Watching television late last night, I learned to my surprise that Anthony Weiner had pulled into a slight lead in the polls in the race for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York City. One might have thought that after his episodes of serial sexting, followed by a week of outright denials and lies, Weiner might have felt too ashamed to offer himself so soon for such a high position of public trust. Not so. There he was, brazen in feigned contrition, proclaiming his fidelity to the great middle class while having his spokesperson and wife let us know that it was “time to move on.”
And why not? Hadn’t former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who lied and cried about an extramarital affair, just resurrected his political career by winning an election to the House of Representatives? And then there is Uncle Bill, who indulged his own foibles and then publicly fibbed; has he not enjoyed a triumphant revival, enough to be ranked as the nation’s most beloved Democrat?
In all these cases, and the list is representative of a much larger universe, there were the obligatory exercises of apology and public repentance; Uncle Bill even went through a publicly announced ritual of spiritual therapy, conducted by none other than the Reverend Jesse Jackson. But in truth, and thanks in good part to Uncle Bill, these displays are by now probably much less effective and much less necessary than experts in scandology think.
The real warrant that allows for a rapid recovery is the notion of “moving on.” We are now a culture not really of forgiveness, but of moving on. Moving on is something new, something quite different than letting bygones be bygones. It is expressive of a new relation to reality, the same relation that gives us the immediacy of celebrity and now even—thanks Kim–the celebrity of non-celebrity. It is the abolition of genuine or long-enduring character in favor of the presence of the present. The “aristocrat” lived for his ancestors and his progeny; the “democrat” lives for the moment. Soul, even Self, presupposed a line that stretched back and forward, creating the notion of “character,” or something that persists. Moving on erases all of this, except for the occasional joke, and identifies the substantial with the now.
I have known people plagued by shame. It sticks with them, to the point that, for a time at least, they wish only to hide. After Adam ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, when God called on him to appear, he went and hid himself. Shame can cross over to pathology when one can never come out of hiding. But it is not abnormal, even when coming out, to continue to feel the agony of shame, a torment that supposes a meaningful memory—or at least the knowledge that others have meaningful memory. In the Move On culture, it seems that collective memory, sufficient to form an enduring notion of character, has been effaced.
I almost wish I could say that the greatest asset of many current politicians is not courage but shamelessness. That might give them too much credit. Shamelessness implies a defiance of shame. We are well past that–past the point where the concept has any meaning. We are all members of MoveOn.Org.