story was factually correct — not whether it was ”prurient”.

Jordan’s most pathetic straw man is Pope Pius XII: of course, people who don’t have sex are not necessarily more moral than the rest of us.

The point is not sex. The point — as much for politicians as for the rest of us — is whether people choose to act on impulses that will cause hurt and may harm themselves and others.

If they do, we may, depending on the circumstances, be able to draw valid conclusions about their ethical standards.

Private behaviour is not necessarily a predictor of public morality, but neither is there an absolute divide between private life and public moral standing, as Jordan claims.

If a politician lies to his wife, we are entitled to speculate about what else he might do. Politicians are elected not only on the basis of policies, but also on a character assessment about whether they may wisely use the power with which they are entrusted, or misuse it.

Private indiscretions are sometimes a legitimate factor in making those assessments — which is why, for instance, the tax morality of those seeking high office in the United States comes under scrutiny.

The president was given the opportunity to comment on the nature of his alleged relationship with the 24-year-old — and seemingly declined.

So Jordan is correct to say we know little about it, other than the basic outline that he seemed to accept at face value: a wife, a long-standing extramarital relationship and a young adult pregnant with his child.

Because we have been given no extenuating circumstances, we are entitled to consider what this set of facts normally implies: multiple concurrent sexual partners and intergenerational unsafe sex.

The best research we have suggests that multiple partners combined with unsafe sex is one of the drivers of the HIV epidemic — and that age disparity in relationships correlates with increased risk of HIV.

The influence of transactional sex — between economically more powerful older men and younger women — is likewise backed by the scientific literature.

And Jordan’s blather about a woman’s right to make sexual choices simply ignores research about how these choices can be distorted by unequal power relations.

All this is trite, which is why the Department of Health’s HIV/Aids programme includes a focus on sexual responsibility in the Abstain, Be Faithful, Condomise campaign.

But this is clearly advice that powerful people such as Jordan are not obliged to heed — given that they are in a position to treat HIV as just another ”public health problem”.

Jordan’s hypocrisy smacks of whining about being denied the ultimate ”perk of power”: the right to use the wealth, authority and protection of high office to indulge in notching up conquests as though bagging grouse.