It’s been several months, if not years, since a political issue has outraged me as thoroughly as the scandal involving Rep. Anthony Weiner. As with most issues these days, no one is entirely right or wrong, and I have plenty of facepalming for all involved. But as you’ll see, I worry more about what this sort of exposé (no pun intended) means for the future of politics than for the immediate future of who has otherwise been a competent representative.
First things first...
• Weiner was dumb to do it. Conducting online affairs isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s dumb. Sending relatively tame, shirtless pictures of yourself and unidentifiable boxer-brief shots isn’t that horrible either, but it’s dumb. Denying it once confronted, only to have to the truth come out later, is dumb. And all that dumbness is multiplied by a factor of U.S. politician. So Weiner made a boner, so to speak.
• The sanctimony is worse. Why should Weiner resign over this? We can all name members of Congress who have undertaken far, far worse transgressions and not only still serve, but are upheld by their particular party as paragons of family values! I’ve always said that I don’t care about any politician’s personal life, regardless of how I view them politically. What I can’t stand is when they specifically campaign (and win) as a moral crusader or otherwise as against something for which they get busted later. It further pisses me off when their constituents forgive them once they’ve been exposed as a hypocrite. And even further when those people turn around and project the same Christ-like strawman image on a politician they hate, without merit, just so they can tear him down.
If you’re going to forgive the family-values men for divorcing their wives like failed draft picks, or for allegedly visiting prostitutes, or for sex-chatting with underage male pages, then you can’t turn around and condemn a man for emailing slightly naughty pictures. Especially when that man is some virtue crusader only in your mind. If Weiner had vowed to crack down on “sexting,” had criticized other politicians for their sexual transgressions or otherwise did anything against someone’s will, then you might have a case. Otherwise, you’ll seem like a partisan hypocrite looking to tamp down on anything that will remove a good leader when there isn’t a whole lot to compel that.
• How low are we going to set this bar? If Weiner does resign, it’ll be because he finds himself in a hostile climate where he can’t get anything done for his district. And that will be because private correspondence between consenting adults got leaked for political purposes. In other words, it’s probably the lamest thing for which a politician ever got popped; for all the fallout, he might as well have had an actual affair, and a rowdy one at that.
Why? Why are grown, successful officials so eager to equate some photos (with no nudity or illegality involved) to a truly damaging act? And why do we, the public, continue to buy into people like Andrew Breitbart, pretending that he is something other than a third-rate performance artist out to blacklist Democrats through fourth-rate shenanigans?
Which brings me to a broader trend that I worry about probably more than anything else. With the advent of constant social networking, we’re increasingly scrutinous of people, whether as potential friends, employees, employers or politicians. At the same time, we’re increasingly judgmental of people’s actions. And I worry that the potentially greatest president of a future age is going to be sunk by a Facebook picture someone took of them while drunk. Scandals like Weiner’s only reinforce my view that this is getting more ridiculous.
It blows my mind to think how different we’d be as a country if Facebook and Twitter had been around when Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were in college. To say nothing of all the other baby boomers and previous generations. And yet, we got by, because the only difference between the human nature of the past and the human nature of today is that we had less in our face back then. And while transgressions abounded among all political stripes, we nonetheless had a sense of perspective about it. We let the irrelevant stuff slide so that the major infractions carried appropriate weight. We forgave our leaders (sometimes too much, granted) for certain indiscretions if they were representing us to our satisfaction; after all, that’s why we put them there in the first place.
I don’t want my elected officials making bad decisions and stupid moves. But I also don’t want an electorate filled with people who (to paraphrase George Clooney) have spent their entire squeaky-clean lives running for office. And I certainly don’t want a Congress split between milquetoast Democrats afraid to offend Breitbart types and who resign at the slightest accusation, and Republicans who get away with (metaphorical) murder. (Or vice versa.)
The Weiner incident is a preview of what future-generation scandals could look like, if we continue to apply our sanctimony equally to all infractions. And it won’t be confined to the political sphere, either. Let’s take this opportunity to look into ourselves and learn to keep our raging hypocrisy in our pants.