Spies Like Us: Sex Scandal, Racists Tweets and Nobody’s Business

A Spy in the House of Love

The Petraeus affair is threatening to blow the lid off human nature. Part of the reason it has become such a flashpoint, of course, is that the scandal implicates an ever expanding cast of characters and the unfolding story keeps taking many twists and turns. Trying to keep up with all the bizarre developments is likely to make your own head spin. While the media seems intent on characterising the Petraeus affair as a sex scandal, there a much broader implications. These include the media’s own hypocrisy in the scandal and its tendency to distract us from the real issues.

The mainstream media certainly knows its target audience. The reports couldn’t be more breathless or salacious: our delight in the sordid details is as transparent as our feigned outrage. We’ve all expressed shock — shock we say! — in the unseemly behaviour of male authority figures as we’ve also googled —and oogled —the two evil temptresses bringing them down. The male leads might be famous for defeating terrorists, but apparently they were no match for the biggest threat known to mankind: the femme fatale, or those weapons of mass destruction otherwise known as women with breasts and vaginas. We seem to have an insatiable appetite for sex scandals, and this sorry affair couldn’t be more appetising. It’s been the gift that keeps on giving: public officials have been caught with their pants down and shirts off! Given human nature, a media cover up is not likely to occur: the general public has a right to know other people’s private affairs.

According to the popular narrative, the Petraeus affair is a tale of infidelity that involves obsessive love and jealous lovers, cyber sex and stalking, and bankrupt social climbers entertaining the boys back home.

The reality tv or soap opera approach, however, downplays bigger concerns — such as the media’s inappropriate love affair with General Petraeus and turning a blind eye to the general pattern of abuse of power . Since the military ranks as the most admired institution in the US, it’s no wonder confidence in media institutions is at an all time low. Corporate media has played a major role in creating a cult of personality around General Petraeus — the former CIA Director even makes a guest appearance as Secretary of Defence in the latest Call of Duty. The fact that Petraeus got caught sleeping with his jealous biographer sums up the nature of the incestuous relationship: the media’s own blow jobs invariably resulted in a backlash.

Given the public’s general disdain for media institutions, we are required to ask: why was it so sucked in by the cult of personality? The answer appears to be self evident: the military is generally seen to uphold and defend the values of American culture. Men in uniform literally embody the American character via its codes of conduct and force of power. Perhaps the real scandal is that it took sex to throw Petraeus’ social position into question — and that traditional sexual roles have still made it possible to cast the main players into heroes and villains.

If General David Petraeus hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent him. And to some extent, the deification of King David was a media creation born out necessity. The cult that emerged around David Petraeus coincided with the US ‘liberation’ of Iraq, and his subsequent role in extricating US forces from a quagmire potentially worse than Vietnam. An embedded media anointed a saviour figure on a messianic mission to bring democracy to the Middle East and US soldiers safely back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Petraeus reportedly walked on water because he was able to weather the desert storm and provide all concerned parties with a dignified exit from political quicksand. Or so goes the official salvation narrative masquerading as objective news stories and biographical accounts.

Although this is obviously not the place to start rewriting the remarkable piece of fiction created and promoted by neocons in government, the media and academia, it’s worth quoting Petraeus’ own words about the importance of public appearances. He observed that perception is the key to success and “what policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters — more than what actually occurred”.

Petraeus resigned from the CIA because the self constructed hologram needed to be seen to do the right thing. He originally hoped, however, that the affair —and the circumstances leading to its discovery —would remain hidden from public view. Petereus had no intention of falling on his other sword, and was obliged to maintain the perception that American institutions stood for integrity and honour. It is important to see, however, why the Petereus affair is really a scandal — and why Petereus has gone into damage control since his forced resignation.

The issue isn’t so much that he got caught cheating on his wife: it’s the perception that he may have betrayed his country as a result. Setting aside the conspiracy theories regarding the suspicious timing of his resignation, the question is what may have actually occurred on his watch. In the Uniform Code of Military Justice, adultery is a violation that can result in a court-martial or demotion. Although the retired General is unlikely to be called out of retirement to be prosecuted, the illicit affair casts aspersions on his perceived legacy. As his former lover makes a point of documenting in her officially sanctioned biography, Petraeus’s claim to fame includes leading by example and speaking truth to power. This is why anonymous military sources have been telling the media that their secret affair occurred when he left the army and started working at the CIA. The question, of course, is how would anyone know when the affair really started if it was a closely guarded secret from the outset? Was their affair really an open secret, and if so, isn’t the chain of command only as strong as its weakest link?

The related issue is whether their secret relationship resulted in security violations as Petraeus was supposed to be leading by example in a top secret organisation. Classified documents were found on Broadwell’s home computer and this FBI discovery apparently does not bode well for his leadership. The question is whether the documents can be traced back to Petraeus’ position as head of CIA and/or raises concerns about what was shared during pillow talk. The Petraeus affair not only brought domestic law enforcement and foreign intelligence agencies into conflict again, it highlighted the possibility that the US has become a surveillance state. If the Director of the CIA can’t even keep his own affairs private, what does this say about the state of the nation?

As if to illustrate the possible abuse of power — and Petraeus’ apparent tendency to blur the public and private sphere —witness his intervention in a custody case related to the other other woman (Jill Kelley’s twin sister, Natalie Khawam). General Petraeus — along with General Allen, Petraeus’ successor in Afghanistan — attempted to use their perceived moral authority to influence the outcome of Khawam’s nasty custody battle: they both provided glowing character references for a woman evidently lacking in character. While it’s admirable that the two Generals agreed to help the twin sister of a friend within their social circle, the court’s ruling indicated that the House of David had overstepped its bounds.

It proved to be a small world in the long run though. The suspected other woman also befriended an FBI agent within her social circle, inadvertently triggering the investigation uncovering Petraeus’ illicit affair. If Jill Kelley was an ordinary civilian — as opposed to an ‘honorary consul’ or ‘social liaison’ — the email cat fight was unlikely to have resulted in an FBI enquiry. Serving appetisers to government officials obviously has its perks, but Kelley’s social circle invariably closed in on itself: it became a vicious circle revealing a house divided against itself and many people got caught in the crossfire. It just goes to show that women are more trouble than their worth and the men shouldn’t have trusted the crazy bitches in the first place.

Then again, perhaps Petraeus’ downfall was part of Jill Khawam Kelley’s cunny plan. Since there is nothing more potent than a mix of racism and sexism, Kelley’s Arabic background has since raised red flags in left wing and right wing circles. The self appointed Ambassador is now starting to be perceived as an undercover spy who infiltrated Central Command with a top secret mission: to set the cat amongst the pigeons.

Given what is at stake, however, it’s hardly surprising that battle lines have been drawn. The media is depicting Petraeus’ legacy as a war between the sexes, and his former lover is now being officially cast in the role of sworn enemy. The issue of military and security violations appears to come down to a case of ‘he said/she said’, and turns on the question of ‘reputation’. The scandal is that everyone had little problem in deploying a female spokesperson to sex up Petraeus’ image — and is now using Broadwell’s own sexuality as a weapon against her.

Spies Like Us

When Obama was re-elected for a second term, his victory was generally perceived as a win for America’s new normal. The re-election of a black President fulfilled the American promise of a more perfect union, and reminded everyone that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Obama’s victory allegedly spoke to (and for) a society trying to integrate itself by uniting the schisms of class, race and gender. As the creator of The Wire and Treme eloquently observed in Barack Obama and the Death of Normal, Obama’s win reflects a new social reality — that there are no real majorities anymore, only pluralities and coalitions. Consequently, Obama’s win will ideally.

“Move this country forward (and) make the intransigent American ruling class yield… the past to the inevitable future… the country is changing. And this may be the last election in which anyone but a fool tries to play — on a national level, at least — the cards of racial exclusion, of immigrant fear, of the patronization of women and hegemony over their bodies, of self-righteous discrimination against homosexuals” (David Simon, “Barack Obama and the Death of Normal”, 7 November, 2012)

While this is a noble sentiment, it unfortunately obscures a more troubling picture: the concern that America’s electoral college is undemocratic because it plays coalitions and pluralities against one another in order to create the illusion of a united states. The main criticism, of course, is that it is not based on the popular vote and so misrepresents the majority of people (the principle of one person one vote is marginalised in favour of states being valued disproportionally). The irony is that America’s electoral college remains a major concession to its troubled past: it was originally created to enhance the power of slaveowners via unequal state representation and realigning the power of each vote. Specifically, the electoral college “goes against basic democratic principles by making the vote of one citizen worth more than the vote of another, depending on the population of the state in which they reside and how close the race happens to be in that state”.

Flashpoints is not arguing against the electoral college per se — we’ll leave that heated debate to other people. It’s more raising the concern that it misrepresents the state of the union and/or encourages a false image of ‘the will of the people’. President Obama might have decisively won the electoral college (332 electoral votes to Romney’s 206), but the popular vote points to a more divided nation (Obama’s 62,611,250 to Romney’s 59,134,475). Obama’s narrow popular win throws into question the mandate given to him by 538 electors. Obama’a political mandate appears to be more self constructed hologram than social reality.

Witness the way America’s social divisions immediately became apparent in the election’s aftermath. Racism reared its ugly head in the form of hate speech directed at the President and post mortems lamenting the rise of urban voters. Equally telling, however, was the liberal gloating at the conservative defeat across the colour spectrum and the public shaming of sore losers. It’s the hate speech that especially concerns us — including the hateful responses to it.

America’s Self-Appointed Intelligence Community

The tumblr Hello there, Racists documents the way Obama’s victory brought out the worse in many white people online. The barrage of racists tweets confirms that America’s union is still struggling to perfect itself: people across various social divides resorted to racial epithets to express their disappointment in the election result. As this map of America indicates, a disproportionate amount of racist tweets were sent by relatively young people from states won by Romney. To some extent, however, the mapping of racist tweets during a heightened state of agitation misrepresents a more troubling social reality. Racial prejudice has been on the rise across America, and this growing polarisation coincides with Obama’s first term as President. According to a recent study, hate speech directed at the black President has been thriving on Facebook since he took office. In other words, racism is neither skin deep, region specific, age indicative or media related. Indeed, it is much more insidious and pervasive than many people would care to admit.

The Implicit Association Test (IAT) also indicates that the divide is not just between the races, generations or regions. The disturbing truth is that there is a separation between many people’s unconscious attitudes and stated values. Any attempt to identify or locate a racist therefore borders on the holier than thou (excessively or hypocritically pious).

Now, the racist tweets were primarily directed towards conservative echo chambers and/or people ‘following’ their friend’s twitter streams. These predominantly young people certainly didn’t anticipate what would happen once adult liberals caught wind of their offending tweets. They found themselves being rounded up in a liberal witch hunt and subject to reverse racial profiling. ‘Hello, there Racist’ insists that it is performing a community service by collecting the names and faces of the offending parties. Apparently liberals can make young conservatives more responsible by publicly branding them racists indefinitely. The fact that ‘Hello, there Racist’ is encouraging other liberals to do this from behind the cover (and safety) of anonymity obviously heightens its own sense of personal responsibility. The Tumblr hypocritically notes “The (un)official motto of the GOP is ‘personal responsibility’ — so with publicly available information, let the words, names, and faces of these racists be documented so that they may be responsible for them.” It goes on to bravely add in another post that racists “deserve to lose their jobs and scholarships”. Jezebel did more than just encourage the collection of incriminating tweets of young people — it crossed the line and contacted their schools to inform on them.

It’s difficult to know which is more objectionable — students idiotically resorting to racial slurs on social media, or adults appointing themselves honorary members of the intelligence community. One thing is clear: everyone should have known better. We now live in an age of electronic surveillance, cyber stalking, online bullying and internet vigilantism. The right to privacy is under threat by the right (and ability) to know. Racism is obviously not just an internet phenomenon or confined to single tweets at election time — it is socially learnt behaviour, and mainstream media outlets play a pedagogical role in reinforcing the fear and ignorance learnt within society at large. ‘Hello, there Racist’ and ‘Jezebel’ have merely made these young people convenient scapegoats for a more complicit adult world. These site’s conduct is akin to shooting fish in a barrel so as assuage liberal guilt about the myth of a post racial society.

If these young people are what they appear to be, however, why even bother to out them as racists? They will invariably show their true colours of their own accord or eventually learn to question their own prejudices and/or better disguise them. Public ‘naming and shaming’ does little to explore the roots of racism or acknowledge a much deeper social problem — racism without racists (or colour blind prejudices that express themselves in less overt ways).

While racial prejudice might have questionable precedents, the internet as self appointed watchdog and/or punitive measure sets another bad precedent. It encourages people to spy on one another with one goal in mind: to use publicly available information against them. Given the ubiquity of the internet — relatively private information shared through social media and accessed through search engines et al — there may be no escaping its gravitational pull. The motivation behind the ‘outing’ of seemingly unashamed racists is itself transparent: to publicly shame individuals into accepting responsibility for their behaviour through the act of watching. The problems, however, are equally transparent: where do we draw the line and to what extent are the ‘spies’ responsible for their own actions? Specifically, who watches the watchers?. Witness sites dedicated to (say) the ‘immoral’ sexual behaviour of women, the ‘radical’ activities of left wing sympathisers, ‘degenerates’ with criminal records, ‘bastards’ who lie and cheat , and ‘naughty’ dogs that pee on the carpet.

The one thing all these sites have in common is the idea of surveillance as community service, and branding perceived ‘deviants’ as a threat to ‘acceptable’ society. Given this impulse to monitor people — and the possibility of impersonating and/or slandering someone online — it isn’t difficult to imagine a frightening future scenario: people creating ‘dossiers’ according to social type or personal views on sensitive topics (like gun control, abortion, immigration, etc). While this might be unlikely, such monitoring and/or labelling simultaneously exposes the internet’s potential to abuse its own power.

The concern is particularly acute when we remember that the young ‘racists’ still have their whole lives in front of them, and may come to learn the error of their ways through life experience (assuming that their perceived racism isn’t the result of the disinhibition effect or that they weren’t publicly venting through language they already knew to be socially unacceptable). Indeed, the monitoring of young racists seems to come from conflicting impulses about their moral identities — namely, publicly branding developing people has educational value and there is moral continuity between their younger and older selves.

On the one hand, the branding purports to educate young racists on the ‘morality’ of their actions, and assumes that identifying them as such forces them to accept greater responsibility for themselves. On the other hand, the branding denies them the possibility of moral development because it publicly holds them responsible as racists indefinitely. Naming and shaming fails to distinguish between the person and their actions, and insists on maintaining a questionable connection between them online throughout their lives. Let’s suppose, however, that these young students are unashamed racists and that individual tweets reflect a more comprehensive and persistent world view.

Publicly shaming people is not going to combat racial prejudice: it’s just going to reinforce existing prejudices about liberals as thought police. Trying to put a lid on human behaviour is likely to make unashamed racists feel more self righteous and/or powerless. Denying them the right to free speech not only discourages an open discourse about discriminatory and abusive behaviour, it contributes to further polarisation. Particularly unfortunate is that it threatens to send overt racism back underground (into private conversations or behind privacy settings) and helps to conceal racism’s covert operations.

Prying Eyes

We can see racism covertly operate in the media’s demonization of Chris Brown and sexualisation of Rihanna. Hiding behind the cover of sexual politics, liberal outlets seem intent on exploiting societies’ fear of violent black men as it capitalizes on the unbridled sexuality of black women. Is there anything more potent than watching this volatile mix of sex and violence run amok in society? Indeed, the Rihanna/Brown relationship appears to have left an indelible mark on the body politic.

Witness Brown’s recent vile rampage on Twitter when a female comic dared to stand up to the worthless piece of shit. Brown verbally raped the white comedian for calling a spade a spade. Brown might have quickly resorted to racial type, but Jenny Johnson was clearly trying to goad him into overreacting — and she has been deliberatelypushing hisbuttons for years now.

No one is going to claim that Brown is an innocent, here. The guy obviously has anger management issues and still has a lot of growing up to do. At the very least, he should already know that people are watching his every move and shouldn’t be so obliging to confirm their biases about him (assuming that he was really getting angry with Johnson — a more sympathetic interpretation suggests cultural and/or gender difference in attempts at humour).

As if to prove the point that Brown has become the white media’s favourite whipping boy, where’s the similar demonization — and deliberate acts of provocation — of (say) Charlie Sheen? The actor also famously has anger management issues: Sheen’s history of domestic violence and/or acting out is a matter of public record. And yet Charlie Sheen (aka Carlos Irwin Estévez) has been better integrated into society. The actor has been allowed to domesticate his bad boy image through television sitcoms and pre-recorded laugh tracks. Brown and Sheen — even their names invite racially motivated profiles and punchlines. They might as well be called Ebony and Ivory.

Brown hasn’t been getting a bum rap just for his skin colour of course. Unlike Sheen, an image of Brown’s violence has being made publicly available, and both he and Rihanna have been inadvertently defined by it. Here’s an important newsflash, however. Chris Brown never assaulted Rihanna. He committed the horrific act of violence on Robin Fenty (Rihanna is her middle and stage name, while Robin Fenty is the name that appears on the police report and in court transcripts). This might seem like a questionable distinction to make, but distinguishing between these two moral identities takes us to the heart of the issue: Fenty’s right to privacy as a victim of a violent crime is distinct to the public’s right to know about the lives of the rich and famous.

Spying on celebrities has, of course, become a form of recreation. It appears to be open season as soon as someone enters the spotlight. Nonetheless, the availability of that infamous image remains unauthorised, and it is hardly surprising to learn that the leak is the result of a covert operation. A policewoman secretly took a photo of the police image, and conspired with another policewoman to make it public property via media outlets. The only reason the two policewomen weren’t charged with a crime is because they were able to cover their tracks: despite multiple phone calls to Fox Television and TMZ, there is no evidence of money changing hands.

It’s no coincidence, however, that the image of Rihanna’s face is also marked with the TMZ logo: her assault has since become a consumer item and is now branded as a prepacked outrage to be exploited indefinitely. From the moment it illegally entered the public domain, their personal relationship has literally become everyone’s business: it’s something we can all meddle into and profit from. The question, of course, is why did everyone want to see — and subsequently re-enact — a traumatic moment in their life when Brown and Fenty clearly want to move on? To what extent should their personal relationship be public property and remain subject to media scrutiny?

Rihanna’s latest album Unapologetic makes no apologies for her continued relationship with Brown, and her new single Nobodies Business (featuring Brown) literally tells everyone to stay out of their affairs as the two singers publicly reaffirm their love for each other. Instead of following their lead, media observers have found themselves taunted by the alleged trolling.

If Rihanna and Brown have gotten back together again —or are merely paving the way for an inevitable reconciliation— they can therefore expect to be subject to constant media scrutiny and pressure. It’s certainly disturbing that Rhianna appears to have accepted public responsibility for Brown’s violence. Apart from looking sheepish on TV with his Mom and lawyer during 2009’s apology tour, this is more than Brown appears to have done (or wants to do). Perhaps that’s because Brown had already pleaded guilty to felony assault in the criminal courts, and feels that there is nothing left to prove.

Nonetheless, there is a genuine risk (statistically speaking) that he might assault her again: the history of batterers is that they typically reoffend and/or a pattern of escalating violence emerges. Such a possibility will only vindicate many people’s prejudices, and justify an elated ‘told you so!’ mentality. A related concern, however, is that the media is now part of the (potential) cycle of abuse. By constantly telling them so, it is actively playing a part in the feedback loop: it is openly courting a self fulfilling prophesy through discriminatory and abusive behavior. Instead of giving them enough space to work through their issues, it is projecting its own feelings onto them. It is difficult to know how anyone can possibly survive such relentless scrutiny and criticism. Consequently, their ‘undying love’ threatens to be a cautionary tale about their relationship to the media, too.