Weiner: what a lame sex scandal
The Anthony Weiner incident shows that politicians are now so lame that they don’t even do scandal well.
How to describe Anthony Weiner? Creepy, pathetic, cringe-inducing… but even those words seem too generous.
For those outside the US who haven’t followed this story (or Americans who have been living in a cave), let me briefly provide some background. Anthony Weiner is a Democratic member of the House of Representatives for a district that covers parts of Brooklyn and Queens in New York City. He has been a minor political figure, and has expressed aspirations to be mayor of New York City one day. He has been best known (if at all) for occasional rants on the House floor and cable TV, as well as for being more of a Twitter/Facebook poster than your average American politician.
Towards the end of May, there were news reports that a photo of a man’s underpants covering an erection was sent from Weiner’s Twitter account to a 21-year-old woman. Weiner said it was not his, and that his account had been hacked. The tabloids had a field day with puns, including the New York Post with its headline ‘Weiner Exposed’. A few days later, Weiner seemed to backtrack, saying he could not say with ‘certitude’ that the photo wasn’t of him. Then this past Monday morning the conservative website biggovernment.com published a shirtless photo it said Weiner had sent to another woman, and claimed they had more salacious photos. By early afternoon Weiner held a press conference. Breaking down in tears, he confessed that the photos were of him and he sent them, and that he had engaged in ‘six inappropriate relationships’ online over the past three years. More dirt is emerging.
The general reaction seems to be ‘eww’. Weiner is almost universally held in low regard now, and many are calling for him to resign. But is this wretched story anything more than the case of one man and his Weiner? (See even I can’t resist bad puns). I think it is.
Here are a few observations:
- The Weiner story strikes me as more about social norms about how to behave online than a sex scandal. Many people today blur the distinction between public and private. The internet seems to be an arena where many people reveal private things and are oblivious to (or don’t care about) the fact that it is a public medium: you might as well be standing on a street corner. (In fact, the internet is more public than a street corner, as more people will ‘see’ you online than on the street.) There are reports that Weiner knew that his political opponents were following him online, and yet he continued with his ‘dirty’ posts.
- In fact, I believe it is completely inaccurate to call the Weiner case a sex scandal, because Weiner did not engage in sex. It seems to me to be another example of what Neil Davenport referred to on spiked yesterday as the ‘pornification’ of society, in which real private intimacy is frowned upon, but public titillation and lewdness is celebrated or at least tolerated.
Weiner pleaded for mercy at his press conference, noting that he never met the women and they were not ‘physical relationships’. But that’s what makes it so pathetic. Comedian Stephen Colbert joked that ‘Republican politicians are man enough to hit that thing’ – and he has a point. Weiner did not have real intimate relationships (nor even a physical relationship with a prostitute); instead he engaged in cartoonish banter. It’s even a stretch to call his interactions online ‘relationships’ because they were so one-sided: a woman would ‘follow’ him on Twitter and to her surprise find that he would ‘follow’ her back, and then not long after he would send an unsolicited picture of himself. As one of the women he chatted with online, Meagan Broussard, said: ‘Talking to him was sometimes a turn-off because he was so open and just so full of himself, as if he were looking, searching for something.’
- The Weiner incident is also a reminder of the poor quality of politicians today. In fact, Weiner is not the only one in the political class caught doing embarrassing things online. Not long ago, in March, Republican representative Christopher Lee was forced to resign after news that he was trying to seduce a woman over the internet by means of showing her a photo of his naked chest. Politicians are public figures, and are meant to be held to a higher standard in the public sphere, since they represent the people in the political arena. Of course, we all know that they, like all of us, are human and have their personal shortcomings. But the latest shenanigans have many thinking: politicians are certainly not better than us, and even not just one of us – they are of a much lower character than the average guy or gal you know. The genuine disgust and disdain for politicos that people have expressed in response to the Weiner story makes me think that a populist backlash in the near future is not out of the question.
- In the past, one reason why politicians who engaged in personal indiscretions survived was because of their stature and performance in their day job. That is, people overlooked the personal failings. But Weiner and most in Washington don’t have real accomplishments to fall back on, and so when scandal hits, they stand exposed. If Weiner resigned, few would think it was a big loss. It has been very striking to see the reaction among Weiner’s fellow Democrats: few have come to his support. Reports have highlighted that Weiner, after 12 years in his seat, has no real political allies within his party, and few friends. This speaks volumes about what it means to be a representative today: you are selected by a bureaucratic clique to be the candidate; you get known by the public by airing TV ads; you go to Washington and remain a loner; and then you engage in hysterical and screaming stunts to try to get noticed by cable TV. The liberal-left uncritically supported Weiner’s unstable antics before ‘Weinergate’, because they perceived him as a fighter for their causes. Now they claim he has acted out of character, and have quickly thrown him overboard.
Weiner may be a sad, lonely loser, but his downfall does indicate that there are deeper problems in our society and politics.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.