Sunday, June 12, 2011

This post is about Anthony Weiner. Expect crude puns.

In case you haven't heard the latest in The Anthony Weiner Show: he's taking a leave of absence so that he can "seek treatment."

The obvious question here is, "To where, for what?!" Sexting rehab?! If what Weiner did requires counseling, I suspect I have a few friends that should check themselves into a clinic, pronto. Seeking help just prolongs the whole episode, gives newspapers an excuse to put Weiner front and center once again, and artfully write around the issue of his "lewd picture," which in turn gives yet more people an excuse to try to figure out the least risky way to google "weiner picture" and discover The Ambiguous Gray Boxers That Changed A Nation Forever.

I was all set to call his life a "neverending parade of unforced errors and extraordinarily questionable choices," but then it turns out that this particular move was encouraged by none other than Nancy Pelosi:
In addition to her concerns about the political distraction Mr. Weiner had become, Ms. Pelosi concluded that his behavior required medical intervention.
I'm sorry, but this is ridiculous. I'm the last person to defend politicians' infidelities. But let's call them what they are. And that's all he's guilty of: infidelity. Anthony Weiner got married and then continued to screw around behind his wife's back with young, attractive women. As far as infidelity goes, he actually did a pretty third-rate job of it -- there's no evidence he ever spoke to any of these women in person! Up till now, I would have thought "getting busted by the national press" was the absolute worst way to conduct an affair, but it turns out there's something worse still: "getting busted by the national press for an affair you never managed to have."

But still -- does any of this really "require medical intervention?" Of course not. People cheat on their spouses all the time. Other congresspeople cheat on their spaces, like, pretty much incessantly. No one is calling for them to be committed. (Well, okay, actually lots of people are. But usually not for that.) Cheating politicians not only get caught and survive, they often prosper! Right now, right this very moment, the very top of the front page of features a smiling Bill Clinton! Still, the hullabaloo over Weiner indicates that this, somehow, is different. Why?

Part of it, I think, comes from the unstated (but clear) assumption that the severity of Weiner's offense somehow multiplied after he committed it on (dun DUN) the internet. You get the sense that in the minds of many (older) people (who write for newspapers), doing something on the internet transforms it, makes it newsworthy. So Weiner didn't cheat on his wife, he e-cheated on her. He didn't commit infidelity, he committed cyber infidelity. It's a brave new world!

Clearly, this is stupid. Just ask Weiner's wife: would she be any less injured if Weiner had shown women his (won't say wiener, too obvious, I'm better than that) (okay, I'm not) wiener the old-fashioned way? Eventually, hopefully, the media will begin to acknowledge and accept that human beings on the internet aren't primarily netizens or Twittererati or web enthusiasts or cyber surfers, they're just people. And that people who interact with each other on the internet aren't forging forward into the digital frontier, they're just repeating all the endless interactions and conflicts that the sum of humanity has experienced billions of times for thousands of years. No, it isn't odd that people sometimes meet on the internet and fall in love. Or that they sometimes meet on the internet and then kill each other. And it's certainly not odd that married people meet on the internet and then exchange totally gross and uncomfortable dirty talk that sounds wildly ridiculous (and, frankly, kind of forced) when read in the light of day (by everyone in America). Experience has taught us that people do this sort of thing in "real life" all the time. All. The. Time. Whatever poorly-inhibited biological compulsion that drives people to act stupid about sex doesn't get transmuted into emotionless zeros and ones just because the words themselves have been. Honestly, it makes perfect sense that these things would happen; it just doesn't make sense why it's a big deal when it does.

But even acknowledging that, common sense notwithstanding, aging newspaper editors love any story twice as much if it involves Twitter, it's hard to explain why the Democratic leadership keeps throwing fuel on the flames. They've done everything within their power to exacerbate the situation: calling for Weiner to step down, and when he refused, reiterating their demands, in front of cameras and to reporters. Their rationale: the negative publicity is damaging the party. Hey guys -- at this point, most of the publicity seems to come from you! If you're worried about the party, just keep your mouths shut, and watch as the whole thing sinks beneath the waves, like every other congressional sex scandal in history.

Clearly, they don't think it will go away like a normal sex scandal. And they might be right.

Because there's a picture. Cheat on your wife and everyone will forget about it eventually. But no one will ever forget the picture. Long after most of America has forgotten Weiner's face, they'll still remember the picture. Infidelity is problematic, but leaving a physical record -- well, that's a mortal sin. It's the kiss of death, unforgivable not because of the content of the transgression, but because there will forever and always be an instant visual rebuttal to anything Weiner says or does. It can be copied and pasted and linked to and displayed behind a pixelated mosaic on Fox News and joked about and put in direct mailers and sent to senior citizens to raise funds for the NRCC (well, maybe not that, but you get the idea). The act wouldn't matter in the scheme of things, but one dumb blurry .jpeg is an anchor tied to the feet of congressional Democrats.

So maybe I was a little hasty when I said that this isn't a brave new world. Because if Weiner had mailed a picture to a college student twenty years ago, would anyone have reacted the same after it was intercepted? What would the Times have done, run it on page A2? In a sense, the internet is at the center of the Weiner scandal. Not because it happened on the internet, as a lot of newswriters seem to think. But because the internet means everyone can go look at Weiner and see for themselves what a dick he can be.


(I admit it, that last line was pretty bad. In my defense I at least resisted the temptation to call this post "Analyzing the Weiner picture: mountain or molehill?")

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