by Stephen Cox | Posted July 08, 2011
I admit it: I doted on Anthony Weiner. I followed all the news about him; I was horrified when he resigned; and I miss him terribly, even now. He was wonderful entertainment.
But like certain other kinds of entertainment, which Weiner himself would probably enjoy, this was not something you could discuss at every opportunity. On hearing me prate ecstatically about the latest Weiner news, most of my friends muttered things like, “Oh, you mean that congressman who sent out pictures of his crotch?” Yeah, well, that’s the one I mean. The congressman who did that, then told lies about it — gross, elaborate, stupid lies — and tried to get others to lie for him, too.
The truth is, I loved the spectacle of a pompous windbag falling on his face, then prying himself back onto the rostrum, then falling on his face again, and every time slipping and falling because he had tied his own shoelaces together. The sex part didn’t matter to me; I liked the sheer humiliation.
Of course, I had to find good, moral reasons for being interested in this, and I did. And they actually happen to be good, moral reasons. One of them has to do with the appropriate punishment (humiliation) for the kind of person that Anthony Weiner is — a parasite, a bigot, and an aggressive fool.
Let’s take those in order.
Parasite: According to the uncontested findings of Wikipedia, as soon as Weiner left college he went into politics. Since then he has been continuously supported by his “work” as a partisan political activist. In his entire adult life, he has never had a wealth-creating or even a wealth-maintaining job. To everyone’s surprise, he turned out not even to be a lawyer.
Bigot: Before the scandal, Weiner was famous for one thing: relentlessly slamming people who disagreed with his “progressive” legislative agenda (e.g., fully socialized medicine). His constant rhetorical preference was to accuse those people of sinister motives and interests. When his scandal started, he assured political donors that the whole thing was the creation of “a vast rightwing conspiracy.” Yes, hackneyed and derided as that bigoted phrase has become, that’s what he said.
Aggressive fool: Don’t bother looking again at the press conference where he lied about his sexual transmissions. Consider his congressional website, where he offered, by actual count, 275 videos of speeches given by (can you guess?) himself. How much of a fool do you have to be . . . ?
So, that’s one high-minded excuse for my delight in Weiner Agonistes: he deserved to be humiliated, and he was. Here’s another: his scandal allowed us to study the bad qualities, not only of Congressman Weiner, but of many other people who are currently being paid to abuse the English language.
Let’s take, for example, people whose default language is the vocabulary of sickness. Where would they be without it? They can excuse their friends for anything they do: they are merely sick. And they can damn their enemies for anything they do: they are really sick.
On June 11, at the height of the scandal, a spokeswoman for Weiner announced that he had left Washington for an undisclosed location, “to seek professional treatment to focus on becoming a better husband and healthier person.” Note the lack of parallelism: She didn’t say a "better person"; she said a "healthier person." Weiner, the real Weiner,was fine; he just needed to have more wellness.
But Weiner’s silly “health” claim tended to confirm the silly statements of his critics. He said he was sick; they said he was a “sicko.” From thousands of instances, I’ll select just one: the conversation of Sean Hannity with Karl Rove on Hannity’s TV show, June 8.
Hannity referred to the “perverted transcript” of Weiner’s conversation with one of his inamorata. This illustrates Hannity’s peculiar way with words: no matter how “perverted” the conversation may have been, the transcript itself wasn’t perverted; but that’s the way Hannity pictured it. On a more conceptual level, I fail to see why it was “perverted” for Weiner to write little notes to people about getting aroused by them, or even about his fantasies of having sex with them. It might be tasteless; it might be stupid (and oh Lord, it was); but perverted? Talking about sex? By that standard, only Shirley Temple comes out clean.
On hearing me prate ecstatically about the latest Weiner news, most of my friends muttered things like, “Oh, you mean that congressman who sent out pictures of his crotch?”
There’s more. Referring to Weiner’s picture of his virile member, Hannity insisted, again and again, that it was a “pornographic picture.” “He’s sick,” Hannity said. “He’s sick and needs help,” Rove agreed. Then Rove made some priggish remark about how Weiner could have been conversing about sex with underage women and wouldn’t even have known that he was.
All right. Let’s look at these words of Rove and Hannity. Was the picture pornographic? To me, it was about as pornographic as the Mona Lisa, and I suspect that my view is shared by hundreds of millions of people around the world. To some, I know, any picture of a naked sex organ is pornographic, in the sense that it arouses their sexual desire. (Why arousal is supposed to be bad in itself, I have no idea.) Nevertheless, you might as well say that a medical text is sick and pornographic, because somebody might get off on one of the diagrams. And I’m told that some people do, just as my eighth-grade friends got off on the pictures of naked natives in our school’s collection of National Geographic. But maybe the “sickness” lies in the beholder of these “perverted” (as opposed to crass, dumb, or tasteless) situations. Don’t you think that may be possible?
Now let’s consider the “underage” issue. There’s no indication that Weiner was trying to seduce 17-year-olds. The notion that everyone has to govern his or her communications according to the rule that nothing must be said or shown that could have an unhealthy effect on an underage person, whether underage persons are present or not . . . what kind of notion is that? If an underage person sneaks a look at an erotic movie, that isn’t the responsibility of the producers. Period. And if Weiner conversed with some underage person, and didn’t know that he did, how would that be evidence of a perverted sex interest in Weiner?
But really, what are we talking about? We’re talking about some sex talk and some pictures of a penis. I remember an episode of the early TV series, Our Miss Brooks. The title character, played by the all-time master of dry wit, Eve Arden, was the English teacher at Madison High School. She was in love with the biology teacher, the shy, prudish Mr. Boynton. One day, Mr. Boynton admitted to conducting experiments on the reproductive capacity of lilies. He blushed when he admitted it. “That’s all right,” said Miss Brooks. “I once saw the word ‘lily’ written on a fence down by the railroad tracks.”
In other words, suppose that somebody sends out a picture of his penis. What then? Nothing.
I’m not portraying Anthony Weiner as an apostle of sex education. He evidently had no interest in discussing anything with underage people. And it’s mildly repulsive to me that he had an interest in discussing anything with anyone, or that anyone had an interest in him, sexually or politically. That’s my own aesthetic evaluation. But let’s get some perspective on this. We know that lack of perspective is a leading symptom of mental illness. Bearing that in mind, it’s easy to see that Hannity and Rove (who flew into delirium about Weiner’s perversity) had less perspective on the situation than Weiner (who was merely behaving as a man of nature, an unreconstructed son of the soil), and therefore showed themselves sicker than Weiner. But that doesn’t make them bad people. They’re just not healthy.
As soon as Weiner left college he went into politics. In his entire adult life, he has never had a wealth-creating or even a wealth-maintaining job.
At this point, let’s reflect on what is sacred in our political culture. From time to time there’s a controversy about some disgrace to the flag, or to the pledge of allegiance, or to the national anthem. Yet the true Ark of the Covenant is, apparently, the congressional gymnasium. This is the evidence, from an AFP report of June 2:
“The latest batch of photos, including the fact that he [Weiner] used the House gym as the backdrop for his sexual deviance[!], appeared to be too much for Democratic leaders.
"“This is bizarre, unacceptable behavior,’ said number two House Democrat Steny Hoyer.
"‘It seems to me extraordinarily difficult that he can proceed to represent his constituents in an effective way given the circumstances this bizarre behavior has led to,’ Hoyer told CBS's ‘Face the Nation’ program.”
So, when Weiner demanded that the United States government nationalize the entire healthcare system, or when Weiner, Hoyer, and several hundred other members of their party spent trillions of dollars that weren’t their own to bail out failed economic enterprises and “stimulate” still more failures, that wasn’t “bizarre, unacceptable behavior.” But when Weiner took a picture of his penis in the gymnasium of the House of Representatives, that was bizarre.
Lower down in the report we see:
“Democrats consider the scandal all the more sad because Weiner is married to Huma Abedin, a hugely popular aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.”
Did you ever see that phrase before — “all the more sad”? If you haven’t, I’m not surprised. It’s one of those expressions that today’s journalists use when they need to get around the fact that they don’t know grammar. “More sad” means “sadder,” in your grandmother’s untutored but accurate vocabulary. The difference is that your grandmother knew how to form a common English comparative and therefore didn’t have to invent cumbersome phrases to circumvent the obvious.
So journalists are naïve about grammar — so what? Well, ex ungue leonem: they are also naïve about the rest of the world. Do you believe — does anyone believe — that Democrats went into terminal depression because of their sympathy for Huma Abedin, or that more than ten of them had ever heard of Huma Abedin? “Hugely popular”? Who’s buying this stuff? Hillary Clinton isn’t “hugely popular” — so how should Huma, her assistant, be? And are we supposed to believe that a top aide to one of the Clintons is to be pitied for her association with a sex scandal?
Ah yes, the wronged woman.You can never be out of tune in America, plunking on that string. It’s another sign of our strange attitudes about sex, its nature and its relative importance.
Routine was the sympathy, the warm, intense, sticky, gooey sympathy, that the media showed for Weiner’s presumably distressed wife, Huma. And sympathy is certainly due to a spouse who finds that his or her significant other is making digital love to foreign entities. But I can’t see why learning that one’s husband has been exchanging sex talk with people he met online would be worse than learning that he was a cheap, obnoxious, grandstanding, ignorant, cynical, arrogant grubber for votes, whose every public utterance was enough to make thinking persons consider smashing their TV screens. And the evidence that Huma’s husband fitted that bill was richly available to Huma, long, long before she married him. As an employee and close friend of Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, however, Mrs. Weiner had probably gotten used to a lot of things that the rest of us don’t have to put up with.
But now comes Kirsten Powers, a modestly successful journalist, who couldn’t resist the opportunity to stage multiple interviews about the fact that several years before the scandal she had had a romance with Weiner. This should have been enough to disqualify her from any comment on anything, but she was not deterred. A loyal Democrat, she deplored her former boyfriend’s conduct but said that it didn’t o’ershadow the effulgent light of his contributions to the republic. She went on and on about that on television. Then she changed her mind and wrote a long essay calling for Weiner’s resignation. It had finally penetrated her thick skull (she didn’t put it in exactly those words, but that was her meaning) that the man had lied. The man was a liar. But again, was that news to the rest of us?
What was news to me was Powers’ other approach to the problem of Weiner’s moral guilt. The thing that really anguished her, she said, was his “misogynist view of women,” his “predatory” “trolling" of "the Internet for women — some half his age." And the things he said to them! Dearie, you can’t imagine! He actually pictured himself entering themand . . . and filling them until they . . . ! So he was clearly sick, sick, sick.
That’s one high-minded excuse for my delight in Weiner Agonistes: he deserved to be humiliated, and he was.
I’ve seen a lot of amateur sexology, but I concede that this bit floored me. I mean, Powers’ analysis ravaged me. It was too much for me to take. I felt like a victim of her power. I was stunned and may never be able to recover from the awesome force of her enormous statements. I gagged, literally gagged, on this evidence that there are actually people in the world who think that the shopworn sexual fantasies in which men — and, I hear, women too — indulge themselves when they are, shall we say, warming to the subject, are to be taken as literally as fundamentalists take the first chapter of Genesis. No doubt Powers believes that when a man kisses his wife and tells her, “I love ya, babe,” he is infantilizing the poor, helpless creature, and burdening her with his “love.” It’s tantamount to rape, and child rape at that! No doubt she thinks that when man or woman declares, “You’re mine! All mine!”, this constitutes a clear violation of the laws of nature and of nature’s God. What would the Declaration of Independence say about that? And I suppose that if Powers ever visits the theater, she will rush on stage to stop Macbeth from killing the King.
Incidentally, this latter-day Cotton Mather (but that’s a bad comparison; Mather was a pretty good writer) seems never to have heard of the concept of consenting adults, or even of adults. To her, it seems shocking that a 21-year-old woman might do something that a 46-year-old man might do, such as type her sex thoughts into a computer. Half his age, indeed! Clearly, we should have laws prohibiting sex talk between any two adults who are different in age, because the younger will surely be hurt in some way that she (or he) will be unable to avert or even to understand.
The fact that this sort of nonsense isn’t given the ridicule it deserves is yet another proof that there are two cultures — not the two famous, supposedly antagonistic, cultures of science and the humanities, but the two cultures of the adult world and the world of the nursery school.
Living in the adult world are people who have had sex and admitted that they enjoyed (or hated) it; old-fashioned hookers; old-fashioned politicians; raunchy homophiles; any preacher who has actually read the Bible; any person who was ever actually concerned about his soul (as opposed to his “mental health"); any person who has ever actually affirmed or denied traditional values as values, and not as prescriptions for some kind of insipid “well being”; and any person who has ever argued that people should be free, and take the consequences for what they do with their freedom. To this list I will add your grandmother, who knew much more about a lot of things than Kirsten Powers appears to fathom.
As an employee and close friend of Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, however, Mrs. Weiner had probably gotten used to a lot of things that the rest of us don’t have to put up with.
Living in the world of the nursery school are all the disciples of the nanny state, all the apostles of the “appropriate,” all the people who believe that gay people will be fine, so long as the state is willing to bless their unions, all the people who pretend that "politics" is synonymous with “public service,” and all the people who believe that they themselves are entitled, by virtue of their ability to write a series of 800 words and get it published, to decide what is right and healthy for other adults to do. Notice: these people never say, "What the hell! Go ahead and do what you want (you tasteless S.O.B.)! Thank God, it’s none of my business." They always say, "I'm not sure that your behavior is appropriate,” which means, “I would have you arrested if I could.”
Isabel Paterson talked about another bifurcated age, like ours — the early 20th century, in which she came to maturity:
"This country used to be at once rigidly respectable and wide open. Novelists scarcely hinted at reality; and with saloons on every corner, it was very bad form and meant being dropped from invitation lists if a young man became intoxicated at a party" (New York Herald Tribune "Books," June 25, 1933).
Paterson might have mentioned something she knew very well, from her life as a journalist in turn-of-the-century Vancouver and Seattle — the fact that all large North American towns had a lively red-light district a few blocks from the quarters of the nice people, just as, today, cable TV displays the raunchiest kind of comedy shows, one or two clicks from the solemn mainstream media channels whose function is to tell you what is good for you to know. Today’s novelists more than hint at “reality” (meaning sex); but meanwhile, for every person who reads a serious novel there are 100 people learning wellness from Oprah.
So who are the superintendents of the nursery school?
They are people like Kirsten Powers, who apparently believes that you can be any kind of idiot you want to be, so long as you are a member of the right political party and your sex play doesn’t involve telling somebody that you want to do various explicit things.
They are people like Sean Hannity and Karl Rove, who treat tastelessness as if it were prima facie evidence of dementia.
They are the mainstream media, who never questioned Congressman Weiner’s assertion that he was battling for the middle class against the demonic forces of the Republicans and their vile puppet masters, the corporate authorities of America, or his desire to use that crusade to make himself the mayor of New York — until it was shown (by the non-mainstream media) that his principal crusade at the moment was being conducted on behalf of penis-awareness among nubile women. Then: “Oh horrors! This man is a fool. Why didn’t somebody tell us that before?”
Finally, the rulers of the nursery school are such cross-sections of the political class as Weiner himself, who was forced to resign from Congress because he lied, and counseled others to lie, but delivered a resignation speech in which he represented himself as a success, according to the best nursery school values. He thanked his wife (who was conspicuously absent) because “she has stood with me.” He thanked his parents (also absent), “who instilled in me the values that carried me this far.” (Uh, question, please, Mr. Congressman. Uh, I mean, uh, which values? Which values were those? Mr. Congressman? Mr. Congressman?) He also thanked the members of his staff, who worked long hours in his office, thereby “defin[ing] the notion of service.” In the nursery school world, service means working your tail off for a power-sucking congressman, so that maybe you’ll get to be one, too.
No traditional politician would have dreamed of saying things like this, but traditional politicians didn’t grow up in a nursery school. Yet the worst thing is that no one in the mainstream media said what my local talk-show host immediately came out with: “What does this guy think he’s doing — accepting an Academy Award?”
Yes, that’s an obvious remark. But to hundreds of thousands of our well-brought-up fellow citizens, it’s not obvious at all. To them, such comments are the products of envy and “rightwing” hatred. That is because they are living in a different world from the one inhabited by you and me. They are either nannies or the nice children studying to take the nanny’s job.
I’ve saved the best for last. According to the Associated Press (June 10),“U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said Thursday he wished Weiner would resign ‘to get that story off the front page.’ He said the controversy distracts from pressing economic issues.”
So here is a supposed political enemy, one of the right-wing Republican congressmen whom Weiner routinely reviled, maintaining that the economy is endangered by the public’s distracting interest in Weiner’s sexual embarrassment. Tony! Tony Weiner! Pull your pants up! You’re distracting everyone. It’s time for teacher to tell us about economics!
You can’t get much creepier than that.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison and American Christianity: The Continuing Revolution.
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