The American people were mis-sold the General Petraeus scandal

It wasn't about security. It was about sex.

When the CIA director and former chief of American operations in Afghanistan resigned after admitting an affair with his hagiographer, a serious disconnect could be seen in the US coverage between the reasons the media wanted us to believe they found this scandal fascinating – security issues, personal privacy issues, unprecedented access issues, the hint of espionage and the smell of treason – and the reasons the media actually found this scandal fascinating: Broadwell's looks, the age difference between the two, the narrative of a powerful man brought low by his libido, and the stoicism of the betrayed spouses.

At the height of the story the internet rang with national security implications and thrilling spy narratives, hacked emails and clandestine communications. “If girlfriend was trying to access Petraeus email & FBI investigating, there's possibility she could be charged w espionage. Honey trap?”, the Telegraph's former Washington bureau chief, Toby Harnden, tweeted after the story broke. But now that the dust has settled, America has to come to terms with a difficult fact: this wasn't about security. It was about sex.

Headlines promising lines of enquiry like CNN's “is Petraeus' pillow-talk a security threat?” have so far borne scant fruit because everyone already knows the answer, which is: yes, but really no greater than background levels. A public servant is either professionally trustworthy or not, and an affair rarely changes this – the possibility of blackmail notwithstanding. The greatest American security breaches in recent history have been ideological leaks, not honey-traps. Broadwell was writing a book about Petraeus, not serially seducing generals for the KGB.

Maybe we can fall back on the old question: if someone can't handle themselves honestly in private life, how can they be expected to comport themselves straightforwardly in public life? But public servants often have chequered sex lives, and there isn't a convincing correlation between sleeping around and inability to work. In the private sector few are fired just for having an affair, but politicians and people like Petraeus are held to different moral standards.

America hasn't always been this prudish. Kennedy had a famously adventurous sex life, and FDR maintained a number of mistresses. But now the onus is much more on the media to sell: this is the era of News as Entertainment.

The age of sex scandal in the US seemingly started with Gary Hart, a Colorado Senator running for President in 1988 who made the mistake of laying a challenge for the press. “Follow me around. I don't care. I'm serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me – go ahead.” The papers took his challenge and Hart was snapped within two days with a model called Donna Rice on a friend's boat, unfortunately named “Monkey Business”.

In Britain the tabloid press is unapologetic about printing saucy gossip for it's own sake, which means many politicians – Boris Johnson, for example – can wriggle free of being caught 'in flagrante' simply by saying “yes, so what?” Sex always sells, but a scandal doesn't necessarily kill a political career in Britain unless there hubris or hypocrisy are also involved.

But Clinton, who famously cheated on his wife in the Oval Office – a sin of sins in the holy of holies – was nearly impeached for it, a punishment previously reserved for Nixon for the Watergate cover-up: a genuine scandal of political misconduct. But despite a divorce rate of 50% or higher, today's American public, especially those parts dominated by a Christian value-set, demand personal perfection from politicians. The media industry, courting their audience share, goes along for the ride.

(An unpleasant side-note is that the blame has fallen much more on Paula Broadwell than on Petraeus. He has come out of this mess looking like someone with a forgiveable weakness for women that many seem to expect of powerful men. It is Broadwell who has been made the villain; a temptress who betrayed her family for personal gain; while his wife Holly Petraeus, in a breathtaking display of callousness, has been condemned in the more unsavoury corners of Twitter for being too old and too unattractive to hold on to her husband.

Even the LA Times, struggling to make sense of this issue, ran a schizophrenic column by Megan Baum entitled “The Frump Factor and Holly Petraeus” which bemoans the sexism of Holly Petraeus's treatment with one breath and describes her as “an unlikely partner for a staggeringly accomplished man” with the next.)

The underlying motive to sell more papers and chase higher ratings means that the profitable story isn't one in the public interest, but one that interests the public. This is so obvious in Britain that it goes without saying; but the national media in the US, struggling with vast audiences that encompass both rising religious prudishness and rising popular prurience, is less used to this problem.

Thus, in America, sex in and of itself has become an ever-bigger deal, but networks and newspapers must now sell sex as a security scandal because while sex always sells, they have to be more careful about being seen to sell it. That's why the Petraeus scandal was so mis-sold.

David Petraeus, pre-resignation. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

REBECCA CONWAY/AFP/Getty Image
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What will it take for people to care about climate change?

A record-breaking heat wave in Rajasthan reveals how badly we lack the necessary infrastructure to cope with the human suffering climate change is already causing.

The question of whether or not climate change is real is rapidly becoming less urgent than what can be done to alleviate the human suffering it is causing. In Rajasthan, north-west India this week, the mercury hit 51 degrees celsius (123°F). That’s the hottest temperature on record in the country. Hospitals are swamped with patients suffering heatstroke and dehydration. The year’s harvest is shrivelling in the ground. People are cooking to death on public transport. Yesterday, a camel left alone in the sun went mad and chewed its owner’s head off. That’s how hot it is in Rajasthan right now. 

In rural areas, where there is no electricity, no fresh water, nothing to cool you but the breeze, citizens are demanding that the government take responsibility and offer relief, provide shelter, water and basic cooling facilities. That’s the sort of heroism that should be unnecessary in the middle of a heatwave: it takes enough energy to lobby local bureaucracy at the best of times, let alone when it’s hot enough that livestock have become homicidal. 

I’ve been obsessed with this story for days, because it’s my personal nightmare. I loathe the heat. The cold, at least, can usually be escaped; heat leaves me drained and frightened. I can’t sleep under duvets. I become a limp dishrag in summer, and temperatures of over thirty degrees celsius regularly see me with my head in an open refrigerator, cursing my grandparents’ decision to become citizens of a country that does not consider air conditioning a necessary artefact of civilisation. But air conditioning is also upsetting: when the merciful roar of the high-energy unit kicks in, you can practically hear the sizzling fossil fuels soothing you with the cool breeze of complicity. In the heat, all I can do is overthink. I would not cope in Rajasthan. I can barely cope with Brighton in July.

The British national sport of complaining about the weather is becoming increasingly insensitive. After three centuries of merrily conquering other nations and building bonfires out of their resources to light our way to a place of power in a burning world, we are still inhabiting one of the only landmasses where the weather isn't actively trying to kill us all the time. Pleasant as it is to carp and moan every time the temperature moves outside the ten-degree range I happen to find comfortable, the temperate, drizzle-through-the-sunshine British climate is pretty much as good as it gets, on a global scale. In fact, on that same global scale, Britain has some claim for having had the most benefit out of fossil fuels for the least climate cost. If we’re not going to cough up reparations, the least we can do is stop whining.

I mention all this for two reasons. Firstly, because the manifestations and implications of climate change are frightening wherever you happen to live, and I find sprinkle of weak humour makes the whole thing bearable, makes me less likely to panic and tap out of the entire discussion as something that's not relevant to me right now because for the meantime, at least, I’m comfy indoors and it’s raining outside.

Secondly, because when the lives and livelihoods of so many are at stake – when the topic for discussion is not tens or thousands but millions of people actually cooking in the unnatural heat – you run into a phenomenon that rationalists call “scope insensitivity”. Let’s say that my nightmare is overwhelming, inescapable heat. I can imagine, viscerally, physically, how it might feel to be trapped in a 51 degree outdoor oven. I can be scared and outraged that there are no emergency shelters being built, no cool water on offer, that so little is being done to alleviate that suffering, when I picture one, or two, or ten strangers sweltering through it. 

But the knowledge that the population of Rajasthan is 73.5 million does not make me 73.5 million times as frightened outraged. My heart cannot hold that much heat-terror. That’s not how the human heart is designed. And that’s what scope insensitivity is: on a species level, it is psychologically extremely difficult to summon the appropriate level of empathy and translate that empathy into action.

That doesn’t mean it’s not useful – vital – to try. Our understanding of urgency has got to scale up. Any useful response to the growing climate crisis will require precisely the sort of collective action on a global, state and local level that neoliberal governments around the world have turned their faces from, either actively destroying the necessary infrastructure to cope with human suffering or refusing to build it in the first place. In a burning world, the time has surely come for lifesaving infrastructure in which everyone is invested. 

As climate change becomes a reality for billions of people all over the world, what are the demands going to be? In Rajasthan, the immediate need is obvious: for tents, cold water, more reliable electricity, contingency plans to deal with coming food shortages, and better provision of amenities for rural communities. The longer-term need is much like everyone else’s: for the governments of the world to earmark enough resources to tackle the human effects of the inhuman weather we’re all going to be suffering through in the decades to come.

The question is no longer whether man-made climate change is actually a thing that’s happening. That’s not because the issue has been resolved in the minds of evangelical naysayers and their fuel tycoon besties. It’s because if you're standing in front of a burning house, the issue of who lit the match can be tabled for the meantime, while we decide how to get the kids out. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.