Out With Ethics, In With Therapy

Crime and punishment went out with Dostoevsky; ours is an age of neurosis and treatment. Rather than just resign from Congress and go away, please, the Hon. Anthony Weiner, M.C., is "entering professional treatment at an undisclosed location...." That's the latest word from the wire services.

Why is no one surprised? Because in this therapeutic society, quaint concepts like guilt, shame, repentance, atonement and the rest of those medieval superstitions gave way long ago to the talking cure. Especially for politicians and other upwardly mobile types who suddenly find themselves not so much famous as notorious. And much in need of some well-publicized rehab.

The triumph of the therapeutic, to use Philip Rieff's phrase, is near complete when the concepts of right and wrong are replaced by well and sick. In the Therapeutic Society, no one does wrong and needs to be disciplined.

Instead, the patient is considered disturbed and in need of treatment. Which may explain why the ethics-free zone of American politics, and American life in general, keeps expanding.

Forget those deadly sins like lust and pride; they're just symptoms of a psychological disturbance. It should not surprise when the country's best-known congressman -- at least he was last week -- takes some time out "so that he can get evaluated and map out a course of treatment to make himself well."

That was the word from his spokeswoman, who says he's requested "a short leave of absence" from Congress. This would be good news if only it weren't a short leave but permanent. And could somehow assure his absence from the news, too.

Instead, the message from his spokesflack, freely translated, is: This congressman doesn't need to resign, just see a shrink. As if he couldn't do both.

Here is Dr. Greenberg's expert analysis: This boy is in the grips of an addiction more powerful than just sending naughty pics to young women; he's addicted to political power. There's a lot of that going around.

The most striking thing about the X-rated adventures of A. Weiner isn't what he's had to say for himself, but his colleagues' purely political response to his antics. Some of them seem to resent his behavior not because it is shameful of itself, but because it's such a distraction from politics as usual.

To quote Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the congressperson who heads the Democratic Party and is almost always good for this kind of quote, "This sordid affair has become an unacceptable distraction." From what, next year's congressional campaign?

When politics supplants religion as the center of our lives, anything that distracts from politics is treated as a kind of profanation -- an intolerable distraction from the sacred rites of power worship.

One aim of a well-ordered political system should be to recognize and encourage values beyond politics. Such a system would encourage virtue among its citizens, not treat it as an irrelevance. When any discussion of ethics, character and responsibility is considered just a distraction from important things like politics, the science and art of power, then our priorities are badly out of order.

Martin Luther King, seeking to return us to first things, put it this way:

"Cowardice asks the question -- is it safe? Vanity asks the question -- is it popular? Expediency asks the question -- is it political? But conscience asks the question -- is it right?"

For some time now we've been asking the wrong questions.


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