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Private Parts

The scandal seems to be less about Anthony Weiner’s sexual social networking than the fact that he got caught. As technology thins the line between public and private, do politicians retain a right to be human?

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Rep. Anthony Weiner. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
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Understanding Weinergate

How social media felled a rising star, and how his Jewishness was involved

The national humiliation of Rep. Anthony Weiner represents something new in the politics of sex scandals. Ordinarily, these scandals come with a pretext, however thin, of public interest. The issue, we’re usually told, isn’t just sex—it’s a cover-up, or hypocrisy, or harassment, or financial malfeasance. But in Weiner’s case, the excuses for the salacious national pile-on are exceptionally thin. They mostly come down to the fact that, when confronted with an embarrassing secret vice, Weiner panicked and lied. There’s also shock at his extreme recklessness in risking such a scandal, though if that’s what the scandal is about, it’s weirdly recursive. In the end, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Weiner is being publicly annihilated for private, consensual communications that have hurt no one but himself and presumably his wife.

It’s understandable why his actions leave people disgusted. It would be less skeevy if he met his cybersex partners in cybersex forums, instead of enlisting his political admirers into masturbatory exchanges. The brazenness of his exhibitionism is unsettling; it appears at once narcissistic and, as Laura Kipnis has written, masochistic. He’s embarrassed his pregnant wife and his Democratic colleagues. Worst of all, from a strictly partisan point of view, he’s revived the credibility of the odious Andrew Breitbart.

But the core of his transgression was a small and mundane thing—engaging in sexual fantasies on the Internet. The fact that this has led to a salacious national excoriation has disturbing implications not just for Weiner, but for us all.

I say this with one caveat. It seems likely that Weiner tweeted the photo of his erection to a Seattle college student by accident, intending to send it to the porn star who was alphabetically just beneath her in his contacts queue. (By now, it seems beside the point to express dismay at having to write sentences like the previous one.) If it was something more than that—if he intended to send an unbidden picture of his penis to a young woman whose only interest in him was political—that is an inexcusable act of harassment.

Some feminists have argued that, consensual or not, the content of his exchanges reveals a man with a twisted attitude toward women. On the Daily Beast, Kirsten Powers, an ex-girlfriend and onetime close friend of Weiner’s, described being deeply disturbed by what he wrote to Las Vegas blackjack dealer Lisa Weiss. “Radar Online posted the transcript, and it is rife with misogyny and distorted views about women,” she writes. “In referring to oral sex, Wiener tells her, ‘You will gag on me before you c** with me in you’ and ‘[I’m] thinking about gagging your hot mouth with my c***.’ This is not about sex. It’s about dominating and inflicting physical pain on a woman, a fantasy the hardcore porn industry makes billions of dollars on selling to men.” These comments helped convince Powers, once a Weiner supporter, that he should resign.

Here’s my problem with this. It’s one thing to argue that Weiner should step down for being stupid enough to bring this kind of attention on himself, his family, and his party. It’s another thing to subject someone’s sexual fantasies to a political litmus test. Weiner is hardly outré in the way he eroticizes power. There’s no evidence, in the Powers piece, that Weiner actually treats women badly—indeed, she describes him as a loyal and thoughtful friend. There is something totalitarian about examining people’s erotic lives for ideological deviance.

That’s why human beings—even exhibitionists—need privacy. Until very recently, there was a tacit understanding that politicians, like the rest of us, had secret sides that needed to be accommodated. Few people think that FDR or JFK’s dishonesty about their sex lives somehow poisoned their ability to conduct the nation’s business. In recent years, though, two great forces conspired to do away with the ability of public figures to keep sexual impropriety discreet—feminism and technology.

It is a good thing, of course, that feminism banished the clubby understandings that enabled not just philandering but widespread sexual harassment and even rape. The drama around Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a stark reminder of the dark side of a radically laissez-faire attitude toward powerful people’s sexual appetites. During the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, liberals like myself looked longingly at France’s seemingly blasé sophistication, its urbane disinterest in its leaders’ sexual peccadilloes. Now we’ve learned that that disinterest extended to cases of coercion and assault.

It turns out that Strauss-Kahn’s penchant for pressuring women into sex was a sort of open secret, but few reported on it for fear of transgressing French norms of privacy. In the wake of his arrest in New York for allegedly trying to rape an immigrant maid, many French politicians and intellectuals have offered a dispiriting refresher course on the misogyny underlying the country’s culture of sexual entitlement. Journalist Jean-François Kahn dismissed the whole affair as a “troussage de domestique”—sometimes translated as lifting the skirt of a servant—as if Strauss-Kahn was simply a high-spirited aristocratic scamp. (Kahn later issued regrets for having made the statement.)

The television series Mad Men, set in the early 1960s, captures the American version of this mentality, which prevailed until feminism challenged it. That’s why the Clarence Thomas hearings were such a watershed—women are, thankfully, no longer expected to endure overtures and sexual taunts from our superiors. This is a prerequisite for equality.

Technology has further eroded people’s ability to have one self in public and another in private. Think of Jon Favreau, the Obama speechwriter forced to apologize for groping a cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton at a drunken party. Given this, it was madness for Weiner to think his online life could remain secret. But this requirement that even moderately public people behave in publicly acceptable ways all the time? That’s madness, too.

Lately, we’ve seen a number of people undone for slips in the half-public world of social media. Last year, the conservative Daily Caller obtained the archives of a private listserv for left-of-center reporters and writers called JournoList, gleefully combing them for damaging tidbits. The Washington Post’s David Weigel lost his job for some of his comments, including one that suggested that Matt Drudge should set himself on fire—a bit of obviously jokey hyperbole that no one would have noticed had Weigel said it at a bar. In February, the ultra-intrepid war reporter Nir Rosen had to resign from his position at NYU’s Center for Law and Security because of an offensive and quickly regretted Twitter crack about journalist Lara Logan’s sexual assault in Egypt.

Now, people say offensive things about their colleagues and competitors all the time in ordinary life, and no one blinks. For both Weigel and Rosen, the sin wasn’t the words themselves, but the carelessness of letting them leak into the public sphere. The same is true of Weiner, even if his misdeeds are more serious. Very few of us could survive having our offhand comments or secret thoughts subjected to the public scrutiny of political enemies.

It could be that the ability to guard one’s public image, despite the Internet’s intrusions and temptations, is a requisite of modern political life. In that case, Weiner will have to go. But his crime wasn’t engaging in legal and not even particularly kinky cybersex. It was getting caught.

Given the virtual panopticon we now live in, Weiner won’t be the last person to be subjected to this kind of merciless exposure and ridicule. That’s why at some point, unless we want to endure a constant cycle of scandal and personal destruction, we should really figure out some way of forgiving people for being grossly human in public.

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Hershel (Heshy) Ginsburg says:

Politicians have a right to be human if, and only if, they hold “progressive” views or if their remaining in office is needed to advance an (or at least keep treading water on a) “progressive” agenda.


Frayed Knot says:

The Nir Rosen example is a complete non-sequitur here. Twitter is a means of broadcasting to the public – his tweets were in no way “semi-public.” He, like so many other “progressives” was so caught up in his ideological bubble that he had no idea that what he wrote would be considered offensive.

If Goldberg wanted another example, she could have used Chris Lee, who was forced to resign for behavior similar to Weiner’s. But as HG stated above me, Lee is not given any sympathy because he was a Republican and there for teh EVIL.

This piece is just another data point supporting that progressives are hypocritical, intolerant twits.

Richard Wexler says:

Sorry, Weiner’s Teets were not always “consensual,” the false premise on which Goldberg’s fable was built.

Popescu says:

It’s not just between/about him and his family/friends; what about those he sent pictures & messages to, especially if unsolicited by them?
More important, we usually don’t know very much about our politicians except what they tell us and show us, which is usually self-promoting facade and imagery. We have to learn about them whatever way we can. Weiner’s fantasies per se, who cares? But thanks to his fantasies we know that he has very poor judgment, no sense of dignity, panics under stress to the point of tears and incoherence, will tell the most absurd lies to avoid facing the music, lacks guts and self-control. Not the kind of guy or gal you want to have a hand on the trigger, a finger in the pot, or access to information not meant to be shared. That’s a lot to know about a politician. If I were in Weiner’s district it would tell me that voting for him was not prudent, to say the least.

DeeDee Royals says:

This is a most thoughtful and cogent article.
pass it on.

rivka says:

“But in Weiner’s case, the excuses for the salacious national pile-on are exceptionally thin.”

I disagree. The fact that the women he sent indecent messages and photos to were female constituents or followers from elsewhere who initially contacted him regarding policy concerns, or to express their admiration for his progressive agenda, and he quickly sought to turn those potentially meaningful and constructive interactions into erotic repartee, is deeply troubling in regard to a public servant. What is so progressive about this type of objectification?

He might have absorbed the politics of his liberal upbringing, but deep inside, he’s just a vain schmuck.

Sorry Hershel, but your attempts at spinning this to be a progressive thing only? Not true. So far, no evidence that Anthony Weiner broke the law. Republican Senator David Vitter, on the other hand, used the services of prostitutes. He is still in office, and the Republicans never hinted that he should leave.

John Ensign resigned, yes. But he resigned TWO YEARS after the story of his misdeeds became public and only resigned to avoid charges from the Senate ethics committee which almost certainly would have expelled him. And Senator Coburn so far remains untouched despite his role in facilitating Ensign’s attempt at a coverup.

So don’t try telling me that it’s only progressives that have a right to be human.

Weiner’s immoral behavior is exactly the issue here.

His tweeting, both before and after marriage, and his lies when “caught,” are a basis of evaluating his political life and continuation as a Congressperson. This is not a victimless crime – the women were victims, the public trust is disparaged and destroyed.

Breitbart has done a great public service by exposing this.

The entire article by Goldberg totally misses the point–Weiner should
resign, not because of the photos or the e-mails, but because he was
willing to ruin the career of the journalist who exposed him by creating
the falsehood that Andrew was the hacker. That could have caused Andrew
some serious criminal involvement. Instead, the crime was committed
by Weiner, not Andrew, and his penalty should be RESIGNATION. End of


Thank you for a thoughtful piece on this issue. Actually it should have been a non-issue. Instead it is two issues. Had Weiner admitted to his mistake at the beginning, I wonder how far this would have gone. The children in the news industry probably would have kept the story alive for ratings and, of course, to embarass a congressman. Instead Weiner lied about it, which only aggravated the story-line. For his constituents there is now the issue of his behavior, and the issue of his lying. For me there is another issue: Weiner, as a public servant, has done an outstanding job. On the one hand, I do not want him to resign. On the other hand, I think he should resign. Better put, I wish he would continue in Congress or as mayor, wherever he is most suitable. But I also wish that elected officials would hold themselves to higher standards of behavior and honesty. A lot to wish for, to be sure. So I wish he would not resign, but I think he should. So should all other elected officials who have and have not been caught in bad behavior or lying to the public (which would significantly reduce the number of elected officials still in office, wouldn’t it?). I also think that journalists who make so much of stories like these, at the expense of more important issues, ought also to resign (end of network news as we’ve come to know it.)

steve says:

Reading a lot of Michelle Goldberg’s work and reading here that she considers Andrew Breitbart “odious” brings new meaning to the pot calling the kettle….But it’s not quite as good as watching Eliot Spitzer pontificate on CNN about Weiner! And it’s disingenuous to say this is solely about being caught. It’s about his character and his actions as a whole.

Harrietb98 says:

I see a lot of self-righteous statements. He broke no laws. He engaged in adult behavior with consenting adults. There are no victims here. If you are talking about Andrew Breitbart, I have no use for him at all. What he did was odious.

Only Anthony Weiner’s constituents have the right to remove him from his seat.

He is, and has always been, a strong progressive voice.

There are no perfect people.

I think that there are too many of his coleagues who just don’t like him. That is what this is all about.

Anthony Weiner never went around preaching morality, like those other members did.

If his wife wants to divorce him, that is her right.

Marlene says:

There seems to be a lot of going back and forth about whether Weiner broke any laws or not, whether he should resign or not, whether the behavior was consensual or not … and it’s no wonder why somehow so many in our worlds’ societies, from the family unit to the highest governmental power, rationalize away so many heinous behaviors … rather than simply viewing them for what they are … sinful … and, instead, upholding high moral values, which, as Jews, is of the utmost importance. Our character, truly, is the only thing we can control. More important than how one news source or one political source views us … or them: How do we view ourselves? And what are we going to do about it?!

Why doesn’t the word “judgement”, modified by the words “absolutely no”, appear anywhere in the article?

Why is Andrew Breitbart odious? For outing a sanctimonious idiot who got himself elected to Congress. I wonder how self-righteous Goldberg would have reacted if Sarah Palin’s e-mails revealed that she talked dirty to some underage kid.The idealogical bias here is downright nauseating.

Michael says:

Andrew Breitbart odious? I think he does a valuable public service by exposing the untethered arrogance and contempt for the American public held by Weiner and other Progressive stars, such as ACORN.

Ms Goldberg shows how verbosity is confused with insight in her world. Weiner should go because he is an embarrassment to everyone, because he betrayed the trust of the voters, because he exposed himself to significant security risks, and because he demonstrated to all that he lacks the judgement and gravitas to be a leader.

To imply Weiner should get a pass because his behavior is ordinary and many behave similarly today is clueless. He should go because he is trolling the bottom. It doesn’t matter if he finds a lot of company there. There is always a lot of trash on the bottom.

Nir Rosen tweeted that he was happy that Lara Logan had been sexually assaulted, and wished the same had also happened to Anderson Cooper, who had only been punched in an earlier incident in Cairo. Cooper is gay and Rosen was saying it would have been funny if a gay man he didn’t like had been sexually assaulted like a woman he didn’t like. In the course of apologizing, Rosen later lied by claiming that he didn’t know that Logan’s assault had been different from Cooper’s, but that was belied by his own tweets. From that we can deduce that Rosen is a) misogynist, b) homophobic, and c) a liar. We can also see that his apology was insincere in that it included a calculated lie designed to lessen his offense. That conclusion was reinforced by his saying to both Salon and an NYU paper that, while he regretted the impact the controversy had, he felt that the problem had to his being targeted by “conservatives” with a vested interest in destroying his career. He also reiterated in other terms the exact statements he allegedly regretted making in the first place.

I would like to ask Michelle Goldberg how any of this is acceptable to her.

I would also like to point out that Rosen posts on his Facebook page photos of his toddler son dressed in a Hezbollah t-shirt with an image of a terrorist with an AK-47. The “cute” caption he put on the photo? “Hizb in the house”. He also posts a photo of himself wielding an assault rifle. Nice guy, this Rosen.

But he is “intrepid”.

In counseling forgiveness, Goldberg breezily dismisses the very real risks that public officials take when engaging in secret behavior, whether in financial or sexual spheres. These activities are never truly “private” because they involve other people. Consequently, the official is always subject to the risk of exposure and may take improper, or illegal, actions to forestall such exposure. Are you really confident that Weiner and his ilk wouldn’t abuse their power to offer favors, payoff, jobs etc to keep their behavior from exposure? The recent example is Senator Ensign’s tawdry scandal which involves payoffs and handing out of jobs in a vain attempt to keep his affair quiet. Would anyone be comfortable with John Edwards having become President and the additional steps he would have continued to take to keep his affair and child private? And no one ever will really know what impact keeping JFKs many affairs had on his administration.
So yes, Michelle, this is private behavior, but it is worthy of public scrutiny because the risk the politician has chosen to put himself and his office in.

sharon says:

I find Weiners behavior to be appalling but what he did is not illegal. Many people are engaged in these activities-we should question what is wrong in our society that invites these behaviors.
My main anger is with the Democrats that are calling for blood. Instead of having the guts to stand up against the way the republicans are destroying this country, they stand up to destroy one of their own. This fecklessness on the part of the dems is why we lost 2010 and why we will lose 2012. Did they stand up when Obama was being swift-boated by the teabaggers in 2009? No they allowed a bunch of fat old people to destroy their mandate. Did they stand up for single payer, did they stand up for eliminating the Bush tax cuts, did they stand together to end Bushes war? Oh no, they folded like the gutless wonders that they are. Now they are all tough. Lets get Weiner, one of the few progressives left in our party. They should learn how to stand together the way the repubs do-no matter what their criminal legislators do.
The dems have blown a mandate that we will not see again. Meanwhile, back in Texas, Alabama, Mississipi, etc. women and minorities are being turned into second class citizens-why aren’t they screaming about that.
I have been voting as a democrat for 50 years-if it wasn’t for the chance of another clarence thomas being elevated to the supremes I would sit this one out.

For whatever it’s worth, I think both Nir Rosen and Andrew Breitbart are odious characters, but so what? Beyond partisan sniping, that’s beside the point. Regardless of your personal politics, Ms. Goldberg raises a point about something larger than the narrow question of the viability of Wiener’s political future or his childish narcissism. She is raising good questions about how we want to head into the future, now that the line between our public and private behavior is so thin. Human nature hasn’t changed, but technology has. The affairs, flirtations, drunken escapades, cross-dressing episodes and reckless personal choices of public officials from decades gone by remained in the shadows. We could not pour over uploaded videos or digital photos or facebook transcripts of their misbehavior. But the tools we have at our disposal now when we want to shame a public figure are much more potent and relentless. Long after “Wienergate” subsides, we are still going to live in a world in which technology has eroded our privacy. We will continue to be challenged by how to handle behavior that occurs in what Goldberg rightly calls this “half-public” world of social media. We should be talking seriously about the issues raised in this article.

Bill Pearlman says:

Its amazing how Jewish women will give this guy a pass.

Externality says:

For years, Americans have been told that “privacy is dead,” that “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide,” that concerns about privacy are a sign of guilt, and that the very concept of personal privacy is contrary to the collective good.

Perhaps now, American elites are beginning to understand why Americans are concerned about the purportedly “outdated” idea of personal privacy.

Tobias Engel says:

I am waiting for a politician to say, “Yes, I did it. Yes, I enjoyed it. It’s my private life and I am never going to talk about it again in public. Before I go, here are my final words – Grow up America. Examine your own sex-negativity. And let’s get on with the important issues at hand; war, poverty, pollution, discrimination, and not what I do with my penis.”

morris wise says:

Conversations in my workplace with fellow employees gave me the full answer for the rage against Weiner. They felt that he was one of the chosen people and should be held to a higher standard. As one of the chosen people I strive for perfection knowing full well if caught in a lie or any breach of the highest moral order I will be severely punished.

Linda O'Reilly says:

When I vote for someone and pay them big bucks with my taxes I want them to do the job, not spend time looking for tail and giving the company a bad name.
In the weiner case, as in the spitzer case (no capitalizations; I’ve made the choice), these guys were online (or in a limo) for hours of taxpayer time exhibiting bad judgement, occasionally against their own stated convictions and lack of restraint—not want I want in a person who’s representing me.
If you’ve made a promise and married an individual at least hang on until your term is over. You not only made a promise to a spouse and children but you have a responsibility to use your brain—the one in your head—for the people you represent. After that—go for it—I won’t respect you but at least you applied yourself to the job.

Don’t make promises to spouses and families that you know you’re not going to keep.
Stay single if you absolutely can’t keep it in your pants, fu** your brains out in your off hours and give your constituents the 8-12 hours of serious thought they elected you for.

Privacy means keeping something to yourself–surely attorneys know that–so keep your sex life private and you can have relations with any one or any thing you choose. Attorneys and other supposedly intelligent people must have noticed that the internet is not private–so there goes your privacy.

No one is expecting these men to be arrested for their idiocies.
But when they can’t make sensible choices for themselves how will they make them for their constituents?

morris wise says:

The Weiner brand is worth millions. He can start it off by posing nude in Playgirl Magazine and then go on to fill the shoes of Lenny Bruce. America needs a new dirty talk show comedian with the credentials of a pervert. Weiner will have the last laugh on the bible thumpers as he shoves his wee wee in their faces.

Marsha Roseman says:

My husband and I listened to the text between Weiner and the Las Vegas blackjack dealer and it was
DISGUSTING! This pervert has no place in congress and we are happy he is gone. Not only does he demean Congress but he is a “shonda” to the Jewish people.

Cruth says:

Goldberg should be working in public relations, or in some other field that does not pretend to be unbiased. She’s a rookie, still.

Ask any psychologist … Weiner was engaging in emotional adultery. Cheating on his wife, and doing so in a stupid manner. And then he tried to boldly lie about this. Not complicated.

And, it makes no sense to defend this schmuck unless, i guesss, you are writing to please the heathen who regular read this

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Private Parts

The scandal seems to be less about Anthony Weiner’s sexual social networking than the fact that he got caught. As technology thins the line between public and private, do politicians retain a right to be human?

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