Petraeus and Schadenfreude

Back in 2006, I was asked to deliver a series of lectures at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto. At the time, the Ted Haggard scandal had just become big news in the U.S. Haggard was the head pastor at the New Life megachurch in Colorado, one of the U.S.’s most prominent evangelicals — and, it turns out, he had paid a male prostitute for sex over a three-year period and also used methamphetamine in front of him. One of the professors at Tyndale engaged me in conversation about the Haggard scandal, and noted his advice to other Christians (the professor’s advice, not Haggard’s): when you see a public figure engulfed in a humiliating scandal, imagine that your own worst sins and darkest secrets were being broadcast to the entire world. This was not an argument for lack of accountability, but rather an argument for compassion, humility, and realization of our own weaknesses.

I thought of this conversation when news of David Petraeus’s own scandal broke. My impression about some of the public reaction to this scandal was similar to that of Andrew Exum, who wrote on Twitter: “My feed right now is filled with schadenfreude, crass comments, and general idiocy. Apparently there are axes in need of grinding out there.” Similarly, Mark Jacobsen noted — in the most perceptive piece I’ve seen about the Petraeus scandal — that he was “already weary from the onslaught of bitter political commentary.” Jacobsen wrote that, “with the first cracks defacing his legacy,” Petraeus’s detractors “are thrilled to continue the job, tearing stone from stone and demolishing everything we thought we knew about the man and his accomplishments.”

Jacobsen emphasized how in many ways, the story of Petraeus’s fall from grace is the story of the human condition. “In our desperation to find heroes, we gloss over faults and overemphasize virtues,” he wrote. In that way, “we establish impossible expectations, which are certain to come crashing down around us later.” I think the creation of impossible expectations is one part of the picture; the other part is the glee with which we then tear down our heroes (or, if not heroes, our prominent public figures) once the cracks in their armor become evident.

Schadenfreude is an emotion I rarely feel, and generally find it highly distasteful in others. I am not touting my own virtues here: I have more than enough faults to go around. But it is in large part my awareness of my own flaws that makes me feel schadenfreude so rarely, and find it to be such an ugly, human emotion. To be sure, part of it is the political climate in which we live. In a very good piece about the 2012 election, Matt Taibbi noted that “we should be confident that whoever wins has our collective best interests at heart, even if we don’t agree with his or her ideology, the same way we reflexively assume that the pilot of any plane we board doesn’t want to fly us into a mountain.” Yet that basic confidence has eroded. “People today on both sides are genuinely terrified of a wrong outcome in this election,” Taibbi wrote. “They’ve been whipped into a state of panic – people everywhere are freaking out and muttering to themselves and firing off vitriolic emails.” In this climate, our political foes are seen as less than human, and we rejoice at their humiliation, whether it is Bill Clinton, Larry Craig, Ted Haggard, Anthony Weiner. Sometimes we cheer not only their humiliation, but also their deaths, as could be seen earlier this year in Matthew Yglesias’s thoroughly disgusting remarks when conservative figure Andrew Breitbart passed away.

There is something at play beyond the political climate, though. I think there is something about men like Petraeus — a war hero, a four-star general, a Princeton Ph.D. — that makes others feel a bit smaller, like their own lives do not measure up. When they fail, our reaction is: you aren’t so special after all. We are delighted to learn that our heroes aren’t too different from us after all, and in some ways may be even worse than we are.

But that is exactly the point: they aren’t too different from us. Humans are capable of great things, but there is also something inherently flawed and broken in the human condition, something that is prone to straying and spectacularly failing. And that is just as true of the people who gloat at the fall from grace of Petraeus, or Weiner, or Craig, or Haggard, as it is of the men who stand at the center of these scandals.

At the end of the day, the advice I got at Tyndale in 2006 is the best thing one could have in mind about scandals like these. We should all imagine that our own worst flaws and failings are on display before the world, just as Petraeus’s now are. Yes, let’s have accountability when something like this occurs. Petraeus absolutely should have resigned, and there is a good chance that this story will look even worse as more information trickles out. But everyone could do with less schadenfreude, less pure joy when the heroes that we built up fall far short of the impossible standards to which we would like to hold them.

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23 Responses to Petraeus and Schadenfreude

  1. Kelly Yip says:

    Petraeus sent Broadwell “thousands of emails over the last several months”?! Just how much time does this guy have? This is what happens when someone is obsessed with someone else. Shows it can happen to anyone at any age regardless of position or level of intelligience. Sad and humiliating and more so because it is national news. I agree with you in that one shouldn’t take such glee when a hero falls from his pedestal. Wasn’t it Sophocles who once stated “Let every man in mankind’s frailty consider his last day; and let none presume on his good fortune until he find Life, at his death, a memory without pain.”

  2. Stoopid American says:

    I think Patraeus made his own decisions, both when he initiated his affair and when he decided to resign as a result of it. I think if every member of our government who has had an affair had to leave office, DC would become a ghost town. I actually look up a bit to Patraeus for admitting his mistakes and facing the consequences straight on, and I do think he did the right thing.

  3. David, thank you for the link and the generous treatment of my post. I very much appreciated the wisdom and graciousness reflected in your own response. I, too, thought of Ted Haggard as soon as this story broke. I actually found it easier to communicate how I felt about Haggard at the time than I do now about Petraeus, because–among themselves, at least–Christians can still use words like “sin” and “grace” without embarrassment. Christian theology encompasses both the appalling ruin of the human soul and the work of grace in bringing about its redemption. I struggled to find adequate secular language to describe how I thought people should view Petraeus’ fall, but your lesson from Tyndale gets at the heart of it.

  4. rabi'a al adiwyyah says:

    In America, we kill our heroes.
    General Petraeus will now be the pharmakos for the decade long horrorshow of Iraq and A-stan.

    “Sing, goddess, of America’s ruinous anger
    Which brought ten thousand pains to the Achaeans,
    And cast the souls of many stalwart heroes
    To Hades, and their bodies to the dogs
    And birds of prey.”

    P4 was given an near impossible task that he executed as well as he could. His task was never to “win” Iraq or “democratize” A-stan. Those are impossible tasks. Can’t be done. His task was to extricate America from Iraq and then Afghanistan with a minimum loss of life and of dignity. That is what the surge and the mini-surge were for–cover for withdrawal.
    If you want to blame someone blame President GW Bush.
    He was the CinC that tried to change the religion of 60 million people by installing secular democracy with force of arms.

    • THE says:

      I think the obvious comparison is: Why then did America succeed in the case of say, Germany and Japan?

      But I think the difference is this – Both of the Axis powers were already fully-modern scientifically-technologically progressive states – even before WWII. Both of them had considerable experience with democracy, before the war, before their dictatorships took over. The loss of the war was also the failure of the dictatorship “experiment” – consequently both countries were psychologically “ready” to give democracy another try.

      With countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, you are dealing with nations that are culturally much lower down the development curve. Consider this table for instance.

      Even Iraq, which was a fairly wealthy state before Saddam started his wars, had achieved prosperity through a vast infusion of petrodollars, rather than via an autonomous industrial revolution. Thus the culture was far-less “modern” than prewar Germany or Japan, both of whom were already major industrial powers through their own mastery of science and technology, in the late 19th – early 20th century.

      Where you start, influences where you end up. So I would say: It’s not that you can’t install secular democracy by force of arms (e.g. Germany Japan), but rather that you can’t do it in essentially, medieval feudal societies.

      • rabi'a al adiwyyah says:

        No THE.
        It is far more simple.
        dar ul Islam is a set of theocratic states. The church is the state and vice versa.
        Bush tried to impose secular democracy with force of arms– that is what COIN really is. That is tantamount to changing the religion of 60 million humans in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you think that is possible?
        Germany was a secular state– in Japan the allies outlawed emperor worship.
        Do you think the US could outlaw Islam?

        I think history will show just how much of OIF, OEF and COIN was a ginormous PR campaign to scam the American people into thinking Bush was making progress with his Folly. This is part of it.
        And the rot widens.
        Our hero-warriors are just humans after all.
        quelle surprise.

        • THE says:

          rabi’a al adiwyyah,
          Japan was a theocracy, as you point out, until the US demanded that the Emperor renounce his divinity as part of the surrender terms.

          Germany was a theocracy up until the end of the First World War. The Kaiser was an Ancien Régime-style monarch who ruled by divine right of Kingship. While it’s true that the interwar Wiemar Republic was a secular democracy, there were significant theocratic elements in the Nazi theory of government. Hitler constantly refers to himself as Fuhrer, the man chosen by fate or Providence, to lead and/or avenge Germany for the injustices committed against her under the Treaty of Versailles. In Nazi mythology he was a quasi-messianic, savior figure. Nazism had a significantly mystical component. It was far from secular-rational. This is why the Swastika. This is why Albert Speer’s Cathedral of Light. There have been numerous studies on this subject. (Google).

          But really I would argue that you are making a distinction, without a difference. When I use the words: “medieval feudal state“, it is precisely theocracy that I have in mind. It is theocracy that most-characterizes the (Western) medieval mindset. It is secularism that most-characterizes the “modern” or rational mindset.

          The fact that US could not “outlaw Islam”, would certainly make any attempt at imposed secular democracy futile, about this we are in agreement. That is not to say that Islam could not be outlawed. I suspect a Stalinist-style Communism would have done it without hesitation. And sent all the religious leaders to re-education camps or worse. But they would not have imposed democracy.

          • rabi'a al adiwyyah says:

            You cant change the religion of 2 billion adherents.
            Empirical data: +10 years and 4 trillion dollars ago, Iraq was 97% muslim and A-stan was 99% muslim. Today Iraq is 97% muslim and A-stan is 99% muslim.
            The Quran is the rule of law (shariah is quranic law) and the Quran forbids free speech and freedom of religion.
            Imposing freedom of speech and freedom of religion simply couldn’t ever be accomplished, no matter how much blood and treasure Bush threw at the problem…COIN was always pre-programed to fail.
            Simply incredible what a stupid evangelical president did to the world.
            But turning the generals into pharmakoi is not the answer.

          • THE says:

            But the US never attempted to change Iraq’s or Afghanistan’s religion. I would say, they hardly even tried to impose secular democracy, given that the allowed Iraq and Afghanistan to decide their own constitutions.

            (Unlike Japan I might add, where US essentially wrote the constitution).

          • rabi'a al adiwyyah says:

            you arent listening to me, THE.
            Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are illegal in dar ul Islam, because the rule of law is shariah law.
            Attempting to install/implant/impose/promote secular democracy with freedom of speech and freedom of religion is attempting to change muslims’ religion.

          • THE says:

            Freedom of speech, and freedom of religion, were also illegal in Christendom during the Middle Ages. Because of Canon law and because they were absolutist monarchies and aristocracies.

            In many cases, feudal peasants did not even have freedom of movement, being tied by ancestral obligations to their Lord’s lands. This system, known as serfdom, did not end in Russia until 1861.

          • Kelly Yip says:


            For the past several days, I have been debating whether to share a conversation I had earlier this year with one of our country’s greatest general. Please see below and thank you for your indulgence:

            ———- Forwarded message ———-
            From: Stan McChrystal
            Date: Tue, Feb 7, 2012 at 8:02 AM
            Subject: Re: Addendum
            To: “kelly.yip”
            Cc: McChrystal Stacey, Neuman Brooke


            Thanks for your note – feel free to share my thoughts. Pls ensure the understand that it applies to all organizations – not any specifically.

            Thanks also for your support. A few thoughts:

            – The R/S article created a furor of interest and outrage, but very little time was spent on assessing its accuracy or fairness. I chose not to challenge the specifics at the time because I felt the President and the cause in Afghanistan would be hurt by a public controversy like that, but from the beginning I knew that the author created an impression with his depiction that is unfair to the people he described. He’ll have to live with his motives, I can’t judge them, but I remain very proud of the people I worked with.

            – The issue in Afghanistan is very different from Japan where we’d pounded the nation into submission before entering. We entered Afghanistan without invitation, in response to the 9/11 attacks and although the Afghans were pleased we’d come to help, they are deeply fearful that our involvement will be transitory and they’ll be left with fend for themselves against a Pakistani-supported Taliban. I believe they can hold their own, and efforts to help them build security forces have actually produced a pretty good Army, but they lack the confidence right now. Hopefully that will come, but it is the essential requirement.

            – Afghan governance remains the most difficult thing to help nurture. Their history never stressed strong central government, although it was definitely a factor, but after 32 years of constant fighting, the local structures that previously helped bind society (the tribes, economic ties, etc) are all tattered and unable to provide the fabric and cohesion necessary. It can come, but will take time.

            Thanks again for your help of veterans – it matters.


          • rabi'a al adiwyyah says:

            The R/S author just reported the truth, instead of the happy horseshit that the mil-propaganda machine spews out.
            McC is just another pharmakos.
            He fired himself, because he couldn’t make the timeline.
            The incidence of green on blue attacks is rising, not falling.
            The American presence is a recruiter for the Taliban, growing at 5% per year for the last 11 years. No stories on that lol.
            Does anyone really doubt that the Taliban are going to roll into Kabul as soon as the Americans gtfo and dip Karzai’s head in tar and pike it on the battlements?
            COIN. doesn’t. work.
            The only networks that are in “tatters” are the Karzai defense forces. The Taliban are stronger than ever.

            Game over.

          • rabi'a al adiwyyah says:

            And this is for McC–
            “Afghan governance remains the most difficult thing to help nurture.”
            If we stay there until the Karzai government gets strong enough to stand off the talibs, then they will be strong enough to kick us out, just like Maliki and Sadr did in Iraq.
            “Their history never stressed strong central government”
            Because their history is islamic government. There is no central authority in Islam, its a consensus religion.
            Things are going to change in the region next year, when Imran Khan gets Zadari’s job in Pakistan.
            The droning in Pak provinces will have to stop.
            Then the talibs that cross into Waziristan will have a safe haven under Pakistan sovereignty.
            There is going to be a narrow departure window where the US can claim some sort of quasi-victory and leave, or else Operation Frequent Wind Redux and the Fall of Kabul where we have to leave from rooftops in helos.

          • rabi'a al adiwyyah says:

            I also think Stanley McCrystal was a fine general, but again, he was tasked with an impossible possible if hes telling the truth.
            “the local structures that previously helped bind society (the tribes, economic ties, etc) are all tattered and unable to provide the fabric and cohesion necessary. It can come, but will take time.”
            The local structures, the social networks that supported Afghan society are consanguineous and religious. COIN rendered the islamic networks inaccessible with insistence on “tolerance” and free speech. Wasn’t there a single advisor in the Bush admin that could read arabic and relate what the Quran said? And even now, no one can admit why COIN failed? It is not possible to change the religion of 60 million humans with force of arms.
            And even McC can’t say that.

          • THE says:

            Karzai won’t be President in 2014 because he won’t be standing in the election if he respects the Afghan constitution and its two-term limit.

            If the 2014 election is legitimate then the new government will have a renewed mandate. The biggest problem might be actually having the troop numbers to run a fair election, free of intimidation.

            If the Taliban are as legitimate, as you say, then they should win an election in a landslide? No need for war?

            Of course if they are really a Pakistani tool, with very limited Afghan support, then they will have to win by war.

          • THE says:

            The Asia Foundation’s latest survey of the Afghan People is interesting despite its limitations, due to the security problems.

            I found many of the responses really quite interesting including the high respect for for the ANA (Section 3.6) and the small level of support for the armed opposition groups (Section 4.3).

            I also noted the high level of support for gender equality in education (Section 11.2), and the workforce (Section 11.3), the latter particularly among women.

  5. Stu White says:

    This is a fine, thoughtful, and generous post, but the comparison to Haggard isn’t altogether just. Petraeus was caught out in an indiscretion: Haggard was revealed as a hypocrite. Whatever his flaws, Petraeus has been a gifted and tireless public servant who devoted much of his life to the betterment of his country. Haggard pilloried people in public for failing to adhere to a specific moral code that he argued held priority over individual happiness or, indeed, biology. The revelations that he spent some of his leisure time acting in contradiction to that precise moral code exposed him as fundamentally cruel and untruthful. His actions struck at the core of his public persona, and cast the legitimacy of much of his public advocacy into doubt. So far as I know, Petraeus never made declarations about the value and sanctity of marriage central to his public life; thus making both his error and, I would suggest, the public response to it, different in degree and kind to Haggard’s.

    • Daveed Gartenstein-Ross says:


      That is a decent point. I agree with you that Haggard’s “actions struck at the core of his public persona,” and were thus more damning to his legacy than Petraeus’s. He was a hypocrite, no question about it.

      My use of Haggard in this post isn’t so much a direct analogy as an introduction to the genesis of my own thinking on the matter, which happened to have been heavily influenced by that conversation at Tyndale.

      Very few scandals are exactly alike, in detail or in moral consequence, but often the way we react to them is similar.

      • Stu White says:

        “… but often how we react to them is similar.” Perhaps. I’ll need to think about this. There is certainly not much to differentiate the media response from case to case, whatever the particulars of the incident in question. One salacious scandal is much like the rest, I suppose. But I’d suggest that much of the venom in the Haggard case was a response to his ideas. The specifics of his fall from grace helped to discredit the ideas he had championed; indeed, were a repudiation of them. That made his ideological opponents invested in the details of his disgrace. It’s hard to see how policy thinkers who disagreed with Petraeus’ prescriptions for COIN could similarly turn his private woes into a critique of his analysis (Not impossible, sadly, but difficult). Consequently, much of the piling on around Petraeus has seemed to be precisely the sort of small-minded satisfaction that you so neatly harpooned in your post.

        I very much like the advice you received, and it’s well worth remembering when public figures are mired in scandal.

  6. Jeffrey B. Cozzens says:

    Solid post, Daveed. I am very impressed that you deviated a bit from your ‘typical’ (excellent) assessments to touch on the importance of themes so often lacking in our private lives and public discourse: personal introspection in the wake of others’ shortcomings, humility and forgiveness.

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