Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thinking about Anthony Weiner

“Lift up your heads, O -gates,” wrote (except for the hyphen) the ancient psalmist, a poet possessed of the gift of deep and thoughtful insight into the future. And so we Americans, used since Pilgrim times to venerating the Book of Psalms, have responded and in spades…with more -gates lifted up and set down on the front pages of more newspapers than any of us could ever count or hope to keep track of. First and foremost, of course, there was Watergate. But then there was Nannygate, then Billygate, then Monicagate, then (looking overseas) Camillagate, then Squidgygate, then so many more here and abroad that no one could possibly keep them all straight. (If you’d like to test yourself, there’s actually a Wikipedia page called “List of scandals with “-gate” suffix,” which you can consult for your own slightly prurient edification. Bring a pad of paper to keep score. Most, I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of.) And now, also of course, we are in the disagreeable throes of Weinergate, the scandal concerning Congressman Anthony D. Weiner, the representative of New York’s Ninth District in the House of Representatives.

The details, I’m sure you all know. Although apparently without actually breaking any actual laws, Representative Weiner has now admitted to having behaved in a vulgar, inappropriate way with a number of women he only knew as followers of his Twitter account and not in real life. He is therefore neither a criminal nor a real adulterer (except perhaps in the Carterian sense), just someone whose monumental lapse of good judgment may well have cost him his career. At first he lied about it. Then he came clean, more or less. I suppose that on some level he hoped that would suffice. It has in the past, after all: when the previous governor of New York State announced that both he and his wife had occasionally been unfaithful to each other, the public shrugged. Some, myself not among them, even commended him on his candor. But the bottom line is that there were, as I recall, no calls for his resignation or at least none that was loud enough for me personally to hear. (Mind you, Governor Paterson had the incredible good fortune to be making this announcement on the heels of his predecessor’s exceptionally indecorous exit from office. So perhaps it was merely by comparison that his confession failed to startle.) At any rate, Representative Weiner eventually owned up to having had a full half-dozen of these strange, physically contactless relationships with women he didn’t actually know and hadn’t ever met, some apparently involving the sharing of brief tweets and others, of tweeted briefs. (Am I the first person to think of that? It hardly seems possible, but I haven’t actually seen it elsewhere. At any rate, the psalmist—who moved on in his real poem from gates to doors—most definitely did not finish his poem off with the words, “and lift up too your everlasting drawers.” Maybe he should have. Maybe it’s a good thing I don’t do stand-up for a living. Or do I?)

Is any of this funny? The New York Post apparently thinks so. So does the Daily News. Jay Leno and the other late-night talk show guys can’t get enough of it. But hiding behind the guffaws and the standard school-for-scandal stuff—the earnest denial (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman!”), the eventual owning-up, the stalwart wife standing by her man (or at the very least not denouncing him in public), the jokiness with which the press covers more or less anything that occurs below the waist that does not involve actual criminal activity, the calls for resignation followed by counter-calls accusing the first group of overreaction fueled either by some sort of innate bigotry or by politics or by some prior hostility to the individual at the center of the scandal—are issues that do bear talking about.

And that is the aspect of this particular story I would like to write about today. My colleague and friend of a quarter century, Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, who serves as the rabbi of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens, published an essay in the Jewish Week last week in which he focused on the role the so-called social media—Facebook and Twitter and the like—in the Weiner scandal. He pointed out, entirely justifiably, that the single greatest societal innovation of the first decade of the twenty-first century has been the arrival of the social media, these vast, almost limitless, countries outside of space and time that permit people to relate to each other also outside of time and space as friends or, apparently, as more than friends without every actually existing in the same place or, needless to say, ever coming into physical contact with each other. Is that a good thing? I suppose it cuts down on the possibility of STD transmission, but it also has created a weird netherworld in which people exist as sylphlike specters of their real selves as they make their way along a landscape that, because it does not really exist, is tolerant of vulgarity and aberration in a way that the real world would not or, at the very least, should not be. I don’t have a Facebook page. I don’t have a Twitter account. I’m as electronified as the next guy—and I can actually neither recall nor imagine what it was once like to write books and essays without a computer and without the internet at one’s disposal—but I have resisted wading into those ghostly waters precisely because, at least to a man of my age, the whole thing sounds just a bit silly. What can I do? I like having friends who exist in real space, not as seductive conglomerations of binary code. Man, I sound old even to me!

But the real issue in the Anthony Weiner story has to do with its aftermath. The world appears to have bought into the congressman’s explanation that there is something wrong with him, something that will require the intervention of a mental health professional to cure (or at least effectively to deal with). A statement released just the other day by his office reported, and I quote, that “Congressman Weiner departed [New York] this morning to seek professional treatment to focus on becoming a better husband and healthier person.” I suppose only good can come from troubled people seeking the professional counsel, but it strikes me as a peculiar comment on our society that lewd behavior can only be explained, it seems, with reference to the individual engaging in it being mentally ill in some diagnosable, thus treatable, way. I’m sure there are people in that category—I know there are, actually—but I don’t think it’s a healthy thing for our society for our default position on matters such as this to be that the individual at the center of scandal must, almost by definition, be mentally ill. Whatever happened to the notion of vulgar behavior being something that beckons to us all, that vulgarity is merely the best known latter-day equivalent of the “sin crouching at the door” that God explained to Cain was part of the human condition yet nevertheless something human beings—average ones like Cain, not tzadikim—can overcome by embracing goodness and resolving to avoid crudity and lewdness. In other words, our basic attitude towards the kind of vulgar behavior in which the congressman now admits to having engaged should not be automatically to suppose that he is an ill man who needs to be cured of his apparent propensity to self-destruct, but rather to take him as a man among the rest of humanity, all of whom (by which I mean: all of us) are constantly being drawn to inappropriate behavior. The yetzer horo¬—the inclination to behave poorly—is not a curse from heaven visited on the unlucky few, after all, but a basic element in the constitution of all human psyches.

To be drawn to vulgarity or to impropriety (or to loutishness or to boorishness or to any one of a thousand varieties of tastelessness) is therefore not a sickness at all but a basic part of what it means to be alive. All of us have all sorts of thoughts all the time. Most, we’d die a thousand deaths if anyone could hear. But that’s just my point—no one does hear them because we (mostly) don’t speak them aloud and we certainly (also, alas, most of the time) don’t act on them. The job of being a reputable human being consists not of somehow avoiding the experience of ever being drawn to unseemly behavior, but of facing down the inclination to behave poorly through some amalgam of faith, commitment, loyalty to one’s own standards, and internal resolve to be as fine a person as one possibly can be despite being constantly drawn in precisely the opposite direction.

I don’t know Representative Weiner personally and I have no idea what kind of person he is. That being the case, I have no interest in passing judgment on him or in expressing a thought formally on whether he should or should not remain in Congress. That should be decided by himself and by his constituents in Queens. But I do believe that society in general makes a huge error when it imagines that poor behavior is invariably the result of some sort of mental or emotional illness. Succumbing to the lure of the yetzer horo is the most basic of all human tendencies, not a symptom of disease. But it is, so the Torah (and also so common sense) one that can be combated successfully. When we choose our leaders, we should be looking specifically not for people who somehow, magically, have no yetzer horo, but for people who repeatedly demonstrate their ability to fight back the tendency to embrace vulgar or indecorous behavior and to embrace the qualities that will enable them to lead us forward in a manner consonant with the values they claim formally to espouse and which we ourselves too are proud to espouse.

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