Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Just do it!

The slightly bizarre and tawdry Anthony Weiner affair tells us a number of important truths about the world in which we live.

The eminently successful congressman, for reasons known only to himself – and now his psychological counselors – found it arousing to send unwanted sexual email messages to women he did not know personally. Doing so was obviously a bad idea but he could not resist. He did not have the required self-control.

But where do we learn self-control? It seems today that much of our culture is dedicated to teaching all of us, children and adults, to indulge ourselves, to "just do it," to satisfy our every whim. That, after all, is the message of the millions of advertisements that crowd in upon us on radio, television, the internet, the news programs beamed into school rooms, the advertisements that come in the mail unbidden, or crowd out the news in newspapers and magazines. Youth sports are financed by advertisements and all of them tell us to satisfy every desire as soon as we have it. All of them tell us not to scrimp and save but to spend money to meet our every desire, to get the things we “must have.”

Congressman Weiner did that, and so do we. We are content to live in a world that encourages us to be self-indulgent at every moment. Buying stuff is a prominent form of self-indulgence but by no means the only one. Getting what you want, when you want it, is the universal remedy for all problems. That is how we solve all problems, Congressman Weiner no more or less than anybody else.

Going out to buy stuff we neither need nor will enjoy after a day or two, or to indulge our whims in other ways—such as mailing pictures of you in your underwear, however common a practice it has become, is foolish.

But Congressman Weiner's particular self-indulgence is more serious because it involves denigrating other persons. Sexualizing an e-mail relationship without any indication that the other party in the relationship wanted that, Weiner acted from very traditional male, sexist assumptions. Many men still regard women primarily as sexual objects, of value only because they arouse male desire and can be seduced (or forced) into satisfying it. From the male point of view, women are not properly speaking full persons. Their value lies only in their sexual functioning in relation to men and perhaps as caretakers of men.

The Weiner affair would not be terribly interesting if this attitude were not so common; it is replicated in faintly pornographic movies and television shows, advertisements and entertainments. Congressman Anthony Weiner, more aggressive and self involved than many men, exhibits only more clearly the widespread primitive male attitudes towards sexuality and women. The best many men can say for themselves is that they are more careful than the Congressman not to act on their caveman impulses.

These attitudes damage more than the personal relations between men and women. When the Congressman describes his eminently capable and successful wife, he observes, in the first place, how pretty she is. Her sexual attractiveness is her most important quality deserving to be mentioned before all others. We do not do that to men. When we praise them, our first comments are not about their looks. We talk instead about their accomplishments.

Women are thus devalued. And so is the work that many of them have traditionally done. While we manage at times to become very sentimental about mothers and motherhood, we do not value bringing up children well to the same extent as we value making piles of money. Bill Gates or Steve Jobs are famous. What do we know about their mothers?

This devaluing of women, of course, comes to haunt Weiner and men like him. If intimacy means no more to them than sexual passion, they miss out on the deepest gifts that intimacy can bestow on us: a place of peace, where we are acknowledged to be good persons, where we are valued and valuing, where we give and receive some of the profoundest gifts human beings can give each other. Without that human relations soon become stale; sexual passion cools—and there is not much else. So men, like Anthony Weiner, look for new excitements, other women who are pretty and arouse their sexual desire. No wonder he must continuously be on the look out for someone new, for a different excitement because, in the end, his life is unsatisfied. He is unable to find what he needs.

This weird Congressman, Anthony Weiner, is just one of innumerable politicians, educators, business leaders who are unable to resist their own desires. There is hardly a day when one of them does not make the news for some sexual transgression. Their desires remain forever frustrated because they are incapable of genuine intimacy. Instead they must continue to chase after sexual thrills. 

But we should not focus attention exclusively on the failings of the Congressman. We need to see in him a mirror of ourselves and the society we maintain. Thank you Congressman for reminding us of who we are and how we live.