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One reason liberals let Bill Clinton off the hook in the ’90s? They were afraid of looking like prudes.

Ideas about European “worldliness” helped Clinton hold on to his liberal base.

Bill Clinton Speaks At Symposium Marking 25th Anniversary Of His Election
Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was a turning point in the culture wars.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

In the weeks since #MeToo became a global phenomenon, we have been forced to reckon with not only the recently unmasked predators of our present but also, perhaps even more unsettlingly, the potential predators of our past. And one of the most politically loaded reckonings is reconsidering Bill Clinton’s past.

In the wake of accusations against powerful politicians like Roy Moore, Al Franken, and others, liberals must grapple with the argument that their response to Clinton two decades ago was misguided and harmful, and ultimately contributed to a culture of impunity allowing decades of sexual offenses by men in a variety of fields to go unreported and unpunished.

The former president has been accused of a number of instances of sexual misconduct, ranging from his most famous misuse of power — his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky — to an accusation of rape.

To many of Clinton’s supporters, the several accusations of sexual misconduct were initially nothing but “white noise”: a steady stream of politicized allegations masterminded to take down Bill and Hillary Clinton. Many supporters may have even classified these allegations in the same category as other outlandish conspiracies waged against the Clintons, including that they’d been involved with the death of Clinton administration aide Vince Foster, or that they’d run a child sex trafficking ring in the basement of a DC pizza parlor. Essentially, the Clintons were always being accused by opponents of something or other.

Many of the other accusations against Clinton were met with disbelief, and dismissed as purely political attacks. But when it comes to the confirmed case of Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, at least, the left may have collectively been guilty of something more insidious than mere incredulity.

When we talk about the politics of the 1980s and ’90s, we often frame the “culture wars” as an exclusively right-wing-led phenomenon, with conservatives lobbing offenses that liberals were forced to parry. Such a view, however, obscures that culture wars, and the identity politics they engender, are fought on bipartisan turf. For both left and right alike, approaches to political scandals of the day — including Clinton’s in-office misconduct — don’t just reflect people’s reasoned, objective assessments of the facts. The way we view and talk about sex scandals also reflects the identity we want to create and defend.

As Manfredi Piccolomini wrote in 2009 in the American Interest:

Puritanism is often cited to explain American indignation toward turpitude in high places and the moral outrage that follows the disclosure of sexual, financial and political scandals. It is the American religious tradition writ large, as the story goes, that shapes the reaction to moral transgression, in contrast to the sharply more lenient attitude of Europeans. Europe is correctly defined as post-Christian because Christianity is taken with a grain of salt and adapted to the realities of a secular world. Across the pond, on the contrary, Christianity is alive and kicking.

For many Democrats, preserving a veneer of “sophistication” or “worldliness” — a Europeanized, blasé approach to sex and sexuality — was central to their defense of Clinton.

In the 1990s, the left closed ranks around Clinton over Lewinsky

As Matt Yglesias recently wrote for Vox, the left’s defense of Clinton revolved around glossing over other accusations, centering the Lewinsky scandal, characterizing it as consensual, and blaming the prurience and puritanism of the American media. Clinton characterized the affair as a private indiscretion, saying, "I intend to reclaim my family life for my family. It’s nobody's business but ours. Even presidents have private lives. It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life.”

Central to Clinton and his defenders’ argument was the implication that anyone who judged him was guilty of puritanism and outrage, a quintessentially American obsession with sex that belied an inability to greet sexual misconduct with a Gallic shrug. In a New York Times op-ed, feminist writer Gloria Steinem reserved most of her ire for “the media's obsession with sex qua sex,” which she considered “offensive to some, titillating to many and beside the point to almost everybody.” Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes dismissed the accusations against Clinton as “sex, puritanism and trivialization,” implying in a Spanish-language op-ed that the media fascination with Clinton could be traced back to the sexual morality of Puritan settlers.

The Lewinsky affair made up the greatest part of the Clinton sexual narrative. Other allegations against Clinton were often sidelined as consensual “passes” or dismissed as falsehoods altogether. For many of Clinton’s defenders, that Lewinsky affair was about American prudishness, nothing more. A 1998 Vanity Fair article described the reaction among supposedly liberal, feminist women as similarly “enlightened.” Clinton was desirable, his peccadillos part and parcel of his worldly sophistication.

In another story that year in Vanity Fair, the author Marjorie Williams quoted from an essay by Tina Brown, then at the New Yorker:

Now see your President, tall and absurdly debonair, as he dances with a radiant blonde, his wife. ... Amid the clichés about his charm, his glamour is undersung. ... Forget the dog-in-the-manger, down-in-the-mouth neo-puritanism of the op-ed tumbrel drivers, and see him instead as his guests do: a man in a dinner jacket with more heat than any star in the room.

The language Brown used — debonair, in a dinner jacket, attacked by down-in-the-mouth neo-Puritans — inextricably linked his (and by extension, her readers’) sophistication to tolerance of his sexual conduct.

Williams noted that class bias among a certain set of liberal, “sophisticated” feminists made Lewinsky, and Clinton’s other accusers, easy to dismiss as mindless sex objects: “In status terms — the terms that matter in the East Coast elites,” she wrote, Lewinsky was seen as “irretrievably tacky, a creature from an Aaron Spelling show.”

The American left has long fetishized European “worldliness”

The uneasy relationship between “cosmopolitan” — that is, urbane and often left-leaning — Americans and an idealized notion of European libertine sexual morality is longstanding. Take, for example, the 19th-century author Henry James, the great chronicler of cross-cultural sexual mores. James frequently drew contrasts between the knowing sophistication and decadence of “old Europe” and the naive but well-intentioned Puritanism of young America.

More than 100 years later, Americans are at the “centre” of much of global culture. But among a certain subsection of the American intelligentsia, Europe is still held up as a model of “worldliness.” For the American coastal elite, no less than for an evangelical preacher from, say, Alabama, the Jamesian dichotomy remains: the division between the “pure” American and the “knowing” European.

Even today, in urban liberal discourse, “Europeanness” is often lauded as synonymous with sophistication, contrasting with stereotypes about American ignorance, prudishness, or naiveté.

During the Clinton years, one of the most common responses to the discovery of the Lewinsky affair was to decry our collective American sexual prudishness. Why couldn’t we be more like France, where in 1996, just two years before Lewinsky scandal, ex-President Francois Mitterrand’s wife and mistress grieved together at his funeral? Why did we Americans care so much about a man’s private sexual affairs?

These were good points — to an extent. But they also served, for many, as a way to create a discrete cultural identity. The Americans asking, “Why can’t we just be more like France?” were launching their own attack in the culture wars, actively distinguishing themselves from those rubes who thought a politician’s personal life affected his ability to govern. In so doing, they failed to investigate the real problem about Lewinsky: not that Clinton was having an affair, but that he was potentially wielding his power over a subordinate unethically.

Over the past few decades, the European-looking left has often taken “anti-bourgeoisie provocation” too far

For the left — or, at least, the European and European-leaning left of a certain generation — the push to present oneself as being as sexually enlightened as possible often meant glossing over questions of consent and agency.

One of the most shameful, and often forgotten, acts of the European left was a bizarre attempt to decriminalize pedophilia. A number of leftist European luminaries, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Roland Barthes, signed a series of petitions after a 1977 trial that saw two men jailed for sexual contact with 12- and 13-year-olds. “But [the law] rejects such a capacity when the child's emotional and sexual life is concerned. It should acknowledge the right of children and adolescents to have relations with whomever they choose,” that petition said.

Another writer, later a member of the European Parliament, defended a series of articles he’d written about sexual conduct with kindergartners as satire: “a product of its time, of our anti-authoritarianism; pure provocation, designed to shock the bourgeoisie.”

In each case, views on sexual morality and behavior became a kind of virtue signaling (or vice signaling). An insistence on sexual libertinage on the far left doubled as a desire to shock the “bourgeoisie” — even when that libertinage ran up against, or crossed, the bounds of rape.

The point is not, of course, that liberals are sexual deviants. It’s that public attitudes toward sex and sexual morality on the left and right have always been tied up with ideas besides the moral imperatives. Intertwined has been the desire to perform a certain identity or to exist in a certain cultural context; to be more “European” or to be more “American.” Whether it’s anti-LGBTQ attitudes on the Christian right or a willingness on the part of the American intelligentsia of the 1990s to ignore questions of consent in the workplace, our approach to the sexual questions of the day is as much, if not more, about identity formation as it is about ideas.

It’s worth pointing out that the fault lines have somewhat reversed today. As supporters of Alabama Senate frontrunner Roy Moore defend his sexual pursuit of teenage girls in his early 30s, the American left has taken an approach to sex that in its (perhaps much-needed) rigidity about consent, critics have equated to prudery. (Meanwhile, the French have their own #MeToo, #BalanceTonPorc, challenging the notion that all French women are merely blasé about unwanted sexual contact.)

And evangelicals, once horrified to have a sexually licentious man in office, have completely reversed their position. A Public Religion Research Institute poll released right before the 2016 election — shortly after the release of the controversial Access Hollywood tape on which Trump could be heard boasting about his proclivity for grabbing unsuspecting women “by the pussy” — found that 72 percent of white evangelicals believed a politician can be immoral in his private life and still govern well, compared to just 30 percent in 2011, suggesting that evangelicals felt very differently about the sexual behaviors of Clinton and Trump.

What all this means is that it’s vital to hold these powerful figures accountable to sexual ethics. All too often, serious conversations about sexual morality and ethics have been derailed by political aims, and by wider cultural pressures to appear “liberal” or “sophisticated” on the left, and to appear “traditional” and nostalgic for the “good old days” on the right.

But the victims who have come forward during #MeToo deserve better than to become hostages in our collective cultural wars. The left has been guilty before of letting liberal identity determine its sexual politics. It cannot afford to make that same mistake again.

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