Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Gruesome gorillas in our midst
What do Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Sepp Blatter and the NSW Labor Right have in common? Only this. The grotesque sense of entitlement that lets top people act in ways totally unacceptable for the rest of us.
This is silverback behaviour. “Every group needs one,” says the trailer for Mountain Gorilla, “and every male aspires to be one.” True, perhaps, for those primates. But is it also – still – true for us?
When l’affaire DSK broke on May 15, France was shocked – not by the allegation that this presumed presidential contender had forced a hotel maid to perform une fellation, but that he had been jailed for it like a common criminal.
Christine Boutin, France’s Christian Democrat leader, insisted DSK had been entrapped, as though it were inconceivable that this wealth-loving socialist and legendary womaniser might do wrong. This was the truly astonishing aspect of the Strauss-Kahn affair; the revelation that, at the top of this powerful and finger-pointing organisation, ethics simply do not apply.
The IMF’s 2400 staffers must abide by its increasingly stringent and policed ethical code, but its 24 directors are above scrutiny.
It’s no isolated case. We laugh at the Putins and Berlusconis, the Stalins and Bushes and Sarkozys, marvelling at their ongoing popularity as if we ourselves would never childishly follow such thugs. Yet we’re not so different, having just spent over a decade politely re-electing a Labor government that was clearly on the nose.
Only now, for example, is the 2007 below-market sale of Currawong to alleged Labor mates referred to ICAC. Engineered by the then secretary of Unions NSW, John Robertson, and facilitated by the Heritage Council member, uh, John Robertson, the Currawong sale seemed fishy from the start. Yet only now, with Tony Kelly’s vanishing, does sad little ICAC finally turn up the heat.
Or consider the weekend’s honours list, giving an AO to Mick Keelty who, as federal police commissioner, deliberately betrayed 19-year-old Scott Rush to Indonesian “justice”. Keelty knew Rush was small-fry, and knew the father’s desperation, yet he dropped the boy into treatment we won’t tolerate for cattle.
Or take sport, which should be the cleanest of enterprises but consistently turns up among the filthiest. It’s dirty because of the money involved and because our reverence blinds us, but also because sport is native silverback territory.
Indeed, you might say sport derives its excitement from the tension between jungle-rule and the rules of the game. The same tension in the boardroom, however, generates cosiness and corruption. As the New York judge Loretta Preska noted in dismissing a 2007 appeal, “FIFA … still does not govern its actions by its slogan ‘Fair Play’.”
Sepp “let the women play in … tighter shorts” Blatter survived the Qatar corruption scandal but, as head of this graft-ridden autocracy, probably shouldn’t have. Juan Antonio Samaranch, who as head of the IOC (on which Blatter also serves) was more tinpot tyrant than Spanish patrician, shamelessly parading over decades his predilection for Franco’s fascists, five-star presidential suites and being addressed as “Excellency”.
It’s like the Kerry Packer tax question. Why do we constantly condone behaviour at the top which we ourselves would never get away with and which, as a society, we affect to despise?
One theory is that decency isn’t mandated at the top because it needn’t be, because silverbacks are inherently decent.
This would explain the huge public outcry, almost grief, whenever a favourite actor is found sniffing cocaine from toilet seats or a football star king-hits a colleague for fun. But were it true, such events would be rare. So, hmmm. Plausibility problem. Another explanation is that we, needing to revere our Churchills and our Menzies, simply overlook their failings. But there’s a third, more disturbing possibility; that we actually select leaders who can look moral while acting in ways that are profoundly not. Leaders who have perfected the art of church-and-apple-pie Sundays while bombing the shite out of Third World villages. Leaders, that is, whose hypocrisy facilitates our own.
No surprise, then, that these primal morals accompany equally primitive attitudes to both violence and sex, blurring the bounds between these, our most primate appetites.
Open any paper and alongside the relatively innocent tabloid array of celebrity babies, boob-ads and ministerial fishnets there’s a whole other, more sinister genre of forced sex: paedophile priests, Gaddafi rape squads, campus stalkers, child-immigrant rape, asylum-seeker rape, workplace abuse (and its profits), naked French chaps leaping on hotel maids and rape rampant – so to speak – throughout the armed forces.
This is silverback territory, and it’s not actually sex at all. It’s repression, territory and power.
For there is a neglected distinction between sex and sexual abuse. Abuse, any psychologist will tell you, isn’t sex. It’s power. Rape is not a sex crime – though the titillation may be sexual – but a crime of violence. Yet these violent tendencies to treat others as territory are traits we consistently prefer in our leaders.
So is this reality? Has sex-as-repression always been core human behaviour and we’re just now noticing it? Or is it more that this brutal picture is the self-portrait we choose?
Even now the French press treats l’affaire DSK as a sexism issue – les phallocrates getting their comeuppance at last – while we treat it as a fascinating scandal, with added political frisson because the maid in question is black. But it’s not really about sexism or racism. It’s about the kind of monkeys we want running the show.
There is of course a good argument for evil, which is that perception depends on contrast. We wouldn’t feel goodness without knowing its opposite. But I’m suggesting more than that. That we actually love evil, especially when it’s in the closet.
Perhaps we’re like those chimps in the snake-in-the-box experiment, who know there’s really bad stuff in there but cannot resist going back for another peek. Are we secretly attracted to evil?
Maybe so. Then again, maybe we’re overdoing this whole primate thing. Maybe we could work a little on the sapiens angle instead. If actual goodness is too big an ask, just a little wisdom at the top would go a long, long way.
CARTOON: EDD ARAGON