Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"An Advanced State of Cultural Decadence"

You may or may not want to know it, but last night French news broadcasts spent an inordinate amount of time reporting on l’affaire Anthony Weiner.

It felt like payback for Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Surely, the French had good reason to want to change the subject.

As it happened, the French newscasters did not content themselves with reporting the news. They took the opportunity to make some derogatory about the Americans. Nothing surprising about that.

If I recall correctly, the French believed that if Anthony Weiner had been living in France, his peccadilloes would barely be worth the attention of sophisticated Parisians.

Coming from the culture that gave us Dominique Strauss-Kahn, that is rich indeed.

While the French were certainly too quick to overlook the predations of a Dominique Strauss-Kahn-- thereby failing to see that it is not always right to cover up sexual matters-- they do have a point here.

It is positively unseemly for a nation to consume itself with endless debates about the state of Anthony Weiner’s genitalia. That Anthony Weiner does not have the common decency to resign is one thing. That we are debating the issue is a sign of cultural decadence.

When the French consider you to be decadent, you have a problem.

As more than a few of his supporters have pointed out, Anthony Weiner did not commit a major crime. True enough, he lied to the media, but this does not exactly make him a war criminal. It does not even make him an accused criminal, at the level of DSK.

As I said a couple of days ago, it makes him Clintonian. If the nation could forgive Bill Clinton, to the point of lionizing him, why not turn a blind eye the exhibitionistic Rep. Weiner? So Weiner seems to be thinking.

Perhaps it is a good time to reflect on why human beings do not expose their pudenda to public scrutiny. We are so afraid of being found uncool or repressed that we routinely forget that human beings always cover their private parts, that being one of the ways that they separate public and private life, the better to assert their existence as social beings.

We expect, and we have a right to expect, that when we deal with our fellow humans, whether in business or politics, they will put the public interest ahead of their private interest. We do as much ourselves and we expect that others will do the same.

If we don’t we cannot function within human community.

Publicly exposing one’s genitals represents the ultimate intrusion of the private into the public space, and, if a culture finds it acceptable, it is saying that it is acceptable to place personal benefit over public responsibility, be it sexual or pecuniary.

We like to think that politicians are devoted to the public good, and we are, reasonably, horrified to see that they are more often worried about their own political fortunes.

I would not want to say that no one has a private interest, but rather that common decency and respect for others demands that he or she keep it to him or herself.

Given the power of sexuality to distract us from the public interest, keeping one’s sexual activities out of the public eye is a primary responsibility of all social and political beings. Ultimately, we are not and will never be recognized and identified by the appearance of our external genitalia.

If we are, we need to remove ourselves from public life, in order to recover a measure of reputation.

Discretion matters. If a political leader insists on waving his willie at the world, the act will be taken as a signal that he is in it for himself, and that, therefore, everyone else can do the same.

You might think that neither Clinton nor Weiner exposed himself wilingly to the world. Both however, exposed themselves to people they barely knew and had no reason to trust. Public exposure was not voluntary, but their gross indiscretions made such exposure inevitable.

No sentient adult can possibly imagine that beefcake photos, to say nothing of pictures of aroused male parts, sent to women he does not know, will remain private forever.

Now, thanks mostly to the fact that Anthony Weiner refused to resign, the nation, and even tout Paris is consuming itself discussing his genitalia. The fact that we have not stood up as a people and demanded that Weiner resign, for the good of the nation, speaks ill of us as a nation.

As the poet said, we are distracted by distraction from the business at hand, and, dare we say, the business at hand is very important indeed.

The word for our problems is “cultural dacadence.” That is what the London Guardian called it in the quote that I made the title of this post.

Even given the fact that the leftist Guardian rarely misses an opportunity to talk down America, its analysis of the apparent decline of the American empire has more than few elements that ring true.

In the midst of a cogent essay on the decline of the American Empire, Larry Elliot writes, comparing America to Rome and Britain.

“The experience of both Rome and Britain suggests that it is hard to stop the rot once it has set in, so here are the a few of the warning signs of trouble ahead: military overstretch, a widening gulf between rich and poor, a hollowed-out economy, citizens using debt to live beyond their means, and once-effective policies no longer working. The high levels of violent crime, epidemic of obesity, addiction to pornography and excessive use of energy may be telling us something: the US is in an advanced state of cultural decadence.”

Clearly, this is slightly alarmist. In reality, America as an empire is still the world’s pre-eminent military power, so much so that no one else is going to compete with America militarily in the forseeable future.

Yet America is also the most obese and indebted nation on the planet. It has been living well beyond its means, and is fast approaching day of reckoning.

You might think that we are mixing up two kinds of decadence. I think not. A culture that values a lack of self-restraint and self-discipline in one area of experience is likely to value it in others.

Cultural decadence is simply the opposite of the now defunct Protestant Work Ethic. Believing that you can spend today and not pay for it is decadent. Trying to borrow your way out of debt is decadent. It says that we should grab all the pleasure we can today, because there may be no tomorrow.

It also says that we do not have to work and earn what we enjoy. As it happens, if you do not earn your pleasures, they are not yours.

Remember when Prof. Amy Chua, the now-famous Tiger Mom, implied that American parents were too soft on their children, that they did not expect excellence, but were contented with mediocrity?

You would have thought that she was prescribing child abuse. The great American parent class rose up in protest-- we are really good at protesting our grievances-- and declared that Chua had declared war on fun, on creativity, and on spontaneity.

God forbid, but she was promoting the value of work, of hard work, even for children, of success and accomplishment, even of excellence. America seems to have decided this Confucian work ethic was not right for its children.

You did not need any learned discourses on the state of Anthony Weiner’s wiener to see that America has become a society dedicated to fun and leisure, over work and achievement.

However harmless the Congressman’s internet sexual activities, he was surely having fun. But once he fails to resign his office, thereby keeping his own peculiar ways of having fun in the public eye, then he is establishing a principle, a cultural standard, one that places self-indulgence ahead of public responsibility.

The next time some banker or other financier decides that he can game the system because his own self-interest is more important than the soundness of the financial system, he is just following the same principle.

And the man over there who is gorging himself on cookies and candy, who is avoiding exercise as though it were the plague, do you think that he asks himself who is going to pick up the tab for his lifestyle choices? What makes you think that you can tell him what to do with his life?

If Anthony Weiner or Bill Clinton can indulge his appetites without regard for the position of public trust that he holds why shouldn’t your neighbor indulge his? Isn’t it the American way?

Of course, the issue in no way concerns what people do in their private lives; I am confident that none of us really cares what Anthony Weiner does or does not do in the privacy of his boudoir. But once it becomes public knowledge, whether you or someone else made it public knowledge, it’s time to show a minimum sense of decency and resign from public life.

In another sense the Weiner scandal reflects what Elliot calls our national addiction to pornography. I hate to have to say it, but no matter what virtues porn has, too much of it is bad for you. It becomes a substitute for human intimacy and desensitizes you to sexual stimli.

Porn is bad for your sex life. Instead of engaging other people sexually, you start thinking that you need to star in your own porn movies, and that the world, to say nothing of women’s sexual appetites, are in reality what they appear to be in porn.

Besides, virtual sex through internet chat or tweets is something of a lie. Once you get caught in a lie, you should not imagine that you can pay lip service to apology and expect the world to ignore your failures. A culture that would do so would be decadent indeed.


blahga the hutt said...

Back at the ranch, Iran and Venezuela walked out of the OPEC meeting because they want to keep oil prices high. Oh, you didn't hear about that? Ah, that's right, most of the media hasn't said a peep about that. But hey, discussing Weiner's weiner is way more important than some silly OPEC thing.

Anyone who doesn't think this country will soon fall apart is kidding him/herself.

Memphis said...

We have been suffering from steadily growing cultural, intellectual and spiritual rot since the 1960s, but as time has passed by, the cancer has grown and spread, steadily picking up speed as it has never been properly treated. That we are so focused on Weiner while our own President puts us in a state of financial free-fall that Louis XVI would admire is a testament to just how badly out of balance we have become. We are teetering on the brink of catastrophe, yet all our news media wants to talk about is Weiner's photos and whether or not Sarah Palin is too stupid to replace the least qualifed President we have ever had.

Anonymous said...

"If I recall correctly, the French believed that if Anthony Weiner had been living in France, his peccadilloes would barely be worth the attention of sophisticated Parisians."

oh, how chic of them indeed! that is why they are in their current state of pathetic irrelevance. among other reasons.