A puritan admonishing his fellow settlers outside an inn, circa 1620. Original Artwork: Picture by Howard Pyle (1853 - 1911). (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

American puritanism lives on

Judge not a sext lest your sexts be judged

The North Carolina senate race has turned into a pivotal contest for next month’s presidential election. The race has also been subsumed into the exhausting and bizarre reality show that we are living through.

Sitting Republican senator Thom Tillis is deeply vulnerable according to the polls and was on track to being unseated before recent events threw the race into chaos. The Democratic Party candidate, army reserve Lieutenant Colonel Cal Cunningham, is the sort of affable All-American lawyer type whom the Democrats recruit to compete in Southern elections. Cunningham is a square-jawed Iraq War veteran whose campaign is based on a narrative of impeccable personal integrity.

American sex scandals are by their nature fairly boring

The outcome of the race became much less predictable however when Senator Tillis contracted Covid-19 just as Cunningham was revealed to be having an affair with the wife of a fellow veteran. Senator Tillis may or may not have contracted the virus at the White House event which unveiled President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court. He did reveal his infection took place on the same day that President Donald Trump had become infected with the virus. For his part Cunningham, who is married with two children, was forced by reporters to admit to having sent romantic “sext” messages to Arlene Guzman Todd, a California-based public relations strategist. The whole situation was tawdry in only the most banal way possible: American sex scandals are by their nature fairly boring. Predictably, all parties involved in the affair were swiftly publicly shamed and forced to issue the standard ritual apologies. The outcome of a crucial senate race, and control of the United States senate, was quickly thrown into doubt.

This debacle highlights an important issue. The question at hand is not whether contracting Covid-19 a month before election day decreases one’s chances of victory more than being caught sending “sexts” to a mistress while running a campaign based on traditional integrity. The real question is much less grand. My fellow Americans: why do members of our elite and political classes write such excruciatingly lame love letters?

Indeed, the real shame in this whole matter is the revelation of the incapability of American politicians to write a proper love letter or erotic missive. This is not to speak of a properly debauched proposition. “You are historically sexy” Cunningham wrote to his lover as they concocted furtive plans to scamper away from the campaign staff so that they might “kiss a lot”. This was not ravishing stuff as far as perversion goes. In terms of technique it should be considered embarrassing if one has already completed middle school. Yes, yes, judge not a sext less your sexts be judged. Let those who did not spend their twenties and thirties scribbling epicene purple prose to their emotionally-unavailable lovers cast the first stone!

The people who run America are no longer gentlemen, if they ever truly were

It is true that the early Americans were democratic, striving and godly puritans – they surely never excelled in the dark arts of adultery. In retrospect, they had us read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” and “Romeo and Juliet” in high school for a reason. Yet the explanation that Americans are simply too puritanical in character to excel in this minor–but crucial–art is simply unsatisfying. Americans have a way of worshipping the legacy and lives of the founding fathers as a cast of benevolent and wise supermen, and Benjamin Franklin certainly knew how to write a dirty letter and essay. Some of the founding fathers and nineteenth-century American elites were decidedly dashing and gallant.

Yet American power mostly continues to remain in the hands of American lawyers. The disciplined and rigorous study of the law and its antecedent disciplines should in theory be able create a ruling elite whose “sexts” might be literate and arch; perhaps even stirring works of tender or thunderous poetry. It is likely the case that the class from which American political elites used to be universally drawn was once better prepared and educated in the classical virtues and skills. Including the proper drafting of love letters, scabrous poems and dirty ditties. For better or for worse, the people who run America are no longer gentlemen, if they ever truly were.

As an American literary critic who wished to remain anonymous told me, “They all wrote better back than after all that intense preparation in theology, Latin and Greek to enter University and Law school before entrance requirements were diluted. But perhaps the only people who get caught are bad writers?” Much like secret Gnostic texts shadowing the prescribed canonical scriptures, there may exist an entirely forgotten or immolated counter literature of the filthiest and debauched American literary correspondence. If so, it would constitute a secret alternative American literature to which we have no access, and for whose dissipation we are infinitely poorer.

President Warren Harding was one American President whose correspondence set a great example in these matters. We have surely declined a great deal from the day a century ago when Harding wrote bushels of these to his mistress. Once during an assignation on an Ocean liner, he wrote that, “[We began the day] with glorious kisses and fond caresses, and you were so superb!” It should be noted that Harding and his family had intended to destroy the correspondence.

So, were the nineteenth-century American presidents and senators simply better writers, or were they merely better at not getting caught? The burning of a lover’s salacious letters in the fireplace is a much more permanent solution than the erasure of the texts from the memory banks of the cloud servers which ceaselessly log our every keystroke and stray thought. Another American writer informed me that “As America was always a very anti-adultery culture, people would also likely destroy the evidence, which was also most likely was of very low calibre in any case”.

New technological innovations have also obviously deformed the American political sex scandal from “decadent” to down to the tepid waters go “internet performative”. With his twitter shenanigans, Congressman Anthony Weiner revolutionized the American “sext” scandal. For the record he was my own representative back when I lived in Brooklyn and was personally always polite with me. The twenty-first century will surely see the proliferation of “sext” anthologies, and we can only hope for the sake of the honour of our descendants that these will be of debased quality.

America is in the midst of entering a new age of puritanism

In any case, America is in the midst of entering a new age of puritanism. Yet the cardinal sins of our new social regime will certainly not be sexual in nature. All the real acts of debased perversion will be related to appetites for cruelty and power and will henceforth take place entirely over social media. So, it might in fact be the healthiest thing of all to return to the comparatively benign depravity of penning private raunchy poems to our mistresses. Still, the sorts of people who grasp for raw power in America almost universally did not study enough literature at university to be able to write good romantic texts. However, they do not deserve to lose their elections for the crime of being tedious. So, a modest proposal: all holders of American political office should be made to read the works of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, as well as the letters of James Joyce. At the very least, American politicians deserve a remedial crash course in the poetry of Lord Rochester.

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