August 31, 1998
Volume 51, No. 2
Laderman muses on our twin obsessions-sex and death
History can be a cunning, mischievous teacher. Just when you think there is a pattern to her mysterious ways, she throws mud in your eye and laughs at your human follies.
At this moment in history, our collective attention has been directed to several extraordinary and highly revealing news stories: first, the reverence and circumstance afforded two slain capitol police oficers and hundreds of terrorist bombing victims,, and second, the sensationalism and media frenzy surrounding the sex life of the president of the United States.
In recent weeks, America's ongoing obsession with death and sex have come to light. The expression of these fixations-solemn, respectful and religious on the one hand; rousing, invasive and sanctimonious on the other-captures something of the cultural chaos usually hidden beneath the surface of American public life. The moralism and spiritual ardor that invigorates the social body exists side by side with a prurient, carnal and corporeal appetite for the raw details of physical bodies in contact.
For example, in the blink of an eye, the major news channels switched from the flag-draped caskets of the slain Capitol police officers to salivating legal experts defining the proper usage of the word "sex" in the Monica Lewinsky case. What makes the nearly simultaneous playing-out of these two stories so extraordinary is the emotional and intellectual leaps made from one to the other. Both are "serious," no doubt, but the draw of each is based on two very different sensibilities.
History was certainly made with the deaths of two officers killed in the line of duty. The circumstances of their death-mad gunman, public space, violence in the symbolic heart of this society-transformed them into national saints whose bodies deserved the ceremony and grandeur usually reserved for dead presidents. Indeed, their deaths, and those of the americans killed in Africa, united our society in a way very few public events do; the social solidarity and common purpose, so absent in our everyday routines, reaffirmed the civil and religious ties that bind this country together.
After these tragic events it seemed as if history would have something clear and profound to tell us about America's past, present and future: The life of the nation requires the occasional sacrifice of its citizens.
Instead, before the country had a chance to hold its collective breath and consider the meaning of these dead citizens, we were presented new developments in Kenneth Starr's investigation of the president.
This too is a weighty matter, considering the real possibility of impeachment. But the topic of the president's sex life has been with us for quite a while. From Gennifer Flowers on down, the media's fixation on presidential prowess, oral sex and big-haired women reminds us of the culturally pervasive and historically persistent popularity of sensational stories brimming with sexual allusions. The breaking news of a subpoena for Clinton and the deal Lewinsky's lawyers cut with Starr's office easily sliced through the veil of tears surrounding the two martyred heroes.
As these events pass us by and find their place in collective memory, it is worth pausing to reflect on the lessons history has to teach us about American society.
What is it that creates national community? How do our passions get expressed publicly? Why do we remain fixated on the same themes in popular culture?
These last weeks have brought two national obsessions-death and sex-into sharp relief. Their easy coexistence in the popular media only attests to their staying power in America's future.
Gary Laderman is assistant professor of religion. A version of this article first appeared in The Atlanta Journal/Constitution.