By: Dennis Rohatyn

The “exposure” of Jeffrey Toobin at a Zoom meeting has raised even more eyebrows than it did questions.[1] Yet the questions were not the right ones to ask, and the eyebrows should have been fixed elsewhere.

My purpose here is not to dispute the facts. I will assume for the sake of argument that Mr. Toobin committed a lewd act, and that a Zoom meeting is a public venue, even when it takes place behind closed doors, within the confines of a private corporation or club. Double standards, voyeurism, exhibitionism, misogyny, and temporary insanity all play a role here. So do social media, virtual reality, boredom, COVID-fatigue, and loneliness. If (as Thoreau warned, in 1842) Maine and Texas have nothing to say to each other, then it should be wise to shut off every computer in the United States now, so we can all meditate in silence. See no evil, hear no evil, spread no deadly germs.

But before we do that, let’s examine another issue, one that has escaped the attention of pundits and critics.   It has no name, but it underlies all of the currents swirling around Mr. Toobin, and anyone in America (if not elsewhere) whose predicament is in any way similar.

I shall call it the ascetic assumption (AA), both for ease of reference and because in an uncanny way, the label fits what it describes. The major premise of the AA is that public figures are not entitled to behave the way ordinary mortals do, except when no one notices.

The reason for that is simple. An overwhelming number of people in any society are anonymous, faceless, powerless. The few whose names and faces are familiar to everyone are gods, though we prefer to call them by other names, such as, athletes, entertainers, politicians—the generic label being celebrities.[2] Gods are immortal, hence all-powerful. They “lord it” over us, simply by being who they are—famous (or “known for being known,” to quote Daniel Boorstin), hence “larger than life.” Even infamy counts as celebrity, be it outlaws, bank robbers, or mass murderers.   All celebrities are created equal; but none of us are equal to them.

Mr. Toobin is a celebrity.  Therefore, he has no right (as it were) to lower himself to our level or at least not in such a way that we are made aware of it.   Discretion is the better part of ardor, especially for those in the public eye. That is why “sex scandals” are so outrageous, be it Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky or “stars” dallying in  the film firmament, as if for the benefit of gossip columnists, tabloid journalists and a regiment of flashbulb (or digital) paparazzi.

Having placed them on a pedestal, we expect celebrities to remain there, at least until we are through worshipping them—which means, never. Conversely, we resent them precisely because they are privileged. Hence we engage in an endless round of idol-smashing: putting them up, then tearing them down, only to resurrect them, again and again. We envy them, because we wish we were walking in their bronzed shoes.

We are conflicted, tortured, and self-contradictory about the whole thing. Adolf Hitler (of all people) understood that. So, in an entirely different way, did Queen Elizabeth, whose status as a virgin was problematic, but served to keep her suitors at arm’s length, and subjects in their obedient place.

As a rule, rulers recognize that they have an obligation to appear heroic and altruistic, rather than to indulge themselves in earthly delights (as opposed to conquests of the earth). The Roman Empire was a notable exception—according to Gibbon, that is exactly why they collapsed. Christianity superseded the unholy Romans, imposing ideals repeatedly honored in the breach, mingling piety with paganism, sacrificial love with kingdoms that were entirely of this world, creating the template for our hypocrisy and schizoid attitudes toward the ersatz royalty and pseudo-divinities who dot our screens.[3]

Hitler exemplified the role of Führer  by garbing himself as a Christ-like figure, who bore the cross and suffered for the sake of the Fatherland, boots and all.   He embodied that in his speeches, as well as in the way he rehearsed for them. He practiced his own Heil salute for hours at a time, standing at attention while gazing at himself in uniform in a full-length mirror, as if he were being photographed for a propaganda film or a newsreel. His narcissism was more Spartan than thou. But it fixed the mental image of the Übermensch that he so desired to convey to the Volk.

Hitler’s own private life was a chaotic jumble of intrigues, many of which will never be demystified or resolved.[4]  But his public persona was pure spectacle, based largely on his favorite opera—Wagner’s Parsifal.[5] Hitler saw himself as a medieval knight during the Crusades—top that one, Robert E. Lee!

He knew his audience better than they knew themselves. He tapped into a deep emotional root, the “collective unconscious” not just of Germania, but of people the world over, who want their leaders to be even better than advertised, so that they can allow themselves to be worse.

One saint redeems a thousand sinners. One martyr makes up for human mediocrity. Likewise, those who deny themselves the ordinary joys and pleasures of human existence shall be rewarded by enjoying life and death powers over everyone in their heavenly orbit.

Call it the fascist ascetic, or the Triumph of the Ill.[6]   Whatever label you give it, the point is the same: mind over matter, the fallacy of misplaced abstractness, or the transcendence of Platonic Hate.

Just as “’Zounds” was once the ultimate obscene expression in our lexicon, since in effect it denied all hope of bodily resurrection, so expletives like “shit” and “fuck” are “bad” because they breach the decorum that lingers long after we have relegated religion to fiction.[7]

That decorum is rooted in mind/body dualism, the dichotomy of flesh and spirit that St. Paul preached, and that remains Gospel even in a secular age. Animal functions are dirty and disgusting, no matter how much we preach the contrary from an Enlightenment pulpit. To reduce us to those is to deny our dignity, smearing humanity in its verbal excrement.

No wonder the temperance league is so upset by our ignoble experiment in sex.[8] Be it pagan or Christian, underlying the AA is the assumption of the virgin, with all of the blushing modesty and atavistic sense of shame that it betokens.[9]    Albeit we worship energy and power, the virgin still holds us in thrall, if only as pretense,[10] or as part of the tragi-comedy of manners that reeks of the genteel tradition, even as it conflates prurience with prudishness, to the detriment of both.

That explains why Jeffrey Toobin can’t say “fuck” on national television, let alone “go fuck himself” on the tube, without causing an uproar. Neither can anyone else, of course.   But who else is on the tube?   If Rush Limbaugh did it, the same strictures would apply, at least as far as network censors (or the FCC) are involved. If he did it behind closed doors, but on closed-circuit, the legality of the act might get sticky.

But none of us have anything to fear, unless we “pull a Pee-Wee Herman” in a dingy movie theatre.  Even then, only Pee-Wee will make headlines.  The rest of us will all go unnoticed: in thy media orisons, be all my sins forgotten.[11] That is why there is no equivalence between what celebrities endure (or give up) and the intangible goods they acquire in exchange. Pee-Wee will always be Pee-Wee, even in disgrace.   Whereas, ordinary mortals are still fucked in more ways than one, just by being who they are: nowhere men, women and non-binary nobodies, signifying nothing.

The gap between rich and poor, haves and have-nots, widens every day. But the gap between the “rich and famous” and those who are neither is infinite, immeasurable, and inconceivable, except indirectly—as medieval theologians often insisted, we can only describe God by saying what He is not.

It follows that those who forfeit pleasure for power are not supposed to have both. Not only would that be unfair, but it is a contradiction in terms, given the premise that celebrities are endowed with sublime attributes betokening their divine status. Pleasure is physical, hence beneath them. Power (authority to determine the fate of the world, not brute physical strength) is what they wield. Granted, at some level that pulls switches and runs armies there must be connections between them, just as between mind and body. But that doesn’t make them equivalent.

Since those who wield power (control over other people’s destinies) belong to the priestly caste of society, they must relinquish the life of the peasant in exchange for their rank as sanctified members of the hierarchy. The peasant is no better than an animal; the priest must not descend to the level of the peasant, or be witnessed doing so, lest the peasantry become disillusioned, and begin to question their lack of status, let alone, rebel against priestly authority. That violates the tacit social contract (or unstated Freudian bargain) that we make with our living symbols of supernal grace.

Even when they are neither beguiling nor exemplary, as a group they compel; they command our unconditional loyalty and devotion. The institution outlasts even its most flawed individuals. Gods do die. But Godhead lives, and eternity enthralls.

Hence the axiom “once a celebrity, always a celebrity.” Yet even Pharaohs must pretend to give up more than they get in return for being preserved for posterity, and escorted to the next world with free publicity along for the ride, in a chariot of pyramidal gods.

Mr. Toobin is hardly in the same company or category as tyrants and monarchs.   Yet he has something in common with them: his word is law (sic). When he speaks (on CNN), everyone hears him. Like a movie critic, he can “make or break” the careers of others who occupy the virtual stage, or who beg and boast in the “court of public opinion,” with its nightly round and jury.

What is so magisterial about Mr. Toobin? What gives him such a charismatic aura? His simultaneous presence and absence, by courtesy of being an electronic oracle. As Mr. Jensen (Ned Beatty) explained to Howard Beale (Peter Finch) in Network (1976, dir. Sidney Lumet, based on Paddy Chayevsky’s screenplay), “because you’re on television, dummy.”

No wonder that the fate of potentates prefigures his own: and not by accident.   For they set all the precedents for his appearance on the world stage, albeit in a less formidable role. That word (precedent) is one that Mr. Toobin is wont to use, both as an attorney and as the legal expert for a major news network. It may not be in the Constitution, but then, the Constitution set the precedent for an experiment in democracy that has yet to be carried out.

In Great Britain, another Queen, also named Elizabeth, had to reckon with the outpouring of grief following the death of Princess Diana, in 1998. (That may not have been an accident, either).Her popularity, and the affection shown to her as “the people’s princess,” undid the royal family’s seclusion, compelling her ex-mother-in-law to acknowledge a mere commoner as worthy of respect. Yet they endured, as did the institution they represent—a living anachronism.[12]

People shall have their gods, if only to crucify them just for being flesh and blood. Hath not a virtual pundit “hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions”?[13]

As Marilyn Monroe sighed inimitably in Bus Stop (1956, dir. Joshua Logan), the uncommon denominator of the American dream is “Hollywood and Vine!”   She too was made a goddess, and paid the ultimate price for her deification.[14]   That will hardly console Mr. Toobin, but it is a reminder to everyone else that when the spirit is willing, the flesh just can’t help but choose to let fame tempt fate.[15]

[1] Laura Wagner, “New Yorker Suspends Jeffrey Toobin for Masturbating on Zoom Call,”, Oct. 19, 2020.

Martha Ross raised the most obvious question, “Is Jeffrey Toobin’s Career Over?” (The Mercury News, Oct. 20)

Mr. Toobin apologized for his misconduct almost immediately.   That does not lessen its indecency, but it does

demand that we venture beyond the self-evident truth that such behavior is all-too common, both on and off-

camera, and that it is a symptom of male anxiety disguised as arrogance, and of brutality disguised as fantasy.

[2] Cf. Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America [1961], 25th anniv.

ed., new aftwd. Douglas Rushkoff (New York, 2012).   Even more compelling is Richard

Schickel, Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity in America (Garden City, NY, 1985).

The artist is inimitable; the celebrity is infinitely replicable, the marriage of Andy Warhol

and Walter Benjamin.   The honeymoon was over before it began, yet the union endured.

[3] Cf. Scaachi Koul, “Jeffrey Toobin Can’t Be The Only Person Masturbating

On Work Zoom Calls,”, Oct. 20.   I am indebted to Ms.

Koul’s article for stimulating my curiosity about a minor media spectacle.

[4] Cf. Ron Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of his Evil {1998},

  updated ed. (New York, 2014), esp. 3-61, 99-151.

[5] Cf. R.H. Offergeld, Hitler’s Parsifal: Mystery Novel [2006], Engl. ed. (Seattle, 2012).

As historians uniformly attest, “Hitler’s passion for Wagner knew no bounds,” as if

foreshadowing blind fanaticism on all other fronts (Ian Kesrhaw, Hitler, 1889-1936:

  Hubris [New York, 1998], 21).

[6] With no apologies to Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism” [1975], repr. Under the Sign of Saturn:

  Essays (New York, 1980), 73-105.

[7] Cf. Ludwig Marcuse, Obscene: The History of an Indignation (London, 1965).   Also see

Joel Feinberg, Harm to Others (New York, 1984) and Offense to Others (New York, 1985).

[8] Cf. William Ian Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust (Cambridge, MA, 1997); Martha C. Nussbaum,

   Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (Princeton, NJ, 2004).  Nussbaum revisits

these issues in The Monarchy Of Fear: A Philosopher Looks At Our Political Crisis (New York,

2018).   Yet the dilemmas remain intact, as do all the false dichotomies (Platonic, Pauline,

Calvinist, and Cartesian) that created them.  The more untenable the dualism, the more it

embodies the soul’s flight from itself.  Mysticism is materialism writ large; every materialist is

a mystic manqué .  The Bacchanalian revel is a square dance.  In the end was the primal curse.

[9] Cf. Marina Warner, Alone Of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (New York, 1976).

[10] As Henry Adams eulogized her in 1905, “The Virgin herself never looked so winning,–so One,–

as in this scandalous failure of her grace. . . . The stupendous failure of Christianity tortured history.”

“Vis Nova,” The Education of Henry Adams [1918], Ch. XXXII, repr. Henry Adams: Novels, Mont Saint

   Michel, The Education, ed. Ernest Samuels and Jayne N. Samuels (New York, 1983), 1151.  Caps and

punctuation in orig.  Pornography is nothing if not puritanical: Weber’s “sensualists without spirit”

reduce sex to a commodity and themselves to ciphers, worshipping Mammon but lusting after God.

[11] Another celebrity created a far different analogy: “At least Pee-Wee Herman did it in an X-rated

movie theater.  I’m just saying” (“OJ Simpson reacts to Jeffrey Toobin exposing himself on Zoom

phone call,” Clémence Michallon,, Oct. 20).  Toobin’s book The Run of His Life:

 The People v. O.J. Simpson (New York, 1996) was the basis for the multi-part Netflix series (2016).

[12] The Queen (2006, dir. Stephen Frears) makes this point through the eyes of

Helen Mirren (Queen Elizabeth) and the words of Michael Sheen (Tony Blair),

based on the screenplay by Peter Morgan.   Some anachronisms survive their

own demise, while others bury their undertakers.  The lessons Burke taught

in his Reflections (1790) have yet to be learned, even as they haunt us daily.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France and Other Writings,

  1. Jesse Norman (New York, 2015), 425-645.

[13]  With a half-pound of debt to the bloody Bard (The Merchant of Venice III.i 59-60).

[14] As did her Gelernter alter ego, S. Paige Baty, whose dissertation, American Monroe:

    The Making of a Body Politic (Berkeley, CA, 1995) drove its author to commit suicide.

[15] Contrary to Romans 8:5.   For lucid Scriptural exegesis and insightful commentary,

  1. Garry Wills, What Paul Meant (New York, 2006), esp. 58, 158-59, 159, 169, 177.


A native New Yorker, Dennis Rohatyn took his PhD at Fordham. He moved to the West Coast in 1977. His works include “Out of My Mind,” “The Flight of Theory”, and “Cartesian Requiem.” He writes about everything, but his true vocation is the inhuman condition.

Image: PAM illustration based on a photo of Jeffrey Toobin by Gage Skidmore  (CC BY-SA 2.0)