To Sext, or Not to Sext
"Pleasure's a sin, and sometimes sin's a pleasure," or so Lord Byron wrote in Don Juan.
Byron himself was a larger-than-life figure, a romantic hero beside which our present-day Don Juans, from Bill Clinton to Anthony Weiner, are more of an embarrassment than anything else. Byron, who was characterized by one contemporary as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know," was a true profligate, none of whose affairs were conducted via Facebook or Twitter.
Whether or not Byron was proud of his numerous indiscretions, including a possible dalliance with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, I cannot say. But his actions fit right into the liberal template of unlimited personal freedom. Byron was an early product of amoral, non-judgmental ethic that has become all too familiar in our time.
William Faulkner once wrote that "no man is ever free, and he couldn't stand it if he were." Underlying Faulkner's cautious observation is an ennobling conception of life that liberals like Anthony Weiner cannot seem to grasp: the idea that human conduct should be governed by moral purpose, self-restraint, and faith in the goodness of life. By its very nature, the purposeful life is necessarily outwardly directed. It would never have occurred to a traditionalist like Faulkner to post lewd photos anywhere, on the internet had it existed at the time or anywhere else. For one thing, it is wrong. For another, there is simply too much constructive work to be done to have time for this sort of mischief.
The qualities of moral purpose, self-restraint, and faith are not evident in Weiner's behavior or in the left's response to it. To the extent that the left abandoned Weiner, as Nancy Pelosi seemed to do immediately after his initial press conference, it was based on sheer political calculation. For his liberal colleagues, what Weiner did was not so much wrong as "dumb."
It was dumb in the same sense that Obama's dealings with Tony Rezko were "boneheaded," as the President put it. Not wrong, but boneheaded, because they had the potential to sidetrack his presidential ambitions. The fact is that liberals like Weiner and Obama seem to think that there are no objective norms that apply personal conduct. For the left, freedom to conduct one's personal life as one wishes, even if that conduct transgresses widely held moral beliefs, is viewed as a fundamental right.
For the left, in fact, not to challenge conventional morality is viewed with suspicion. There is always a concern that some vestige of repressive puritanism might be lurking in the background, and liberals feel compelled to manifest their opposition to it. The revelation that Jimmy Carter, seemingly a devout southern Baptist, read Playboy and "lusted in his heart" did not diminish his standing among American liberals. It may even have enlarged it, signaling that he was actually one of them.
By contrast, the embarrassing performance of George W. Bush on Saturday Night Live -- he was said to have "laid an egg," which indeed he did -- was entirely predictable. To the SNL crowd, with their derisive attitude toward any display of morality, George and Laura Bush must have seemed like cultural dinosaurs impossibly loyal to outworn and repressive ideals. The fact that in his personal conduct George Bush was the most deeply moral president in recent history was simply one more reason for the left to hate him.
This is why Anthony Weiner's behavior, far from being the expression of a "weakness" for which he should be blamed, was actually a faithful manifestation of liberal morality. When Sen. Harry Reid stated that "I know Anthony Weiner and wish that I could defend him," he revealed more than he knew. All liberals know Anthony Weiner: he is their dark twin, the imp of the perverse constantly at their side. From the perspective of liberalism, intent on erecting an amoral standard of situational ethics in place of fixed values, Weiner's sexting was a legitimate foray in the long campaign to undo conventional norms of behavior that have governed conduct in the West for thousands of years. For the left Weiner may be an embarrassment but he is hardly a miscreant. After all, isn't everyone sexting these days?
Well, no. The fact is that not everyone is.
But even the argument that "everyone is doing it" misses the point. Regardless of how many people are doing it, sexting violates a fundamental code. Like casual sex, adultery, and pornography, it is an offense against conventional norms of conduct. It proclaims the self's prerogative to violate moral rules that have existed for thousands of years. It is offensive because it is a blow on the side of moral anarchy and against moral order.
What the left fails to see in all of this is the damage their view of morality causes. In The Conservative Constitution (1990) Russell Kirk wrote that "Great states with good constitutions develop when most people think of their duties and restrain their appetites." What we are witnessing today is the opposite of this happy condition. The future of the American state depends on whether the electorate and its representatives are thinking of their responsibilities and not of venal self-gratification.
Of course, all human beings are fallible, but this does not mean that our leaders should be leading secret lives posting dozens of sexually explicit email on a daily or weekly basis. Nor should they be conducting clandestine affairs with mistresses, interns, hotel maids, and prostitutes while pretending, as the left constantly does, to be defending the poor and oppressed. More often than not, it is the liberal elite who are the oppressors.
For our nation to continue to function properly, or to function at all, it needs better representatives than those who now represent liberal constituencies. It needs principled individuals who recognize that the left's nonjudgmental ethos is false and who speak out against corruption when they see it. The case of Anthony Weiner will soon be forgotten, but unless the liberal culture of license is repudiated, scandals like his will become an ever more common occurrence.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture.