The Sins of Anthony Weiner
Of all the many political sex scandals of the last twenty-five years or so, none has had such a high ratio of political lethality to concrete caddishness as the Weiner affair. In the caddishness category, consider what Congressman Weiner did not do:
• Commit adultery
• Hook up
• Patronize prostitutes
• Seduce an intern
• Seduce a congressional page
• Get divorced
• Get divorced serially
• Get divorced with children at vulnerable ages
• Hypocritically embrace prudish “family values”
• Advocate “abstinence”
• Lie about sex under oath
• Demonize his own sexual orientation
• Demand that some other politician resign because of some sexual misbehavior
• Break up somebody else’s marriage
• Make an assistant take the fall for getting a mistress pregnant
• Fly to South America to see a mistress on Father’s Day while leaving wifey home with the kids
• Pay off a mistress or a mistress’s husband
• Have a mistress
• Break a law
There are plenty of strictly political reasons why Anthony Weiner was forced to walk the plank while others whose behavior was more morally reprehensible were not, and those reasons are getting a thorough airing at the moment. But certain cultural, or media-cultural, factors are perhaps more interesting.
The bad things Weiner did do—his sins, let’s call them for convenience, without embracing the churchy implications—were, once revealed, a hundred per cent visible. And a hundred per cent of them were visible. They were a hundred per cent documented. No he said/she said this time, no need for witnesses, no need for testimony. No need for “evidence”—because the evidence was the sin, and the sin the evidence.
Weiner’s sins consisted of nothing but his own documentation of them. The documentation was the sin, not the acts documented. Without the documentation, not only could no sin be proved, no sin could be committed. Is flexing one’s pecs in the mirror a sin? Is baring one’s penis when there is no one else in the room? Unlike, say, adultery, these become sins only when they are converted to pixels. I suppose flirtation may be considered a sin, especially when it consists of sharing (as distinct from enacting) an explicit sexual fantasy with a person not one’s spouse. But what if the person is hundreds or thousands of miles away, and what if the sharing isn’t even in real time? It’s a sin to lie, but is it a sin to tweet? Apparently.
In 1987, a photograph of Gary Hart on a yacht called Monkey Business with Donna Rice perched on his lap torpedoed his promising Presidential campaign. But it wasn’t so much the picture that was fatal, it was the broader story for which the picture—which, by the way, didn’t become public until after he had withdrawn from the race—was an illustration. In Weiner’s case, the pictures do not illustrate the story. The pictures are the story. There is nothing behind them. There is nothing more. Everything is up front. As the saying goes, nothing is left to the imagination.
Imagine, though, that nothing had been left to the imagination in certain other cases. In one such case, there was a blue dress with a stain on it. But what if there had been a video, or even a snapshot, of the moment the dress received the stain? What if the picture itself had been the whole point? What if every detail of every sex scandal of the last quarter-century, every word and every scene, had been photographed and archived, available for global retrieval at the click of a mouse? How high would Weinergate rate on the shock-o-meter? Not very, is my guess.
Weiner’s sins, being wholly online, basically onanistic, pathetically “immature,” and totally without direct fleshly carnality, are literally ridiculous. They lack the swaggering macho that pushes more traditional, arguably crueler male transgressions—having affairs, whoring, fathering children out of wedlock—into the comparatively (though only comparatively) safer territory of “boys will be boys” and “men are like that.”
One more factor that comes to mind: the particular media addictions of the political class. I suspect that, unlike normal people, a preponderance of that class—commentators, political reporters and editors, operatives, “strategists,” aides, news producers, etc.—spends several hours of every day watching cable-news television (or having it drone and flicker in the background), reading political blogs, sending and receiving e-mails about the latest political uproar, and talking about same to other members of the same class, on the phone or face to face. Actual office-holding politicians don’t necessarily have the time for all that, but they live inside the bubble it creates. The ambient atmosphere is one of constant overexcitement, hysteria, and sometimes unbearable tension, all focussed on the story of the day. That may be a reason why the protagonists of political scandals are dispatched more quickly and more mercilessly than in the past.
Except when they aren’t, of course. Senator Vitter is still Senator Vitter. But that’s another story.
Photograph of Anthony Weiner by Mario Tama/Getty Images.
Photograph of Gary Hart and Donna Rice, originally published in the National Enquirer, Wikimedia Commons.