Normally, I try to limit my posts on this blog to topics directly relating to Torah or TaNaKh. However, I think a recent scandal in the news makes an excellent case study in morality and the place of ideals in society.
Some weeks ago, a variety of Secret Service agents serving as the president’s advance team (in other words, the best agents the Secret Service has to offer) were caught bringing prostitutes to their hotel rooms in Cartagena. Naturally, any scandal of this nature garners media attention, and both the administration and the Secret Service have launched investigations into the misbehavior of these men. Resignations abound among agents, but the official public reaction has largely been one of bemusement. The men involved have been described as stupid and silly, and their behaviors as unfortunate. Critics have largely confined their comments to the issue of morality in connection to promiscuity and prostitution. Something is lacking.
The primary issue is not the sexual morality of servicemen or even the social issue of prostitution: it is idealism. Over the last several decade, but especially in the last twenty years, American culture has distanced itself from the promotion of ideals in favor of embracing realism. We no longer set forward anything of substance as an ideal. Instead we make a point of accommodating and glorifying dysfunctionality for fear of offending those who can’t live up to the ideals of yesteryear.
Since people no longer have a goal to pursue, they have no incentive for self-improvement and may be unaware that “best practices” exist. When idealism is removed from a society, notions of honor and respectability evaporate as well. No one can be set up as an example of an ideal that has been purged.
In the case of the Secret Service and other people who are the public face of America overseas (including Hollywood), that means there is no playbook for how to put their best foot forward. Our Secret Service agents should be among the best America has to offer, both as guards and as men. People who are itching to leap at the first opportunity to do something that’s illegal at home are not an example of the “the best.”
More important, on an individual level at least, is the issue of self-discipline. The men who protect the president are not over-glorified thugs. They are highly trained in their area of expertise and provide world-class security that any ancient emperor would envy. Among the characteristics of any good guard are restraint and incorruptibility. Men who lack the discipline to sideline their more primitive urges when confronted by temptation possess neither characteristic. They are vulnerable to manipulation. Sexual impulsiveness of this kind will eventual spill over into lapses in professional judgment in a profession with very high stakes.
Finally, a point related to the one made in the last paragraph is one of consistency. The people who protect the president make a commitment to put the president’s life before their own. While most agents serve behind the scenes, the principle remains. If an agent is unwilling to put aside his natural desire to participate in reproductive activities, can he really be expected to put aside the more deeply seated desire for self-preservation?
Throughout history, many cultures have acknowledged the link between sexual integrity and professionalism, especially among leaders and soldiers. The Romans, Chinese, Israelites, and even the Celts all attempted to navigate the link between the responsible and effective use of power and sexual energy. Even in the modern west, Freudian psychology focuses on that link as a special area of interest.
The Torah discusses sexual integrity at length precisely because of these issues. It also recognizes the human need for heroes to idealize. Not only does the TaNaKh provide human heroes (ones who have flaws and sometimes fail to meet high standards), but it provides an instruction book for how each individual can become honorable.
And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it. -B’resheit 4:7b
American culture needs to rediscover its idealism, not only so we can live better lives and present a better image abroad, but also so that we can have goals. Without goals, people stagnate.