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A Couple Thoughts on Weiner

June 8th, 2011 · 16 Comments

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.

Tags: Sexual Politics



16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 ScoJay // Jun 8, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    I got here from reading Ezra Klein’s Twitter feed, whom I follow more from a “try to understand the liberal viewpoint” than from being impressed with his “wonkishness” as he likes to style himself.

    I mostly agree with the post as it regards sexual indiscretion between Weiner and his wife. The lying and the fabricating of the hacking storyline is pretty bad, however. Qualitatively, this makes Weiner’s offense much worse in my view than Rep Chris Lee, who immediately left office as his story was breaking back in February (not sure if he left on his own or was told to get out by Boehner — but he left before the 6pm news that day).

    If the blogger can honestly say that he would have applied the same lenience to Mr. Lee that he seems to wish to apply to Mr. Weiner, so be it — at least you are consistent. I’m not going to spend time looking around the internet to see if you wrote in support of Mr. Lee at the time of his departure, but my guess is that there was no such support.

  • 2 karyn // Jun 8, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    weiner went out of his way to lie. he didn’t politely demure from questions or try to save us from TMI by shutting up and staying out of the limelight, he created alternative scenarios for the media and then got angry when those scenarios were questioned. he played the victim and manipulated all of us. even his televised apology was just another level of his pathology of shame and humiliation, and again, we were all invited.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Jun 8, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    I don’t think I said anything about Lee either way—I don’t make a habit of commenting on every political sex scandal to come along—but I would have said the same thing there: His private failings aren’t especially pertinent to his fitness for public office. Also, while I haven’t examined either of their voting records in great detail, I suspect my own political views are as close or closer to Lee’s as to Weiner’s.

  • 4 @Joel_Hirsch // Jun 8, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    I got here from Ezra Klein’s Twitter too. Thank you for taking the time to frame this in a way that is completely coherent and fair. I will admit to being a Weiner fan. His politics consistently reflect mine. And when someone I root for is treated fairly they having obviously erred, it is frankly helpful to me personally. Thanks.

  • 5 Slim Fairview // Jun 8, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    Anthony Weiner–Ho hum.

    The media covered the breaking news with due diligence. Then kept it up.

    The media covered the confession with due diligence. Then kept it up.

    Let’s wait until the ethics committee issues its report, report the findings, and relegate Weiner and The Governator, and The Donald’s maybe I will, maybe I won’t run for President to the ho hum list.

    The same could be true for Palin’s Possible Presidential Pretensions.



  • 6 NotoriousDSG // Jun 8, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    3rd to read/comment from Ezra’s tweet and I think you hit the crux of the issue pretty well. Rep. Lee may be the most recent but his conduct certainly wasn’t the most egregious of the GOP sex scandals. Reince Preibus has opened himself up to the hypocrisy charge by calling for Weiner’s resignation, not the people who failed to vocally support Lee, Ensign, Vitter, etc.

    Weiner’s problem, in addition to his Clintonian lie, is that he’s been engaging in this sort of behavior for years, as many members of Congress do, without being caught. It’s notorious, disgusting and bi-partisan how many men use their power to hit on young women (and more than a few young men!) in the bars and restaurants around the Hill.

    Meghan McArdle is living in a fantasy land if she thinks public shaming will help. Perhaps it would make her feel better if everyone in a non-monogamous relationship wears a scarlett letter A on their necks. But millions of American men have digital pictures of their junk floating around the internet. It’s time they had some representation in Congress, too, no?

  • 7 Noah Yetter // Jun 8, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    “private misbehavior”

    Private? Are you even vaguely familiar with what Twitter is?

  • 8 Megan McArdle // Jun 8, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    I think this misses the point. You don’t do it for the sake of Huma Abedin; you do it for the sake of the spouses of other people who think that it’s okay to do this behind their spouse’s back. One of the most powerful ways that society transmits its values is in what we make fun of.

    I don’t think it’s feasible to have no norms around sexual behavior, whether those norms are “don’t have kids you can’t afford”, “don’t ever sleep with anyone but your spouse”, or “don’t engage in sexual behavior that your partner isn’t okay with”–unless you want to put unauthorized sexual behavior in the same basket as “promised he’d unload the dishwasher and forgot”. I’ll make an argument for very liberal norms, along the lines of the first and the last. But those are still norms, and norms are definitionally not simply enforced privately, or internally.

  • 9 K. Chen // Jun 8, 2011 at 7:47 pm

    But even if public shaming is necessary or even helpful to reinforcing salutatory norms, why does it have to be a public media thing? The question isn’t actually whether or not shaming is a good thing, or even whether norms are enforced privately/internally or publicly/externally but whether its the job of the purportedly serious press to do the shaming, and whether that job is properly done by focusing on a small group of public figures as a class.

    The answer to both of these questions is no. If anything its a rationalization of the profit driven behavior purportedly serious press. Social norms can, and ought to be enforced by social circles, and they can, and ought to be enforced without any particular case of press assisted humiliation. But even if that wasn’t true, why politicians? Where in the implied contract of Congressional Representative is being a sacrificial lamb for our public mores, and how is that actually an effective or proper way to enforce our norms, by publicly shaming a small class of even “powerful men?”

    Its instructive to look at the other groups of people that are put through the wringer of public scrutiny: famous film and television actors sure, but also poor schmucks like Michael Schiavo. Whoever happens to be interesting enough to sell newspapers and magazines, whether its the New York Times or US Weekly.

    Perhaps more to the point, who doesn’t qualify? Anyone who doesn’t arouse enough interest, including countless powerful men who are doing harm, be they powerful in business, or churches, or an honest to god family patriarch ruining his family with an iron fist.

    Whats going on here is our collective uncritical self-righteousness, not actual attempts at righteousness, and we’d best not forget it.

  • 10 Josh King // Jun 8, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    I agree with respect to the underlying conduct, but you’re too quick to brush the lying under the rug. That’s the biggest deal here, and it’s fair to ask whether Weiner’s willingness to deceive – and keep up the deception for a week – is indicative of the type of integrity and judgement they want in their leaders.

  • 11 Sigivald // Jun 9, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    There’s a certain truth there, at the base.

    But I agree with Mr. King just above that Weiner’s coverup attempt after his own error in making it public (rather than, say, a mere public accusation from Some Opposing Figure) tells us unpleasant things about his leadership ability.

    (And on Marcotte, well… I’m sure she’s sincere, in her way.

    But I’m also 100% sure that the next time a Republican political figure has a peccadillo similar to this, somehow she won’t think it’s nobody’s public business.)

  • 12 On L’Affaire Weiner | Politics In Vivo - Political and Cultural Commentary, and Whatever Else... // Jun 9, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    […] as Julian Sanchez notes, reams of social science research show that our behavior is incredibly domain-specific. We really […]

  • 13 Lester Hunt // Jun 17, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    If I were a Democrat, I would have wanted Weiner to step down. If I were a Republican, and really cynical, I would have wanted him to stay. As I am neither, I have no strong feelings on this. Except that ten days of fluent, copious lying is very different from saying “I’m not feeling well and must go home.”

  • 14 oy // Jun 17, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    This blog post is a perfect example of what might be termed “Julian Sanchez Disease:” the habit of making up intellectually elegant justifications for positions that fly in the face of common sense on issues where common sense is sufficient.

    “Did Married Congressman Tweet Dick Pics to Thousands of Followers?” is obviously interesting, if lurid. The reason why ratings-attuned news producers devoted days of coverage to this grossness are obvious. Furthermore, there are many reasons why average citizens had an opinion on this shit. (Ya gotta wonder about the judgment of a dude like that. Or, Pretty scummy, even for a politician or I wonder what would happen if one of these chicks ever decided to squeeze the vice on those balls)

    The notion that the common reaction to Weiner’s antics is some sort of McCarthyism is risible.

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  • 16 Desentupimento SOS // May 11, 2018 at 6:57 am

    Conclusion: Never sleep with anyone but your spouse.