There are few things more sickening — or revealing — to behold than a D.C. sex scandal. Huge numbers of people prance around flamboyantly condemning behavior in which they themselves routinely engage. Media stars contrive all sorts of high-minded justifications for luxuriating in every last dirty detail, when nothing is more obvious than that their only real interest is vicarious titillation. Reporters who would never dare challenge powerful political figures who torture, illegally eavesdrop, wage illegal wars or feed at the trough of sleazy legalized bribery suddenly walk upright — like proud peacocks with their feathers extended — pretending to be hard-core adversarial journalists as they collectively kick a sexually humiliated figure stripped of all importance. The ritual is as nauseating as it is predictable.
What makes the Anthony Weiner story somewhat unique and thus worth discussing for a moment is that, as Hendrik Hertzberg points out, the pretense of substantive relevance (which, lame though it was in prior scandals, was at least maintained) has been more or less brazenly dispensed with here. This isn’t a case of illegal sex activity or gross hypocrisy (i.e., David Vitter, Larry Craig, Mark Foley (who built their careers on Family Values) or Eliot Spitzer (who viciously prosecuted trivial prostitution cases)). There’s no lying under oath (Clinton) or allegedly illegal payments (Ensign, Edwards). From what is known, none of the women claim harassment and Weiner didn’t even have actual sex with any of them. This is just pure mucking around in the private, consensual, unquestionably legal private sexual affairs of someone for partisan gain, voyeuristic fun and the soothing fulfillment of judgmental condemnation. And in that regard, it sets a new standard: the private sexual activities of public figures — down to the most intimate details — are now inherently newsworthy, without the need for any pretense of other relevance.
I’d really like to know how many journalists, pundits and activist types clucking with righteous condemnation of Weiner would be comfortable having that standard applied to them. I strongly suspect the number is very small. Ever since the advent of Internet commerce, pornography — use of the Internet for sexual gratification, real or virtual — has has been, and continues to be, a huge business. Millions upon millions of people at some point do what Weiner did. I know that’s a shocking revelation that will cause many Good People to clutch their pearls in fragile Victorian horror, but it’s nonetheless true. It’s also true that marital infidelity is incredibly common.
If Chris Matthews or Brian Williams or any politician ever patronized or even visited a porno site on the Internet or had a sexually charged IM chat with someone who isn’t their spouse, shouldn’t that now be splashed all over the Internet so we can all read it — not just the fact of its existence but all the gory details? After all, this is about character, judgment, veracity: these are Important Journalists and Politicians, and how can we trust them if they’re not even faithful to their spouse? Isn’t that the standard now — the one they’re gleefully propagating?
Yes, Anthony Weiner lied — about something that is absolutely nobody’s business but his and his wife’s. If you’re not his wife, you have absolutely no legitimate reason to want to know about — let alone pass judgment on — what he does in his private sexual life with other consenting adults. Particularly repellent is the pretense of speaking out on behalf of his wife, as though anyone knows what her perspectives on such matters are or what their relationship entails. The only reason to want to wallow in the details of Anthony Weiner’s sex life is because of the voyeuristic titillation it provides: a deeply repressed culture celebrates when it finds cause to be able to talk about penises and naked pictures and oral sex while hiding behind some noble pretext. On some level, I find the behavior of the obviously loathsome Andrew Breitbart preferable; at least he’s honest about his motive: he hates Democrats and liberals and wants sadistically to destroy them however he can. It’s the empty, barren, purse-lipped busybodies who cannot stay out of other adults’ private and sexual lives — while pretending to be elevated — that are the truly odious villains here.
In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf argues that the private consensual sexual activities of politicians are none of our business, and in reply, Megan McArdle insists that “society has [an] interest in whether people keep their vows” in marriage and thus it’s a good thing ”to use a few of our precious news hours to say, ‘Hey, not okay’!” Except McArdle has absolutely no idea what vows Weiner and his wife have made to each other, and she shouldn’t know, because it’s none of her business, despite her eagerness to learn about it and publicly condemn it. Even if she had any idea of what she was talking about — and she plainly doesn’t — nothing is less relevant than Megan McArdle’s views of the arrangement Anthony Weiner and his wife have for their marriage and whether each partner is adhering to that arrangement. That a journalist at The Atlantic wants to talk about this, and dig into the details, and issue judgments about it, says all one needs to know about our press corps.
Can one even imagine how much different — and better — our political culture would be if our establishment media devoted even a fraction of the critical scrutiny and adversarial energy it devoted to the Weiner matter to things that actually matter? But that won’t happen, because the people who comprise that press corps, with rare exception, are both incapable of focusing on things that matter and uninterested in doing so. Talking about shirtless pictures and expressing outrage about private sexual behavior — like some angry, chattering soap opera fan furious that one of their best-known characters cheated — is about the limit of their abilities and their function. And doing so is so easy, so fun, so self-justifying, and so exciting in that evasively tingly sort of way.
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Let me add one point: I am not and have never been an Anthony Weiner fan. While I agree with him on many issues, his overriding concern always seemed to me to be his own career, and, as I’ve noted before, he is one of the most extremist AIPAC loyalists in the Congress, which is not an easy distinction to achieve. This is about the principle, not the person.