Monday, June 13, 2011

In "Dignity" -- and the Weiner Thing

As I was driving east on the Interstate, I was listening to the radio as I tend to do when on the road, mostly NPR, and there were a lot of stories about Anthony Weiner and his predicament with regard to his Democratic colleagues calling for his resignation from Congress over what he's done -- and all those icky pictures and text messages and whatnot. On the other hand, polls suggest his constituents do not universally condemn him nor his actions and that the majority want him to stay in office.

Most of the public condemnation of Weiner so far seems to be rooted in prudery and traditional American Puritanism. Denouncing (and being obsessed with) other people's sex lives is the predominant amusement of prudes and Puritans, as everyone else in the world seems to understand.

But as I listened to the stories about the calls for Weiner to resign, little of it was focused on his sex life or on his lies about it. Unlike the public hysteria -- which of course is whipped to a frenzy by the media -- the official calls seemed to have much more to do with something unstated: Weiner had violated the Dignity of his office and the institution in which he served, not by engaging in "inappropriate sexting" with women on the internet, but by doing it... publicly. It's not that they do these things, in other words, or that they lie about it, but that it becomes public through their own fault and inattention to detail or through the prying of people like Breitbart.

The public hysteria (to the extent there really is any) has to do with Weiner's "appalling" actions and his hypocritical lying about it. Yet the lies are relatively mild, certainly not uncommon in such situations (typical in fact). He certainly isn't lying the nation into war, for example. Or using constant lies to justify murder like the Israelis do.

And if news reports we've been getting for a couple of years now are correct, the "appalling" things that Weiner is accused of doing and has admitted are almost routine among young people (high-school through college age) and are not uncommon at all among Weiner's own age cohort of 40-somethings. Prudes and Puritans, of course, will always obsess on these things and condemn them in public figures. They seem to live for these incidents, don't feel fully alive unless they can denounce the sexual behavior of someone else.

But if the news is right, "sexting" is so common as to be almost universal among the young using social media.

I'm old, and the idea of doing something like that -- sending racy pictures of myself and ribald text messages to people I don't know (or even people I do know!) -- is something that doesn't occur to me. It's just not something I would do, but I think that has more to do with the era I grew up in than any particular shock at the lewdness of it all.

After all, I came up in the '50's and '60's, and the truth is, casual nudity and semi-public sex was not exactly uncommon. Even in the repressed '50's, same-sex nudity in all kinds of situations was expected, in some cases required, and sex, though never mentioned in polite company, was hardly uncommon (!). As part of "modernity", parental and child nudity at home (under the right circumstances, in the bathroom, for example) was widely practiced, and if anything, all kinds of sexuality were quite possibly more widely practiced and accepted (more or less in private, to be sure) than they are now.

"Sex," for the most part, wasn't a public issue in the 1950's because it wasn't discussed. But there was plenty o' sex.

In the liberationist 1960's we didn't have the technology to practice "sexting", and I'm not sure that many people would have done it anyway. Communitarianism along with liberationism wouldn't really allow something like virtual online "sex" such as sexting to substitute for the real thing. I don't think it is entirely a matter of technology, either. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that to even think of sexting, one must be relatively isolated from other people. And back in those days, that kind of isolation was rare. "Community" was a very important concept, and people -- perhaps -- were more connected with others then than they are now.

Then there's the whole "40-something" malaise. Weiner is one of those 40-somethings, but there are lots and lots of others in that age cohort coming into their own, and many of them seem to have, how to put this, "issues."

I think it comes from the fact that these are the offspring of my generation, and all things considered, there's going to be rebellion of some sort. If I'm right, and sexting is simply not something many people in my generation would do -- even if they could -- then doing that would be something generational rebels would be more likely to do.

On the other hand, casual public nudity and even public or semi-public sex was something people in my generation would engage in, probably more than 40-somethings would. It was an act of rebellion in my generation, whereas sexting is rebellious for 40-somethings.

Of course if the practice originated with an even younger generation, how will they rebel against their parents values when the time comes?

Ultimately, these questions are irrelevant to the Weiner Thing -- at least from the Congressional leadership standpoint. They want him gone, not so much for what he has done, but for the violation of the Dignity of his office and the institution his actions represent.

Many of us would agree that our public institutions -- especially Congress -- have no dignity left. They are embarrassments almost by definition, and the notion that any congresscritter's sexual indiscretions could violate the "dignity" of a body that has none is absurd.

But that's us. For them, nothing is more important than their belief in their own moral dignity and standing. When the image they have of themselves is sullied -- by sexual exploits becoming public especially -- they react the way they are doing. And as we've seen over and over (Bill Clinton, anyone?), their shocked, shocked reaction and their huffy denunciations just make them look silly.

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