Political sex scandals: the phenomenon of the "centipede"

For years, Bruce Sterling has been blogging about political sex scandals around the world, calling them "centipedes" -- today, he's defined the term in a little essay explaining why they're so darned interesting, speaking sociopoliticotechnically.
Centipedes are new phenomena because the barriers-to-entry in media have crashed. This means that subversive efforts formerly isolated and punished as libel, slander and whispering campaigns can swiftly take on avalanche proportions.

While pretending to be about spontaneous indignation and moral values, centipedes are coolly calculated and all about power.

The asymmetrical advantage that enables a "centipede" is that the conspirators themselves are never outed. They plot, they find a sexual weakness, they accumulate data about it, they launch a scandal from out of the woodwork, and while exposing private deeds to the public glare, the conspirators themselves remain unseen.

My blog lists a host of these political events that have recently taken place in societies all over the world: India, Greece, Poland, Indonesia, South Africa, Britain, USA. (((And Canada.))) I named them "centipedes" because they are segmented, covert, and poisonous. They seem to have a remarkable commonality as a species.



  1. ? the Web (Blessed be Its Power) finally puts the same weapon in the hands of all people that before you needed the shield of government and influence to wield – and this is a bad thing?

    Public ruining goes back to Ur. Ever watched the Rome miniseries? Read Chinese history? Any election?
    I’m not saying destroying innocent lives with vile lies and embarrassing truths is a good thing. Rather,all that is different is that we can all play that game now.

  2. The problem “Centipedes” have its that they don’t work in all cultures.

    For example: in Spain sexual scandals are very rare mostly because Spanish don`t care about who is fucking who or who got done or did a blowjob yesterday night.

    They care more in where is their money going to be spent or who will be the next football player to sign with the Real Madrid.

  3. Yes, Takuan. What a wondeful, freeing development this is for us. Thank you, Internet!

  4. What’s wrong with destroying hypocrites? Politicians should live in fear of the same scrutiny their intelligence services are applying to the public at large. They shouldn’t be able to take a dump without the press knowing about it.

    If I can’t photograph a landmark, they can’t bang a prostitute. Cry more, emo Spitzer.

    What is far more insidious is the echo chamber that manufactures controversies out of nothing. At least a sex scandal requires evidence and some reasonably incontrovertible moral failing.

  5. Airing of these sex scandals also has the effect of turning “embarrassing truths” into ho-hum truths. Spitzer’s replacement came into office with an admission of extramarital affairs and no one blinked. I’m looking forward to the day that the US is more like #3 claims Spain is. (Of course, I still want to hear about yesterday night’s bj, but with less moralizing.)

  6. It’s all about selling the eyeballs of the viewer to the advertisers in the media. Our monkey natures make it all but impossible to not stare while projecting our own boring lives onto the sexual situation whose normally acceptible cryptic nature has been exposed. Of course, we could just turn-off the news….nah.

  7. DIANE47 “Am I the only one who didn’t know centipedes were poisonous?”

    I played that game all the time back in the ’80s and it didn’t hurt me none.

  8. Takaun, I agree somewhat, that this is merely leveling a playing field, but I would be more comfortable with the new field if there was some transparency involved on both sides – which I think gets more to Mr. Sterling’s point.

    If, when accusing a senator of visiting a prostitute, the accuser had to stand up, identify himself, and explain how he knew and why was he following the senator to begin with, I suspect there would be a little less hyperbole, a little more tact, civility and … aw, who am I kidding. It’s news theater either way.

  9. Yep, theatre. Just like a good stoning or burning. If say they (“Them”, the gummint, The Folks in the Big Office that Own and Control Everything”) succeed in locking down the web and forcing everyone to use their True Name and register and get pre-approval for posting (like China, Christian colleges etc.),you will still find venomous centipedes crawling around just like before – only these will only sting enemies of the state. Just like before.

    The only moral issue is that people should not bear false witness against each other. Enslaving the Web has nothing to do with that. Indeed, I firmly believe that Human Nature is fundamentally Good – if also tragically stupid. The more democratic penetration and radical (as in “root”, baby) spread of internet free speech and exchange of information, the better off and happier we will all be. There will be a critical point where even the strongest band of criminal dictators will not be able to re-bottle the Web genie. I don’t think we are there yet and don’t even have a good, clear idea of the landmarks to watch for, but I have Faith. Hence I work towards a goal. So should you.

  10. Sex scandals in Canada are pretty rare. I don’t know if the most recent one even qualifies. It’s not about the guy cheating on someone or being secretly gay while preaching against gays, it’s about mishandling of classified documents.

  11. Coldly calculated behind-the scenes character assassinations with major media assistance? In my politics?

  12. ” A politician having an affair with an ugly, overweight, middle-aged proletarian woman would be pretty much centipede-proof. ”

    Yes, certainly in the US it wouldn’t be a scandal if the president was having an affair with an overweight proletarian intern….

  13. What’s wrong with destroying hypocrites?

    A law unequally applied is an unjust law.

    Hypocrisy is pretty much a requirement for political life. Everyone is guilty. Only a few are targeted – presumably those who don’t do as they’re told. On that basis, we’re probably better off trusting those who are victims of centipedes than those who are not.

  14. 0xdeadbeef @5:

    What’s wrong with destroying hypocrites?

    Because many politicians have irregular sex lives, but only a few become the subjects of this kind of manufactured scandal. Bruce Sterling is right. When it’s this selective a process, it’s not about outing hypocrites. It’s a covert political action that’s meant to destroy that person’s career.

    Why does this matter? Because you know who you voted for. You voted for reasons that matter a lot more to you than someone engaging the services of a prostitute, or getting a blow job from an intern.

    There are also people in important but non-elective political or governmental positions. Their political careers are on record: their credentials, what offices they’ve held, who they’ve supported, what public statements they’ve made. You care more about their competence, and where they stand on the issues, than on some sexual irregularity in their personal lives.

    But the people who start these “centipede” smear campaigns? You have no idea who they are, or what they’re trying to do. You don’t know their records. You didn’t vote for them. And you sure don’t know anything about their own personal lives. And yet the smear campaigns masterminded by these unknown people can take down your civil servants, elected officials, and members of their staffs.

    In short, what you’re looking at is the circumvention of democratic government and democratic processes by secret informants plus the press corps spreading salacious rumors. If I could correctly form the word for “government by pornographers”, that’s how I’d label it.

    How selective is the process?

    Remember the endless, salacious coverage of the Monica Lewinsky incident, and all the politicians who professed to be shocked that such a thing had happened? Not one of them was shocked. Not a single one. And that’s not because Clinton was particularly randy. It’s because most of their personal lives were as bad or worse, and all the Washington insiders knew it.

    The Monica Lewinsky thing was not about morality, outing hypocrisy, or Clinton sullying the Office of the President. It was an attempt at an extra-Constitutional power grab. The Gingrich Republicans were furious that Clinton had gotten elected. I’m afraid they didn’t hold the will of the voters sacrosanct.

    By the way, what I’m saying here isn’t partisan. This stuff is all on the record. Here’s a piece by established media guy Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times, February 2002:

    Those who led the charge against the morality of Anita Hill, Bill Clinton and the rest were almost to a man and woman living in glasshouses of their own, whether pursuing sex, alcohol, abortion or some combination thereof. The checkered “family values” of the likes of Gingrich, Scaife, Dan Burton, Henry Hyde, Bob Livingston and The Wall Street Journal’s anti-Clinton polemicist John Fund, among many others, are now part of the historical record. Clarence Thomas’s history of regularly renting pornography in the 1980’s — documented by the Wall Street Journal reporters Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson (Abramson is now the Washington bureau chief of The Times) in their book “Strange Justice” — also stands virtually unchallenged, now that Brock has withdrawn his previous rebuttal of it. It’s particularly hilarious that The Washington Times was the paper of record (and of frequent employment) for this whole pious crowd, given that its owner, Moon, with his mass weddings of mostly strangers, probably took more direct action to undermine the institution of marriage in America than any single person in the 20th century, the Gabor sisters included.

    For a political movement that wanted to police sexual “lifestyles” and was pathologically obsessed with trying to find evidence that Hillary Clinton was a lesbian, the New Right of the 90’s was, in Brock’s account, nearly as gay as a soiree in Fire Island Pines. Even before Brock publicly acknowledged his own homosexuality at the height of his fame, he tapped into a Washington subculture of closeted conservatives that seemed to hold forth everywhere from The American Spectator to the closest circles around Gingrich and Kenneth Starr. There is, of course, a long history of usually closeted gay men, some but not all of them public homophobes, on the American right, including Roy Cohn, J. Edgar Hoover and such top Reagan-era operatives as Terry Dolan, Marvin Liebman and even Jesse Helms’s political consultant, Arthur Finkelstein. The same goes for such intellectual patron saints of conservatism as Chambers and Allan Bloom. But that’s just the short list. When Brock revealed his homosexuality, he expected to be hit with bigotry from his publicly antigay allies, but to his surprise was at first more often hit on instead. At a party at his Georgetown home, “the house that Anita Hill built,” he had to eject a conservative columnist “after he pushed me onto a bed, into a pile of coats, and tried to stick his tongue down my throat.” There is also, among others, “the closeted pro-impeachment Republican congressman, who had pursued me drunkenly through a black-tie Washington dinner offering a flower he had plucked from a bud vase, condemning Clinton for demeaning his office.”

    Washington insiders knew perfectly well that Newt Gingrich was schtupping the woman who later became wife #3 while he was still married to wife #2. Talk about sullying your office? The two of them were having lunchtime quickies in Gingrich’s car in the Senate parking structure — steamed-up windows, car visibly bouncing on its shocks, the whole shebang.

    Strange episodes in American History #584: one of the main people responsible for stopping this attempted coup, insofar as it was stopped, was Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler. He was genuinely offended by the hypocrisy of the attack on Clinton, and recognized its danger. He announced that he was offering a million-dollar reward to any woman who would step forward and testify to having an affair with any of the legislators on the impeachment committee. It worked:”

    Flynt managed to expose the sexual promiscuity of former House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde of Illinois, former impeachment prosecutor Bob Barr and — his biggest catch of all — the almost-Speaker Bob Livingston, another Louisianan, who confessed to adultery and resigned from Congress when he was on the brink of succeeding Speaker Newt Gingrich. (Gingrich’s affair was not exposed by Flynt; that came later.)

    That was back in 1998. Flynt Flynt published his findings in 1999.More recently, Flynt declared another crusade against hypocrisy, and enlisted an ally: Deborah Jean Palfrey, the “D.C. Madam”. As regular readers of Boing Boing will recall, Palfrey was recently found hanged under odd circumstances.

    (An interesting souvenir from the impeachment period: a website that appears to have been written by outraged middle-American working-class Christians who noticed on their own that what was happening in Washington was an attempted coup, not a moral crusade.)

    Let’s return to the subject of prominent gay Republicans whom all the Washington insiders know are gay. I know that outing is a complicated subject. But as one writer said about the large number of gays working up at the policymaking and administrative end of the party, “People’s sex lives are private. Political hypocrisy is public.”

    For instance: Howard Dean is the Chair of the Democratic National Committee. Imagine the flap if it came out that he’d been a closeted gay throughout his adult life. Imagine Limbaugh and O’Reilly and Hannity huffing and puffing over it.

    Ken Mehlman was chairman of the Republican National Committee. He also served as campaign manager for Bush’s 2004 campaign. He was in the thick of the Republicans’ anti-gay policies. In November 2006, Bill Maher outed him on Larry King live. (As I said at the time, “Now we know the real Republican take on homosexuality: ‘Much too good for the common people!'”) Larry King professed himself thunderstruck when Maher said that. To this day, I believe he was astonished that Maher said it where hoi polloi like us could hear it — because, really, no way did the man not know.

    More links:

    Out.com on the ubiquity of gays in Washington.

    A partial list, with short bios, of prominent gay Republicans.

    NPR on gay Republicans and the Mark Foley scandal: “It’s an open secret in Washington that gay men play an active role in Republican Party politics at every level…”

    Just to make this clear one more time: I have no problem with gays. I mention these things because the same Republican organization preaches that gay marriage would destroy the sanctity of marriage, gay couples and teachers and scoutmasters and childcare workers can’t be trusted with children, and letting openly gay people remain in the military would destroy that institution. And the national press corps sits on this story, as it sits on so many others.

    One more case: former Governor Eliot Spitzer. It was extremely stupid of him to patronize a prostitute in a way that left traces in his financial records. Who outed Spitzer? From the evidence, it has to have been someone in the finance industry. Spitzer did a lot to curb that industry’s excesses and hold them responsible for their misdeeds when he was New York State Attorney General. Thus his stupidity: when you’ve made enemies like that, you don’t indulge in vices that leave discernible traces in your financial records.

    Spitzer’s replacement freely admitted to having committed adultery a while back. Nobody cared. Never believe for a moment that these stories are primarily about sex.

  15. think that this has been a hot issue in the world of politics..and most of the people thinks that this is a hot issue then, have all forgot our crisis? i mean first is the oil crisis and now soaring prices are affecting the costs of everything from food to housing market crisis. There are also significant issues on local and global environmental impact. While there are many issues, we need to look at our next leader and determine which will have the best course of action going forward…..I recently watch the two video in http://pollclash.com/

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