The American political landscape has become brutal. If you're crazy enough to pursue a career in politics, can you count on your friends and colleagues, especially when the going gets tough? If you are Representative Anthony Weiner, the answer is a resounding: no you can't! What are the implications of the Weiner scandal for our political future, for younger people whom might aspire to service in the public arena?
According to the very carefully articulated White House statement, President Obama believes that Weiner's behavior is "inappropriate" and a "distraction." Indeed, the standing tall and bare chested photos that Weiner foolishly sent to his online sexting partners have made him the laughing stock of the politics of the moment. Recently admired for his passionate and articulate advocacy of progressive issues, Weiner has quickly become a national embarrassment. Top leaders in Weiner's party, including Representative Debbie Wasserman Shultz, the new chairperson of the Democratic Party, and Steny Hoyer, the second ranking Democrat in the House, have called for him to resign. In a Today Show interview President Obama has also suggested that Congressman Weiner step down. How quickly the winds of political fortune change!
I find this political episode sad and disillusioning. Like most people, I certainly cannot condone the hubris that underscores Weiner's aberrant behavior. Even so, I find it even more disturbing that people are so quick to turn on a public servant who, prior to his own self-induced scandal, had advocated -- and advocated forcefully -- for the poor and oppressed. He is a person who has forcefully stood up for the progressive principles.
Although it doesn't appear that Congressman Weiner has violated any law, he is guilty of what we anthropologists call transgression, a global social phenomenon that occurs in each and every society. All societies have rules for appropriate social behavior. When transgression occurs in many Australian Aborigine societies, for example, the transgressor is isolated. His or her social ties are severed, leaving that person socially and psychologically alone, which in a socially integrated society is tantamount to a death sentence. In other societies transgression is sometimes seen as a sign of a person's destiny. In many West African societies, for example, transgression marks a person as a potential shaman. In those societies transgression is the beginning of a long path toward individual and social healing -- something that ultimately brings health and harmony to society.
Congressman Weiner crossed an invisible social boundary that marks him as a social and political transgressor. His political friends and colleagues have quickly severed their ties to him, suggesting that he resign. Like most transgressors, he is utterly alone in the world, breathing in the foul air of humiliation. How should he be treated? Should he be thrown away like so many pieces of garbage in the hope that his politically embarrassing behavior might be damage controlled? Or should he hang on, seek treatment and attempt to transform himself into a better person and a better public servant?
Men and women who transgress in West African societies often become important figures in their communities. They become great practitioners who heal the sick and guide people toward states of well being. My own teacher, Adamu Jenitongo of Tillaberi Niger, was such a man. The oldest son of a great sorcerer, he spent 20 years in jail for allegedly killing a man who coveted his wife -- obviously transgressive behavior. He paid his debt to society and then began to practice what his father had taught him, becoming a great and powerful healer. During his lifetime, he brought much health, happiness and wisdom to the people of Western Niger. He owed his great success, he often told me, to the depth of his suffering. Through his humiliation, he liked to tell me, he learned humility and respect for the forces of nature. Through hard-won self-realization, he learned what really mattered in life -- the relationships of love and respect that you develop and work to maintain.
When you find yourself utterly alone, you quickly discover who is and who is not your friend. Your fair weather friends sweep away with the wind. Your true friends, who accept your being despite your transgression, extend helping hands that enable you to move forward, however slowly, on your path. Congressman Weiner has fallen from grace with meteoric speed and his potential social restitution will be decidedly gradual. He will have to decide his political future for himself. Will his experience of utter humiliation eventually make him a better public servant and a better human being? I would agree with my teacher Adamu Jenitongo who would have said yes -- without hesitation.
Besides, we should never forget that when it comes to transgression, we all have blood on our hands.