With all the commotion over Anthony Weiner’s gross and undignified online behavior, we have been too distracted to see that we have an even worse miscreant in our midst.
I’m not talking about a congressman from Queens. I’m referring to a figure who has inspired the hopes of tens of millions of people in this country and even throughout the world, and who then betrayed those hopes time and time again. He spoke of the dignity of ordinary men and women but acted in a way that makes Weiner’s online dalliances seem trivial. A compulsive seducer of women, he lied to his closest aides and friends, and to his wife and children. Knowing that he was being watched and recorded, he went ahead and had sex with promiscuous abandon, jeopardizing his cause and desecrating the martyrdom of the people who gave their lives for that cause. He traduced what he claimed to be his own most fundamental principles.
The man I am describing is Martin Luther King, and before you head-butt your screen—or report me to your local blogger/commissar—think for a moment. If you are breathlessly following every revelation of Weiner’s stupidity, or angrily denouncing his conduct and pronouncing him unfit to hold office, you might to want ask yourself where this country would be if the FBI, which tape-recorded King’s extramarital adventures, had released the tapes to the public. You might want to reflect on where this country would be had the technology of exposure, and the culture of personal destruction, existed when we needed credible, if flawed, leaders to make this country a juster and more humane place to live.
I’m not comparing the dopily tweeting congressman from Queens to a rare paragon of humanity. I’m questioning the toxic effect of our confused standards of both public conduct, and of the exposure of private behavior. We live at a time when just about everybody is sucked in, to one degree or another, to the highly charged erotic dimension of the Internet, either in its abundant precincts of pornography or its countless opportunities for harmless flirtation and serious seduction. Yes, just about everybody. He who is without sin among you, let him click first. Isn’t that why the accusatory frenzy is so intense? Because we have all felt that little tug, tickle, or impulse to be antiseptically and impersonally naughty?
Oh, not me, and not you, and let me continue to make clear that I condemn Weiner’s conduct unequivocally and, er, unadulteratedly. He’s a U.S. congressman. We expect a different standard of private conduct from a U.S. congressman. He is supposed to be pandering and pocketing, making promises and breaking them, not pathetically primping, shirtless and boxered, before his very own camera. He is supposed to be furthering his political career by throwing himself into feverish partisan gridlock, herd-voting, and careful sail-trimming. Not cavorting inconsequentially between consequential legislative votes and consequential congressional committee meetings.
Coming on the heels of the rape charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the revelations of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s astounding betrayal and humiliation of his wife and family, Weiner’s conduct has been attacked with the same degree of outrage with which the former two were condemned. As a result, Weiner has come to be perceived as morally equivalent to them. But as creepy as his photos were, what he did wasn’t rape or adultery. He broke no laws of man or God. The calls for him to resign in the midst of a (relatively) respectable political career because, unlike the lucky rest of us, the incommensurable divide between his private and public life was revealed through some new and, historically speaking, absolutely weird technology, are as surreal as the fact that hitting the wrong key on your keyboard can utterly change your life.
Even stranger, though the technology is new, our response to its consequences are a few hundred years old. Puritan scolding. Women’s Temperance Society-type indignation. Stern headmaster finger-wagging. After all these years of HBO, we still can’t seem to come up with a social analysis of an episode like Weiner’s that is as sophisticated as the technology that exposed him.
For instance, questioning the victim’s motives, especially in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the hotel chambermaid, is a dubious undertaking. But where is the victim in the case of Anthony Weiner? The answer is in the little acknowledgment that is run under one or another of Weiner’s photos when they are published: “Picture credit: Anthony Weiner.”
The women Weiner sent his photographs to were hardly traumatized. Yet no one has demanded the complete records of their side of the exchange with Weiner. After all, he didn’t just pop onto their Twitter feeds one day, say, shalom, I’m a congressman from Queens, and then shoot off a picture of himself standing in gray boxer shorts with an erection. It could be reasonably surmised that an escalating correspondence encouraged him to think that “erotic” photographs of himself would be welcome. Did Lisa, the 40-year-old blackjack dealer in Las Vegas, call her mother in tears? Or did she boldly send back a picture of herself every bit as vivid as Weiner’s own? And if these women were shocked, why didn’t they just shut the online relationship down?
Instead of ending the relationship, at least one woman passed on a picture that Weiner had sent to her to a conservative blogger. That is not exactly the response of offended virtue. Still, no one has made an issue of looking into whether Weiner was set up by political adversaries. In this vicious atmosphere, it is hard to accept that he wasn’t; astonishingly, in this vicious, paranoid atmosphere, such an elementary question, when it is asked, is not taken seriously. Yet it seems the most natural thing in our increasingly unnatural political atmosphere that a congressman notorious for his “brashness” and recklessness would be a target for online provocateurs.
Everyone has fallen into the predictable roles of condemner, (rare and tentative) defender, and gleeful onlooker. But maybe there is still hope for an original response. If Weiner’s poised, elegant wife, Huma Abedin, now pregnant, held a press conference and, before the entire carnivalized world, poured scorn on Weiner’s persecutors and defended her husband’s public acts against the petty infractions of his private life, it would be the stand-by-your-man speech to end all stand-by-your-man speeches. Just think: a Muslim woman, who comes from what is often the most misogynistic culture in the world, speaking up for male weakness and excoriating the hypocritical reaction to it. It would do for our dying public and private life what Martin Luther King—that shameless liar and married seducer of women—once did for human rights and human decency.