Anthony Weiner, the brash congressman from New York City, resigned this past Thursday, after it was revealed that he sent photos of himself, and sexually yearning text messages, to several women.
Weiner did not step down because he broke any laws, or because his desires made him behave in stupid and dishonorable ways, or even because his constituents turned against him. He stepped down because the media was going to flog the story until he did.
So here we are, citizens, back in the kingdom of the Starr Report, that sad realm where the Fourth Estate, in its desperation to enthrall and thereby profit, abdicates what the antique moralists among us might call a conscience.
For the past two weeks, actual grown-up Americans have risen from their beds and put on their grown-up clothes and driven their grown-up cars to their grown-up offices and pretended, collectively, that the most important event occurring on earth was not the possibility that the United States will default on its debt, or the mounting evidence that our planetary climate has gone kaplooey, or even any of the three and a half wars in which we are, as a nation, mired.
No, the big news was that a horny guy did some dumb shit.
“Horny Guy Does Some Dumb Shit.” That’s your Onion headline.
Long ago, in a past life, I left my job as an investigative reporter for a newspaper in Miami. I had lost my faith in journalism, but I still spent a lot of time with journalists because nobody else liked me. One night, a former colleague dropped by my apartment. She was an intense young woman who had spent some years in Central America, reporting on the atrocities visited upon those small and vulnerable countries. Now she worked for a major news magazine.
We talked for a while about her new job. She seemed agitated. Eventually, she confessed that she was working on the Monica Lewinsky story. In fact, she said, she was one of the only people on earth who had, in her possession, at that very moment, copies of the secret tapes made by Linda Tripp, in which Lewinsky described her trysts with President Clinton.
“They’re right out in the car,” she said. “I could get them.”
She stared at me for a moment, with her beautiful dark blue eyes, and there was something terrible in them, a creepy desperation to include me in her sin.
I’m not someone much burdened by self-control. But I didn’t want to hear those tapes. And I wanted that woman out of my house.
A friendly reminder: Thomas Jefferson took one of his slaves as a lover. Grover Cleveland had a child out of wedlock while in office. JFK fucked everything in sight.
The White House correspondents knew all about JFK’s tomcatting. But they didn’t regard it as a story. It was a private weakness, or a private need, not one that rose to the level of a public interest. They were busy reporting on boring shit like the Cuban Missile Crisis and Civil Rights.
It’s worth asking why Anthony Weiner’s indiscretions were so newsworthy, as compared to those of his colleagues. Weiner, after all, did not frequent prostitutes for kinky sex, as did David Vitter, the Louisiana Senator. Nor did he sleep with a member of his staff, then attempt to pay that staffer and her family tens thousands of dollars in hush money, as did John Ensign, the former Nevada Senator. Nor did he win high office by trumpeting his moral superiority in the realm of family values, as did both Vitter and Ensign.
Weiner’s great sin was more basic: he took pictures.
We live in a visual era. For a story to stick in the current media environment there must be, as the TV people so charmingly put it, footage. Much of the reason our media have virtually ignored our ongoing wars is because there’s no good footage of Americans dying, or Americans killing. At least, there’s no good footage they’re willing to air.
As with so much else in the modern condition, this speaks ultimately to a failure of the imagination. Stories aren’t enough. If we can’t see it, it’s not happening.
With Weiner, we could see it. There it was. A scrawny chest, poignantly waxed and flexed. A pair of grey underwear bulging with no-longer-private needs. The secret dispatches tapped out to women he’d never met, whom he didn’t really know, the words almost touching in their raw and hollow need, drawn straight from the pornographic idiom every man harbors in his lizard brain.
Not only did Weiner supply us images and a script, he transmitted these via the new technologies, with which the old media are entirely obsessed.
These technologies have nothing to do with the traditional virtues of journalism–the dogged pursuit of money and power, the ability to explain complex chicanery in simple terms, an abiding concern for the public good. On the contrary, they’ve accelerated our most pathological compulsions: to consume data passively, to graze the Internet for stimulative distractions, to forego the rigors of moral reasoning.
Watching our Fourth Estate treat some brandidate’s latest electronic fart as “news” is like watching an insecure chaperone attempt to moonwalk at a high school dance. It’s what all the kids are doing, right?
The technologies by which Weiner sought to assert his manhood and find a human connection – he was doing both – are the same technologies by which we are all voluntarily eroding our own zones of privacy.
What a complicated and Christian pleasure it is for us to watch someone else punished for our sins.
The fake moralists who staff the Opinion Industry–having fueled the obsessive coverage of guys such as Weiner, generally for partisan reasons–love to then retreat from their handiwork and draw lofty conclusions about what it all means. They trot out aphorisms like, Power corrupts and It’s the cover up that kills you.
But the Weiner saga resonated, fundamentally, because it was about loneliness and sexual desperation and the way in which our private anxieties can be conveniently relocated in a public scandal. Not a lot of us can afford to pay high-priced hookers, or pay tens of thousands of dollars in hush money. But we’ve all surrendered to more homely forms of temptation.
I wonder how many of the reporters who took part in Weiner’s downfall have ever sent a sexually yearning text message? Or taken a photo of themselves in a state of arousal?
I know I have. Have you?
We all leave evidence of our need. It’s what humans do.
When this evidence threatens to surface, we lie.
We are forever telling the world the same two stories about ourselves. One is about the person we want to believe we are–wise, compassionate, upstanding. The other is about the person we know ourselves to be – petty, cruel, sexually destructive. The best of our literary art arises from the collision of these two stories.
But journalists don’t like to admit to such literary inclinations, so they have to pretend that something else is going on, that they’re engaged in the dissemination of actual news. It’s a tough job, ma’am, but someone’s got to do it. Can you imagine what would happen if we weren’t out here guarding your children?
Now it’s time to talk about fallout. What will the fallout be? It’s one of those dependably disassociating “news” words. Now that we’ve destroyed a guy’s life, let’s step back, as if we’re just innocent and thoughtful bystanders, and assess the damage.
The immediate impact, politically, is pretty clear. Weiner was one of the few legislators who stood up to the corporate kleptomaniacs who now dominate the policy discourse of this country. He spoke in blunt terms about the ways in which the rich seek to impose their will upon the rest of us.
His elimination will make it that much easier for the powerful interests aligned against common decency to practice their black arts. Our political culture will be further sapped of its capacity to solve our common crises of state.
The more profound impact will be in our growing confusion over what really matters to us as a people, and whether we can put aside the childish forms of titillation and dishonesty which hold us back from genuine moral progress.
Joan Didion, in writing about the Lewinsky scandal, noted that most Americans didn’t want that story told. They understood that the President had done some untoward things in the private realm. But they were more concerned about the things he did in the public realm, which effected them.
It was the media who rolled out the Lewinsky scandal, and who kept pumping time and money and fake emotions into it, as if it were a new product we desperately needed in our lives.
But we didn’t need it–not then, and not now. What we need is mature and ethical governance.
Weiner himself is gone, off to the pillory. He is sure to return to us soon enough, in the pinstriped cloak of a pundit, the bruised grin of an ironic cameo. For those of us left behind, the question remains: what can we do? How can we put an end to this kind of crap? The answer is pretty simple.
Stop gazing at the Weiner.
This is how it works in America right now: you vote with your attention and your money. You do it every day, whether or not you mean to. Every single time you give in to your worst impulses and click on a link that involves gazing at a Weiner or listening to a phony candidate tell lies (or even getting teased for telling lies), every time you choose to indulge in a “story” that you know has no real moral impact on our governance, you are taking part in the degradation of this country.
When I say you, of course, I mean I.
The goal of the media in late-model capitalism could not be more transparent. They are an industry. Their agenda is profit. All they want is your ears and eyeballs, on behalf of the sponsors. If you click on sexual hi-jinx and hairstyles and corporate propaganda, that’s what they’ll keep serving up. They will do so to the exclusion of those stories that might illuminate the growing perils of our species, and their potential remedy.
I think now (for whatever reason) of my grandfather Irving Rosenthal, who believed that all men and women should share equally in the bounty of our planet. He recognized the unlikelihood of this ever happening, given the prevailing greed of his homeland. Still, he remained convinced that a daily investigation of The New York Times might yield some elusive cause for hope.
I can only imagine what he would have said last week.
So much suffering in this world and I’m going to waste my time staring at some schmuck’s putz?
History will look back upon this moment with mirth and great sadness. The Weiner affair will be seen as yet another parable about our sexually neurotic and lonely population, unwilling to face up to its adult challenges.
But we write our own history. We need not service our devils. It is possible that Americans can and will grow up, that we will demand of our Fourth Estate an honest accounting of our condition.
They’re not going to get any better until we do.