The occasion for this frank talk, of course, is the confession of Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York, who is but the latest in a long line of politicians brought low by this all-too prominent member of the male anatomy. I'm not sure why politicians come in for an unfair share of the heat. Would a businessman be exposed to the same kind of potentially career-ending publicity? There is the recent deplorable example of the ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but you could argue that he, too, is a political leader. An actor? An attorney? Perhaps it's merely the prominence of the person involved. But in this country, at least, we do seem to expect better sexual mores from our politicians than from others. And we do like to bring them down.
But here's the thing: we all have one, we males. It may appear to have a life of its own, making its needs known in the most demanding ways. Once aroused (sometimes inexplicably so), it demands to be stroked, petted, coddled, cosseted and, yes, admired--which is perhaps why men take pictures of themselves and send them out via Facebook or Twitter. I don't remember ever having actually taken a picture of myself, but I do know that I have been sorely titillated by the prospect, starting with the invention of the Polaroid camera with its promise of instantaneous images and secretively disposable results; if I refrained, I'm sure that it was more out of reticence and timidity than moral restraint. So I do understand the impulse. Nowadays, with digital cameras and cell phones, no matter how easily erasable the images, the ease--and the seeming anonymity--with which they can be put out into the world redoubles the temptation.
The penis, let's face it, is an obsession for vast numbers of men. It's well known, thanks to the studies of psychologists and behaviorists, that we spend a great deal of our time thinking about it. It's one aspect of our lives, I believe, where many (most?) of us never grow out of our teenage years. We fuss over it, experiment with it, compare it, worry about its size and functionality. We wrap our identities around it, allowing it to make us feel belittled or expansive, inferior, neglected and self-pitying, or boastfully self-important. We judge ourselves according to its triumphs or its failures.
It should not surprise us, after so long, but the power of this imperious cuss to drive our lives does still seem amazing. Succumbing in appropriate ways to its demands is the source of infinite and delicious pleasures, but allowing it to lose control can lead to the worst of crimes. Worse, using it as an instrument of domination and intimidation, as men are known to do--and order others to do--is all too common in today's violence-ridden world. Denying its rights seems only to increase its power, as evidenced in what has become apparent in recent years in the scandals of the Catholic church: it refuses to be kept under the cassock. I assume that even the Pope wakes with a hard-on, if only thanks to the nocturnal activity of the bladder. And when the thing is hard, most men will agree that the hand is tempted to stray irresistibly in that direction. I have never had the temerity to ask, but I sometimes wonder how Buddhist monks handle--again, excuse the choice of words!--this natural activity beneath the saffron.
Harder for me to understand is the reckless, adolescent behavior it induces--perhaps because I am not, myself, a reckless person. I readily understand how men can be led around by their penis, but I fail to understand how they think they can get away with it, especially at a time when privacy is a dicey matter at best. Are they blind, or stupid--or both? Is it that their addiction leads them into denial of the inevitable consequences of their actions? Did Weiner really believe that he could get away with lies? Even with admirers of his political skills, myself included, ready and eager to believe them, he must have known that there were an army of antagonists who would go to any lengths to disprove them.
I will say this: an episode such as the one to which we have been treated this past week helps me to identify my prejudice. My natural inclination is to find excuses for a Weiner, to minimize his transgression, and to get mad at those who seek to exploit it. On the other hand, with a John Ensign, I note the happy surge of Schadenfreude, the ready words of condemnation, the hope that it will do damage to his side of the political spectrum. Mind you, the added dose of hypocrisy on that side, particularly from those quick to condemn others for their faults, serves to encourage me in my bias.
There's a useful distinction between shame and guilt: I feel guilt for something I have done; I feel shame for who I am. Shame goes far deeper in the human psyche. Apologies, in this view of things, are appropriate for guilt, but inappropriate for shame. It's pointless to apologize for my fundamental nature. It's my guess that the majority of men share the primal feelings and drives that lead these men to their excesses, but most of us do not act on them in reckless ways. We are held back by a prophylactic sense of shame, which is quite different from, and far healthier than that old Judeo-Christian guilt. The Buddhist rule of thumb in this matter is the same as in any other area of human experience: do no harm. If our action is liable to cause suffering to ourselves or others, we are wise to refrain from it.
Anyway, such is the power of the almighty penis. I wish Weiner well, and will do my best to do the same for his brethren offenders on the right. They are also human. The only difference is that I share Weiner's political views and admire the skill and passion with which he makes them public. I only wish he had been less bent on making his private parts as public as his politics.