I’m inclined to agree with Amanda Marcotte that the media feeding frenzy over Anthony Weiner’s extramarital sexting and online flirtation is unsettling insofar as it seems to abandon any pretense that some public nexus—lawbreaking, misuse of public authority, or at the very least a clear conflict with an official’s avowed political positions—is necessary to make a politician’s private misbehavior a fit subject of media attention. In a belated attempt to rationalize our collective prurience, some pundits are now suggesting that it’s relevant because either the underlying behavior or Weiner’s attempts to lie about it speak to his character and fitness for office.
As for the lying, I’m inclined to say that when you ask probing questions about someone’s sex life—and you’re not an active participant in said sex life—you generally shouldn’t feel entitled to expect an honest answer. Which means Weiner owes his wife an apology on that score, but not so much the rest of us. To be sure, Weiner shot himself in the foot here by claiming to have been hacked—and since “Congressman’s Twitter account hacked” is plainly a legitimate news story, one can hardly blame the press for following up and reporting on the falsehood of that claim. Exposing the falsehood was fair game, but the falsehood itself—insofar as it was directed at the public—I put in the same category as bowing out of a party because you’re “not feeling well” or “have a lot of work to get through” when you’ve actually had a raging fight with your partner, or have an appointment to get an embarrassing medical condition checked out. There are plenty of areas where most of us neither expect nor really desire complete honesty from friends and acquaintances, let alone public figures.
When it comes to the underlying behavior that story was concocted to cover, it seems to me there’s one person who’s clearly entitled to pass judgment, and I’m disinclined to usurp her prerogative. Megan McArdle sees a need for a round of public shaming lest we otherwise signal that this kind of infidelity is normal or acceptable. But this seems a bit presumptuous. Assuming they didn’t have some kind of understanding about this sort of thing, the wronged party here is Weiner’s wife. Maybe she considers it an unforgivable betrayal and is only waiting for the media glare to die down so she can file for divorce. Maybe she sees it more as a symptom of his sad, immature need for validation than a serious breach of the relationship. Most likely her reaction is somewhere in the wide terrain between those poles. Relationships are complicated, and people have wildly varied views about the types of sexual or emotional relationships outside marriage they’re prepared to tolerate, about a spouse’s verbal flirting or porn viewing, and so on. Either way, that’s her judgment to make, and I haven’t heard her issuing any public calls for the rest of the country to rally to her assistance in reinforcing norms of fidelity. I suspect that however she wants to deal with the issue, she’d rather do it behind closed doors than with the assistance of cable TV bobbleheads.
Finally, as Matt Yglesias points out, Weiner has a long track record as a public official which seems a lot more obviously relevant to evaluating his “character” qua public official than any of his virtual liaisons. Indeed, we’ve got half a century of social science that very strongly suggests that “character” is pretty domain specific. Which is to say, the fact that someone is scrupulously honest (or not) in their business dealings isn’t a very good predictor of how well they’ll behave in other contexts, and the fact that Weiner was deceitful about his electronic flirtations isn’t much of a guide to his integrity qua legislator, at least not relative to… his actual record as a legislator.
None of this is to say that Weiner’s behavior doesn’t deserve condemnation, just that I can’t see how—in the absence of a genuine nexus to his public powers and responsibilities—it’s the place of people outside Weiner’s immediate social circle to deliver it, and certainly not if the person with the strongest right to complain would just as soon resolve this one without our “help.”
Addendum: Tracy Clark-Flory’s over at Salon has somewhat related thoughts worth a read.