Entry from June 13, 2011

There’s not been much good news for Democratic Representative Anthony Weiner of New York recently, but one bit of it comes along today with the early signs that his indecent exposure scandal has moved on to what we might call its “cultural studies” phase. That’s not so good as having it disappear from the public prints and public bytes altogether, of course, but it must be pretty close to the next best thing. Nobody wants to be regarded as a symptom of some cultural disease but that sure beats being regarded as a public laughing stock. Rep. Weiner’s decision over the weekend to seek therapy in spite of having said in his initial public confession at last week’s press conference that “this is not something that can be treated away” was probably taken partly in order to effect some such transition. He has no more shame about this self-contradiction than he has had about anything else to date, but most people probably suspect he was right about this the first time.

Anyway, he didn’t have to wait long for his reward. In today’s New York Times, Ross Douthat diagnoses Rep. Weiner’s problem as our problem, and he gives that problem a name. The name is “narcissism.” Now I hesitate to disagree with so clever a man and so stalwart a conservative as Mr Douthat, but I find this psychotherapeutic classification, like so many others of its kind, singularly unhelpful in cases like that of Anthony Weiner. Mr Douthat quotes the late Christopher Lasch, proleptically, on the Representative’s narcissism:

Writing in the late ’70s, Lasch distinguished modern narcissism from old- fashioned egotism. The contemporary narcissist, he wrote, differs “from an earlier type of American individualist” in “the tenuous quality of his selfhood.” Despite “his occasional illusions of omnipotence, the narcissist depends on others to validate his self-esteem.” His innate insecurity can only be overcome “by seeing his ‘grandiose self’ reflected in the attentions of others, or by attaching himself to those who radiate celebrity, power and charisma.”

I don’t quite see the distinction here. People have always depended on others to validate their self-esteem (if that’s how you want to describe the universal human need to look good in the eyes of others), and it seems to me that “narcissism” must include more than this to be a useful category. But even if it does and is, is it useful enough to explain Rep. Weiner? The whole point of the cultural studies approach to his shameful behavior is to say that it is much more widespread than at first it seemed — that, indeed, it or something like it is endemic in our culture. But much as there no doubt is to be said against the social media, so far as I am aware the transmission of images of the private parts of political leaders and other celebrities by their means remains a relatively rare phenomenon.

I think there must be a more specifically sexual dysfunction we’re dealing with here and one which is not deserving of the comparative respectability of being classed as a mere subtype of narcissism, which is as common as muck these days. The need Mr Weiner had was not to validate his self-esteem, of which he clearly has way too much for it to be in any need of validation, but rather to claim a privilege for his own sexual urges which allows him to ignore the usual social channels such urges are constrained to flow in. To make the private public with impunity is a manifestation of power. You could see that same impulse in the early denials, manifesting a contempt for the public opinion that the mere narcissist would presumably be courting — and the further contempt suggested by his assumption that he could “take full responsibility” for his actions and yet retain his position of public trust.

Mr Douthat goes on:

This is a depressingly accurate anticipation of both the relationship between Weiner and his female “followers,” and the broader “look at me! look at meeeee!” culture of online social media, in which nearly all of us participate to some degree or another. Facebook and Twitter did not forge the culture of narcissism. But they serve as a hall of mirrors in which it flourishes as never before — a “vast virtual gallery,” as [Christine] Rosen has written, whose self-portraits mainly testify to “the timeless human desire for attention.”

Timeless indeed! Time was, however, when the desire for attention — “Attention must be paid!” said Mrs Willie Loman — did not include the desire to get it by exposing oneself, electronically or otherwise. Attention, like narcissism, is simply not a very useful concept here. After all, the congressman hoped he would and thought he could escape attention as well, except among the few female admirers he foolishly took into his confidence.

The point of doing that with women he didn’t even know was pretty obviously to get away with it — and the point of getting away with it was to be able to congratulate himself for having avoided precisely the public ignominy he has now incurred. For him it was probably a bit like skydiving, which produces a thrill at least partly because it always implies a danger of death. For the thrill to exist in the first place, there must be a few deaths from time to time. So for Rep. Weiner’s thrill, there had to be the danger of being caught and being held up to public ridicule, as he now has been. The public ridicule is the means by which the rest of us remind ourselves that we still have a sense of decency that is proof against both the pervasive narcissism of the culture and occasional outbreaks of egregious personality disorders like Anthony Weiner’s. Mr Douthat would take that away from us by making his problem our own or that of our social networks. I don’t buy it.

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