In Defense of a Weiner

Posted on June 12, 2011 by


Anthony Weiner’s exhausted public relations team announced this weekend that the congressman is entering a “treatment center” to “focus on becoming a better husband and healthier person.”

The announcement comes in the wake of recent revelations that Rep. Weiner was communicating privately on Twitter with a 17-year-old Delaware girl. Though leaked messages from Weiner’s exchange with the high-schooler have proved benign—especially compared to his Facebook exchange with Lisa-The-Blackjack-Dealer—the sudden appearance of an underage guest star in The Weiner Saga is, for most of the public, the nail in the politico’s coffin. A coalition of Democrats (spearheaded by Speaker Pelosi) is now pushing for Weiner’s resignation from the House.

But for some people, the case against Weiner isn’t clear-cut. Yes, he’s a liar; yes, his sexts are cringe-worthy and his judgment undeniably awful (who sexts on Twitter?)—but in the moral code of the social networking age, exactly how bad are Weiner’s sins?

Sex scandals these days seem to fall into one of two categories: the real and the virtual. When a politician has sex with someone outside of his marriage; or when he’s pursuing a physical relationship with someone; or when he’s harassing an acquaintance—then he’s guilty of a real indiscretion.

But when he’s chatting up strangers on Facebook, Twitter, or Craigslist with no intention of pursuing a physical relationship, he’s essentially guilty of living out his fantasies on a virtual plane. Sure, he may be communicating with real people, but those real people are so disconnected from him—so dehumanized and dismembered by technological mediums—that they’re little more than digitized blow-up dolls to him, fodder for self-gratifying fantasies.

Are Reps. Anthony Weiner and Chris Lee really moral outliers in today’s linked-in, uber-networked society? I’m not defending Weiner—his peacocking self-portraits suggest that the man is at best a dim-witted narcissist, and, at worst, an apathetic sleaze.

But we’re all guilty of exploiting technological buffers to do things we otherwise wouldn’t. With the click of a button, we can send messages to lovers, friends, and strangers that we’d be loathe to say to their faces. Technology gifts us with a dangerous kind of dissonance that has exponentially facilitated intimate social interactions. In what Neil Postman calls “the improbable world,” we might know that we’re communicating with actual people when we tweet and text—but we retain just enough subconscious doubt to allow us to maximize our freedom and say what we want. This is the pathology of the technologically-empowered—and Anthony Weiner and Chris Lee aren’t the only ones losing themselves in semi-virtual fantasies.

I’m not saying Weiner shouldn’t resign; I think he should—just because no one who has heard his lies and seen his nude photos (or watched Bill Maher and Jane Lynch’s fantastic dramatic reading of his sexts) will ever be able to take the guy seriously, and his constituents should be represented by someone who’s not a national joke. (And if Weiner can see beyond his own gratification, he may also choose to resign for personal reasons—namely, to spare his wife and future child the humiliation of further public scrutiny.)

But Weinergate won’t be the last of the virtual sex scandals—which makes one wonder: If sexting with strangers is now about as easy as watching porn on the internet, how long will it be before virtual sex scandals aren’t really considered scandals at all?