It occurred to me that this is a quintessentially liberal attitude. Smoking is bad, but I still do it, and I rescue myself from moral opprobrium by admitting that it is bad. Not that I smoke cigarettes – that happens only if I’ve been drinking in a particular circle of bystanders, which is why I prefer to drink alone so that the temptation remains at a distance. And the occasional cigar is a pleasing vice, likewise to be enjoyed in private sitting outside on a summer’s eve with a glass of gin. But I digress – the point is the relationship between sin and penance in the conscience of a liberal. I do things that are bad, but so long as I am penitent while doing it I cannot really enjoy it – it does not detract from my inherent goodness. Rather, I am helpless – a victim of addiction, social pressure, human weakness. I cannot stop myself, but so long as I am properly penitent, it does not ultimately matter what I do.
This is a view of penance which, despite its quasi-religious overtones, is far removed from any theological conception of penance. Penance is incomplete without amendment of life, but such an attitude is outside the liberal conception of human nature. I am my actions. And my actions are not my own, but the product of social pressures. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim remarked that, within all cultures, Society is God. It is Society which has created us in its own image. Religion is for Durkheim the worship of an idealized image of the society we live in. One may wish to disagree on theological grounds, but there is a certain truth to this observation in the practical sense. The modern world does grant society the powers of creation and moral authority once reserved for the divine. And it is within this conception of the worship of an omnipotent Society that Obama the penitent smoker takes on particular political meaning.
Society makes me smoke. The endless pressures of popular culture, of advertising, of commercialism, the desire to conform to stereotypical notions of “coolness” or “sophistication” drive me in this direction, and far would it be from me to resist the pressures of the omnipotent Society. At the same time, Society abhors smoking. For those of you who have watched any of the “Pirates of the
Careful readers should see a problem with this reasoning. The same god – Society – that makes me a nicotine slave also teaches that smoking is a sin. Not only that, it appears to be the only sin (though eating fatty food is fast approaching the same level of wickedness). So we have a god that makes me unable to avoid the sin while condemning me for the sin. Society has made me what I am – a miserable sinner, defined by my sin. I am my actions, thus I am my sin. I am a smoker – it is my essential being. And that being is a sinner by inescapable logic. Oh dear – what can I do? What power is there that can absolve me from my sin without at the same time impugning my being and condemning me utterly?
There is, thankfully, a savior on the horizon. The State, the most perfect distillation of the Social god, comes to my rescue. It regulates my habit, puts warnings on my Luckies, taxes the bejeezus out them so that to indulge in my habit – the habit that is my being – I must perform an elaborate set of penances. The state tells me where I can smoke (outside, at least 15 feet from any public building, only in places that prohibit anyone under 18 from entering, unless I’m in New York, etc.). The state dictates the content of my butts – for my own benefit, of course, since I am incapable of caring for myself. And so despite my grievous sin, I am saved. And should I decide to quit, I can always get the gum, the patch, and under a truly enlightened regime, this would be paid for out of the public funds. But note that I am not changed – I’m still a smoker, but a penitent one, and I must continue to chastise myself before the altar of Society.
Accepting that Society makes me a smoker and that Society will unmake the smoker that is I is the perfect projection of the liberal view that Society is god, the omnipotent force that makes me. And since I, a mere creation of that Society, have no free will, I can only achieve salvation by submission to the State. And in the process I acquire Virtue. My smoking is no longer a vice; so long as I openly admit its wickedness and gladly accept that Society made me the smoker I am and openly embrace Society’s condemnation and order my ingestion of nicotine according to the Law of Society as pronounced by its reification, the State, I am not only a smoker, but by virtue of being a penitent one, I become a Virtuous Smoker.
The same logic applies to other traditional vices. I like to fuck. Society makes me like to fuck and determines who I like to fuck and the precise manner in which I like to fuck them. All of these things are entirely beyond my control. More than that – I am a fucker; society has made me a fucker, and that I happen to be a [fill-in-the-blank]-fucker is not a matter of choice on my part. But there are certain kinds of fucking that are potentially social evils – Society teaches me this. I shouldn’t want to fuck children, for example, or women if they don’t want it or are drunk or have second thoughts a couple of weeks later after we’ve both sobered up (which pretty much scotches dating as I recall it a generation ago, but that’s another matter). And then there is the problem of unwanted pregnancy (a burden on women and thereby a violent attack on women’s rights) and nasty diseases. So I am a fucker, but no matter how you slice it, my fucking, no matter how pleasurable it is for me, ends up being a vice somehow in the end. But I can’t help it – as I said earlier, Society has implanted in my the desire to fuck – it is WHO I AM, a miserable (albeit not in any technical sense) fucker.
Again, the State comes to my rescue. So long as I don’t enjoy fucking as a matter of personal pleasure, but view it as merely acting on the dictates of Society, as the faithful execution of the Law promulgated by Society, it is not only ok, it is Virtue itself. And the State is always there to provide means to prevent those pregnancies, not to mention cooties, crabs, clap, and congenital inconveniences. Teach me how to do it – so long as I follow the forms and regulations put out (so to speak) by the official State Publication explaining the Socially appropriate forms and methods of fucking I may be the miserable fucker I am without feeling any pangs of guilt. And the State will be there to provide me with unlimited access to rubber sheaths, pills, wire doohickeys, and, if all else fails, medically acceptable and State regulated means of prophylactic infanticide. And the State will – or at least ought to – provide these boons for me free of charge. Well, not really free of charge, but since my tax dollars are in effect a form of penitence, a sort of pecuniary plenary indulgence against prurience, I can feel like I have payed for my sinful nature and thus go on fucking with joy. Just so long as I act “responsibly” according to the demands of Society and don’t enjoy it merely as a personal pleasure. That would be selfish.
Which brings me back to smoking. The ultimate sin according to the god of Society is selfishness. Smoking is bad if it is selfish; ditto for fucking, eating fatty foods, having pets, etc. etc. etc. Obama the penitent smoker is not selfish – he smokes because he has to, and when we see him surreptitiouly puffing away we cannot help but identify with the immense moral anguish he is suffering. We understand that he can’t help it – it is who he is – but we also know through the elaborately furtive way he engages in this vice that he knows it is sinful. His actions, thus, are not morally reprehensible but because he is so obviously penitent, a form of Revelation. He is the Suffering Servant – he has taken on our transgressions and shares our fallen nature. But he points the way to our salvation; confession before Society and open recognition of its Power and the State as the legitimate representative of Society and Society’s god. It’s like Bill Clinton and fucking. As long as it goes on the dress or in the sink, the furtiveness of the act displays the sin and his suffering on account of his sinful nature. But he is Saved, as are we all, by setting aside selfish pleasure and whacking off. After all, they used to call it “self-abuse,” so it is a kind of self-flagellation after all. He was suffering, and he shared in our sufferings, which made it ok in the end because it was not selfish desire, but obedience to Society, that drove him to polish the bishop.
So rather than be condemned by Society for their sinful natures, Barry and Billy are, in fact, the ordained prophets of Society. Their sin is not merely their identity, it is become their Virtue. And this Virtue, one struck in the wholeness of their submission to Society, gives them authority over the rest of us who are not, like them, suffering in service to Society. Our sins are ones of selfishness, of individualism. The contrast between the liberal view of Barry’s butts and Billy’s blows and the sins of Dubya is striking. Dubya was a drunk and a coke head and mess. But he cleaned up. On the surface, he would seem to have been operating according to the same code. But he committed horrid blasphemy: he presented his addictions not as the inevitable result of social pressure but as a personal – that is “selfish” – failing.
What makes it even more unforgivable is that he claimed to have overcome his addictions not with the help of the State, but on his own. Sure, he credits “God” but we all know there is no such thing – to credit “God” for getting you off the hooch is tantamount to saying “I did it all by my lonely by an act of personal will.” That kind of language suggests – horrors – personal freedom and personal responsibility. There is no freedom outside of Society, no individual choices, only the roles that Society assigns us in Its infinite wisdom. And one is not responsible to oneself, but to Society. Dubya’s “struggle” with addiction was thus merely vanity, or, to use proper sociological language, “false consciousness.” He claims to have done it by himself for himself (and his family, but that’s just selfishness cubed) without proper obeisance towards Society. He was deluded to think that his addiction was personal or that he could simply change because he wanted to; Society made him what he is and remade him into what it wanted him to be. And, as is obvious by his insane policies, by stubbornly refusing to shed this selfish belief in himself (and this “God” he refers to – yet another level of hypocrisy, ignorance, and selfishness) he proved himself a far greater sinner than had he kept at it with the bourbon and blow.
Dubya was thus a sinner and a blasphemer against Holy Society to boot. No wonder the world hates us. But they love Bill and Barry because they were penitent sinners who recognized theirs – and our – total dependence on Society.
This makes Bill and Barry virtuous in the liberal fashion. And their virtue permits them to continue sinning so long as their sinning reveals to us Society’s true character and purpose. Penitent sinning makes them an elite, aristocrats of Virtue, and thereby entitles them to sit in judgement over the rest of us. They and their ilk have been granted the power by Society to sit in the halls of the State as its priests and dispense its Laws from their nicotine (and other things) stained hands. We cannot help but sin – Society makes us do it – but if we sin in careful accord with the rules and methods laid out for us by Society and feel bad enough while doing it, we are not just forgiven, but transported into the ranks of the Vanguard Elite.
No thank you. I’ll still enjoy the occasional cigar, as well as other things, free from guilt. Society didn’t make me do it – it was a matter of free choice, and in the end I answer for it. And I sure as hell don’t think that feeling guilty about it would give me any right to stand in judgement over you if you want to light up. That’s between you and your pulmonary and respiratory systems. Above all, I would never pretend to virtue on account of my vice. I am not my vices and I am not what Society has made me. Call that false consciousness; I call it responsibility even if I do on occasion, act less than responsibly towards myself and my fellow creatures. After all, I’m only human. In any event, as we all know, sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.