For all his talk about transparency and access, President Obama harbors a shattering secret-well, shattering to some people. It was blown wide open months before the election that made him president, and it recently surfaced again. Most of you have heard by now that Mr. Obama is gay. His favorite sexual partner is his personal assistant-his “body man”-Reggie Love. It also seems that Mr. Obama has a “penchant for receiving fellatio from older white men,” a group that has included Bill Frist, the former Republican majority leader in the Senate.
The furtive workings of cabals, the construction of clandestine deals, exclusive coteries and cliques are the conventions of older political systems that the American experiment was supposed to dispel.
Would it were so! You could imagine, if Mr. Obama is reelected, how he might begin his Second Inaugural Address: “My fellow Americans, you’re gonna laugh, but I have something else historic to tell you …” The idea of “older” top Senate Republicans lined up outside the White House is heavenly. Alas, though, the rumor of Mr. Obama’s homosexuality is just that, an empty rumor, spread like HPV along the lunatic axial lines of right-wing blogs and Web sites, from one of which I took that ridiculous quote.
Still, the function of this “secret” about Mr. Obama’s personal life is remarkably complex. It provides a whopping catharsis to a tremendous anxiety. For the rumor’s originators, the very fact of a black man becoming president means that forces are at work that are beyond not just their control, but outside the reach of knowledge and information. Secret forces. And this impregnable secrecy is the source of Mr. Obama’s power. Therefore, the way to breach it is to create a secret about Mr. Obama that goes even deeper than the impersonal secret forces that created him. Make it a personal secret that all the impersonal powers in the world cannot repeal. Implant the secret in the president and then empower yourself by exploding it yourself.
It’s an ugly fantasy, yes; downright antebellum in its savage envy and resentment, not to mention its horrified lustfulness toward the object of its hatred. But our democracy has a tortured relationship to secrecy that often produces backlashes that are just as anti-democratic, if not as sordid.
American democracy hates secrets. We hate secrets because the very nature of democracy is to be visible to the people in whose name it operates. The furtive workings of cabals, the construction of clandestine deals, exclusive coteries and cliques operating behind sealed doors are the conventions of older political systems that the American experiment was supposed to dispel. The very symbol of unjust monarchy was the lettres de cachet, secret letters signed by the French king ordering some innocent subject to be imprisoned or exiled without trial. Stalin thrived on secrets. North Korea is a secret wrapped inside a secret hidden inside a secret. Americans, foreign visitors almost proverbially report, are extraordinarily “open.” The proof of our democracy is in our very personalities.
But you have to wonder whether our intolerance for secrets as being inherently anti-democratic and thus anti-American has not gone too far. Secrets used to be synonymous with illegal or unethical behavior. Daniel Ellsberg, industrial whistle-blowers, gangsters turning state’s evidence-these were all busters of secrets that were undermining the public good. Now it seems that simply having a secret makes you unethical, regardless of what type of secret it is.
It’s doubtful that there has ever been a society so obsessed with destroying the careers of public figures on the basis of their sexual lives. Though we might cringe at the hypocrisy of the Spitzers and Woods et al., the discrepancy between their public image and their private conduct is nothing compared to the crimes of state, finance or commerce. We know that just as democracy is defined by openness, sexuality is defined by secrecy. We used to know it, anyway, before the exposure of someone’s sexual conduct became a sort of citizen’s arrest-a reminder that just as the public can turn mediocrity into celebrity it can also reduce excellence to dust.
Perhaps our expectation of democratic transparency has reached such a stratospheric height that personal secrets offend us as much as official ones. Maybe our democratic zeal is creating an anti-democratic backlash where we least expect it. Shattering a secret used to serve the function of correcting a power imbalance. Nixon operated a secret campaign slush fund? Expose it, depose Nixon and restore social and political justice.
Now, however, shattering a secret seems to serve the purpose of creating a new power imbalance. John Edwards cheated outrageously on his wife? Get him, screw him, expose him over and over and over again, even when his infidelity is years in the past and restore … what, precisely? The only effect exposure of such trivial secrets has in the end is to puff us, the exposers and consumers of secret foibles, up into little gods, policing the public realm in order to prove that no order of accomplishment is larger than our insatiable egos. You might call this an egalitarian anti-democracy, since discovery of the most trivial indiscretion will soon obliterate the democratic levers of talent and merit.
There might yet be something else afoot. In this age of instantaneous exposure and Facebook disclosure, it could be that the person with secrets is about to go the way of the dinosaur. American democracy will, at last, have become secret-proof. The New Man will be absolutely transparent. You will look straight through the New Man to the universal, open and accessible conditions that create and determine him. Individuality itself, with its enigmas and opacities, will be an intolerable deceit, and the greatest act of dissent will not be to speak truth to power-everyone will be tweeting that-but to do something in private and not speak the truth about it, ever, to anyone at all.