Civilization, Weinergate and Discontent
Anthony Weiner lacks inhibitions. Now he lacks a job. Time now for the next question: Are we out of our minds?
The seven-term former Congressman, age 46, has an active libido. When he shared photographic images of himself with young women on Facebook and Twitter, he took a self-destructive, and even suicidal, risk. Our sexophrenic Puritanical streak does not forgive those who color outside a strict set of libidinal lines.
But resignation from Congress over on-line flirting? Weiner is looking more than a little limp. I wish he had not done so. The resignation simply encourages hypocrisy.
I was stunned to see the photograph accompanying the story in today’s New York Times about the Weiner’s resignation. He announced he was leaving Congress in a Brooklyn senior center. The Times reports that the seniors looked confused. Perhaps they were confused by what appears to be the dozens of cameramen lining the back of the room. This is what passes for hot national news?
Would that Sigmund Freud were to rise from the dead and return just long enough to survey things and rewrite Civilization and Its Discontents. A century ago he wrote that the work of civilization is difficult. We inhibit certain aggressive desires and instinctual pleasures in the name of the work of living together, of creating a civilization. Not every impulse is, or should be, acted upon, Freud wrote, not if we want to have arts, sciences and a complex society.
The Internet has lowered inhibition to vanishing point. Online Lotharios are everywhere. Otherwise fine people attack, malign and rage at the world, most often anonymously or pseudonymously. Otherwise respectable professionals sometimes call it courage now when they spout, fume and hate under their own name. We are authentic to the point of tedium; bared teeth pass are what the new respectability. Have you told off anyone today? If not, you’re weak, uninteresting, a fraud. The mob won’t rest until all of mud-wrestle in the same grimy pit.
Read the comments below an online edition of a newspaper some day, and behold the neighbor hiding behind the forced smile in the check out line. Look at the chatter on blogs: a world of keyboard heros are hiding behind their screens. The Internet fosters aggression without consequences, all is a virtual game. So, too, with sexual desire. We can all make love like porn stars with figments of our imaginations, those folks just a click away, forever present, always smiling, demanding nothing.
The economy is in shambles. The middle class is disappearing. The federal government’s budget is a mess. We are at war in several locations with no end in sight. Our schools are not competitive with schools elsewhere in the world. The infrastructure needs work. Climate change poses challenges we need to mobilize to meet. How do we meet these challenges?
We are the sum of our instincts and desires. Advertisers know this, so they sell products with sexual images. We stir a beast and then savagely slap at it when it roars too loudly, or in the wrong way.
It’s too soon to say what broader social and cultural significance this systemic lowering of inhibition will play in the world at large. The Internet can do great good in fostering the easy spread of ideas and information. It represents a communication revolution. But every revolution has its dark side. Unleashing pent up forces yields passions that are both constructive and destructive.
I am not persuaded that Weiner needed to resign because he was a bad man. I am sure he needed to resign because we would not let him go. We attacked and felt good about the attack. It was a nifty trick, this displacing our anxiety about the uncomfortable truths we know about ourselves onto Weiner. "He’s a scum, a hypocrite, a liar," we raged.
Aren’t we all? Isn’t the Internet making that obvious? In a world without inhibitions everyone becomes Anthony Weiner. Just why we trim the tall poppies for being just like the rest of us is a mystery.