Family destruction as spectacle

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, p. 1

In the past two weeks, America has seen no fewer than three highly public announcements of family failure. Last week, it was Senator John Ensign’s admission of an extra-marital affair. Earlier this week, the media circus that is Jon & Kate Gosselin announced their divorce in cliff-hanger fashion on their TLC reality show. And if one thought it couldn’t get any more bizarre, enter Wednesday’s weird, rambling press conference by South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who revealed that his Appalachian Trail hiking trip had taken a South American detour into unfaithful territory.

What to make of all this? Well, Tolstoy was correct in one sense — the Ensign, Gosselin, and Sanford families’ situations are each filled with their own complexities. However, the way in which each went public has a lot to say about the current state of our national sensibilities.

Of the three announcements, Senator Ensign’s was handled most deftly. It was brief, to the point, and details were kept to a minimum. By no means should he be given kudos. This was a preemptive strike to control the message. Classic, by-the-book PR tactics.

Message: “I screwed up, but I told you about it before the media could, so the public should still trust me.”

The Gosselin divorce announcement probably deserves its own essay-length treatment, but to do so would in some ways be playing into its own grand media plan. Rather than give up the show in which everyone gives stuff to their family, they’ll press on (how could they evict the children from the set?). No, the Gosselins, who deplore everyone peering into their business (those evil paparazzi!), keep — as their business — everyone peering into their business. You can find out all about their divorce on their show — every Monday at 9pm EST on TLC, and, by the way, you should also buy some Crooked Houses® and any other of the many fine products the Gosselin family gets for free.

Message: “We’re doing all this so our kids can see the videos and remember, as our family’s brains can only process events that happen on TV. Even if the marriage can’t, the show must go on.”

Finally, Gov. Sanford. Presidential hopeful, conservative stalwart in public if not so much in private. The staggering detail he gave at the presser, along with the fact that he accepted questions from the media shows that he is a fool in love (lust?) who threw caution to the Argentine wind long ago. Sanford knows that publicly, he is a dead man walking, and he doesn’t care.

Message: “I’m just gonna throw it all out there. Even if you don’t ask about it, I’ll tell you. My political career is toast, my wife kicked me out, so if I can make you all understand that it’s all about ‘that spark’ one gets with a dear, dear friend — maybe y’all won’t hate me so much.”

Spectacle like the above only fuels the fire of cynicism at the ebb and flow of our national conversation. Whence humility?