Sunday, June 12, 2011


Why are so many powerful men these days being accused of and exposed for sexual misbehaving? Tiger Woods. John Edwards. Anthony Weiner. Eliot Spitzer ("Love Client Number Nine"). Arnold Schwarzenegger. Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Mahmoud Abdel Salam Omar. These are not stupid men---all rose to the top of their professions and politics---though obviously their actions reek of a stupidity that is reprehensible in every case and downright risible in some. (No fiction writer would be believed if he named one of his philandering characters Weiner.)
The easy answer, and probably the best one, is that these Alpha males are all people of very poor character and judgment. I believe that to be the case, but after condemning these figures, I want to look for a moment at the ground against which their travails stand out in such stark, pathetic relief.
I'm talking about contemporary American culture, which is incoherent, inconsistent, and sends out very mixed, ethical messages. On the one hand, what we expect from our citizens is maturity and civilized behavior based on self-control, reason, discrimination, respect for others, and restraint. Yet, on the other hand, that same society relentlessly bombards everyone, young and old, 24/7 with propaganda steeped in sex and violence, those lowest common denominator twins guaranteed to always capture our attention, and especially the interest of those who are weak-minded, weak-willed, emotionally immature, and sadly lacking any spiritual practice. Think about it. Sex in America is presented as a form of recreation, and sometimes as a commodity. The sexual other is presented, not as another complex and mysterious subject, but as an object promising to satisfy our appetites. I'm not a prude (my fiction and comic art probably show that way too well), but I find it remarkable that you cannot look at a magazine, a movie, a television program, an advertisement, many billboards, most forms of entertainment including contemporary fiction and music videos, anything on the internet, and not be encouraged to feel desire. Advertising has always worked that way. Desire sells. Sex sells. In 1964, Marxist Herbert Marcuse had some rather interesting things to say on this subject---the necessary creation of false desires by a capitalist economy---in One-Dimensional Man.
But our culture in recent decades has ratcheted up an adolescent fascination with the venereal far beyond what was seen in the '60s. Pornography is mainstream, and porn stars are celebrities. Polite conversation, newspaper articles, and the routines of comedians contain the p-word, f-word, and d-word with such ease we don't even notice it anymore. And how many "celebrities" have their sex-tapes? (What kind of mind produces one of those?) Matters become yet more disturbing when those twins, sex and violence, are merged along with matters once seen as taboo supposedly for the sake of being "cutting edge," or avant-garde, or "pushing the envelope" on what can be imagined and sold for profit. (Think of recent music videos by Kanye West,  Lady Gaga, and Rihanna.) I don't have space in this post, or even the interest, to fully catalogue this bizarre phenomenon, one of late cultural decadence, in which the most banal, spiritless, materialistic, selfish, leering, demeaning-to-women, and ego-driven versions of sex have seemingly replaced spiritual life in secular culture, because I think you understand my premise. And what is my conclusion?
         Put simply, it is this:
The men mentioned in the first paragraph of this post deserve every bit of opprobrium they have received. But, like my character Flo Hatfield in Oxherding Tale, they are to a certain degree victims of both self-inflicted stupidity and a cultural zeitgeist that encourages, day in day out, that very stupidity. Their consciousness has been "handled," manipulated, and corrupted by egregious and ubiquitous influences in a society that cynically commodifies the healthy intimacy between two people who love and are committed in long term relationships to each other's happiness and well-being. We understand, now that their surreptitious deeds are plastered on the cover of every supermarket scandal rag, that these sadly one-dimensionalized men were not free. They, like Flo, were in bondage (pun intended.)They were probably never free, for one seldom gets "caught" for a first-time offense; rather, the behavior that leads to the loss of face tends to be part of a pattern reinforced over time and each time a person thinks he gets away with something and suffers no consequences from it. Their example should make us feel appalled yet also self-reflective, for we are all fish swimming in the same culturally polluted waters as these broken, embarrassed men. We should also feel sadness for the pain they have caused themselves and an ever-widening circle of others that include their spouses, children, parents, friends, kinfolk and in-laws, former admirers, coworkers, and everyone who counted on them to use wisely and responsibly their influence and power. This is a pain that through the young people in their lives will be experienced for generations to come.
As I think about them, I'm reminded of something that occurs to my fictitious Martin Luther King Jr., in the novel Dreamer. When he broods on the rumors (and facts) of his extramarital affairs, the thought comes to him that, The challenge of the spiritual was simply this: to be good, truly moral, and in control of oneself for this moment only. 
            There is no other moment with which we have to concern ourselves.

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