It is possible that the New York Times’ exhaustive coverage of Anthony Weiner’s renewed sex scandal is due to his candidacy for mayor. It’s also possible that they like constructing headlines around the phrase “Mr. Weiner.” For those who do not know, a 22 year-old woman has told quasi-news site The Dirty that she and Mr. Weiner exchanged sexually explicit communications in the summer of 2012, not long after he resigned from Congress for doing same. According to the Times, their exchange began when the woman “reached out to express her disappointment in him.” Say what you will about Anthony Weiner; he is really good at convincing women to exchange sexually explicit messages. Also he used the pseudonym “Carlos Danger.” Also he is destroying his life.
That’s the party line, at least. Really, we are destroying his life and blaming him. “We,” in this sense, means the conglomerated news and commentary and public opinion disseminators of America, and we agree that he has effed up big time. Can you imagine the audacity of a man who gets caught sexting a woman who is not his wife, resigns from Congress and enters counseling only to emerge as a front-runner for mayor of New York 18 months later, and thinks he can get away with it?
Maybe we sent him a mixed message. The peripatetic attitude of the media toward Weiner is captured in the opening paragraph of the Times editorial, which simultaneously asserts that someday “the full story of Anthony Weiner and his sexual relationships and texting habits” will finally be told, and that until then he should “take his martial troubles and personal compulsions out of the public eye.” The story is prurient, the Times editorial board implies. It is also brought to you in several daily updates by the New York Times.
It’s hard to blame them for that. Mr. Weiner doing exactly what he got caught doing after he said he wouldn’t is news, especially when he’s running for mayor. Yet the nature of the offense, which is weird but does not even rise to the level of a full-blown penetrative affair,* does not directly impugn his fitness to be mayor. The Times and other outlets more respectable than The Dirty are therefore obliged to present Weiner’s behavior as more awful than it maybe is. In order for it to be a story, they have to make it a transgression.
There is certainly an argument to be made that cheating on your wife is morally wrong. There is also the (in my opinion) wormy argument that even if the act itself isn’t so bad, doing it/getting caught evinces such poor judgment as to disqualify Weiner for office. But what if sending pictures of Master Weiner to recent college graduates were something with which his wife, Huma Abedin, were pretty much cool—as she demonstrated when she did not divorce him last year? Even more mind-blowing, what if sexting on the side were something the American public did not think was such a big deal?
Granted, it is a far-fetched situation. In an America where between 40% and 50% of marriages end in divorce, people surely disapprove of plenty. But if we were to accept, as a thought experiment, that neither Abedin nor Weiner nor most Americans believed sexting was such an awful transgression, we would also have to accept that C. Danger emailing a picture of A. Weiner’s dick last year is not quite news.
Don’t get me wrong—this story exploded my brain. I cannot believe that a man as intelligent as Weiner would keep doing the exact same thing that wrecked his career and jeopardized his marriage, even as doing that thing requires him to let a stranger in on his secret. But we are the ones who made it wreck his career, and it’s possible that we are the ones who most consider it a threat to his marriage.
Whenever something like this happens, certain wags point out that politicians have cheated forever. Clinton, Kennedy, FDR, probably Taft in some gross way—powerful men tend to dally with women who are not their wives. At least in the instances of Kennedy and FDR, we consider such stories news more now than we used to. An affair is a public scandal now, where it used to be a public secret. Also, at least according to conventional wisdom, our society is more sexually permissive than it used to be. If we accept these three claims as true—politicians have always had affairs, we publicly condemn those affairs more now, and we as a culture are more sexually liberal—then what does that say about our discourse?