What Happened to Manliness?
The new moral contours of American politics.


Hadley Arkes

Alan Dershowitz may not the most even-tempered, understated member of the bar, but in a back and forth discussion of Silda Spitzer on CNN, he was as close to “losing it” as I’ve ever seen him. In a moment curiously rare, one commentator had the effrontery of calling into question that convention, in our own time, of bringing wives out before the cameras to stand beside their recently disgraced husbands. Whether that question opened new angles on the problem was a matter quickly blown away as Dershowitz exploded in outrage. Nearly screaming his charge and not letting go, Dershowitz kept trumpeting the “arrogance” of anyone who would dare question, or even cast a judgment, on a matter that Dershowitz regarded as irreducibly personal: This was one of those decisions welling up from that hallowed ground of “privacy.” It was Silda Spitzer’s decision, and her decision alone, to make, and no one should claim the standing to question it.

It was another version of “the woman’s right to decide” — and as with that other slogan (also invented by men) it obscured the role of the man who put the woman in this position. Dina McGreevey revealed in a piece in the New York Times that her husband’s political managers had ordered up the scene in which she would stand before the cameras with her husband, the Governor of New Jersey — and this before she knew what the presentation was all about. By her own report, the first information she had about her husband’s sexual involvement with one of his aides came when she was given the text of what her husband was about to say on television.

The plain truth that dare not speak its name is that these are mainly not decisions made by women to stand by their men. We have had psychologists giving us now various accounts of just what in the background of these women, would move them to make a gesture of loyalty for the sake of the family. But the brute fact, curiously unremarked, is that these spectacles are usually ordered up by the husband taking counsel with his political advisers, the people who really do count foremost in his life at that moment when his future hangs in the balance. The humiliation suffered by such a woman, and that her presence during the public acknowledgment only deepens the humiliation, are matters of less moment than the political ends to be served by the spectacle. Her presence may be taken to extract the lesson that was floated about Hillary and Bill: “She has forgiven him; it is a matter about their marriage — and why should it be anyone else’s business?” Why should it surprise us that a political performance has a political point — to overcome the crisis? But then why is the heart of the matter not recognized in the same way: that this is an expression of his narcissism; this is all about him and his needs. He has not called her there to apologize to her in public and publicly ask her forgiveness. This has nothing to do with her needs, her feelings, her interests.

Bernard Nathanson has told the story often that the mantra “her decision,” on abortion, came from the men who founded the National Abortion Rights Action League. It was to be “her decision” because it was “her problem.” It was a conception that put discreetly out of the picture the man who had his own, distinctive role to play in creating the problem in the first place, or the man whose refusal to take responsibility and stand by her now made the problem hers alone to manage. This should move us to raise a different kind of question: Put aside all of the motives that might lead the woman, in these cases, to stand by her man; put aside the specious theories of sharing the humiliation in order to guard the children, and ask, why should the burden of this decision be placed on her? What happened to chivalry and, yes, manliness? Why would a husband, in this setting, not simply say that the fault was his alone, that he will absorb the humiliation himself, and not ask his wife to stand before the cameras, a bewildered bystander, and marry that humiliation with him?