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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Calvin, Hobbes and Anthony Weiner

Why We Care About Mr. Mushroom Head

Media coverage and thus most over-the-water cooler and cocktail party chit-chat about Anthony Weiner obsessively focuses on what the scandal — or circus, or freak show, whatever it is — says about him. More interesting, yet utterly ignored, is what it says about us.

The historian Richard Hofstadter began his classic book “The American Political Tradition” by quoting the 19th century journalist-economist Horace White. The Constitution of the United States (and by extension the nation’s Ur political philosophy, White wrote, “is based upon the philosophy of Hobbes and the religion of Calvin. It assumes that the natural state of mankind is a state of war, and that the carnal mind is at enmity with God.”

Americans assume that people are basically bad. That, left to exercise their free will, people will usually succumb to their basest impulses. As the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, an ardent Calvinist, wrote: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire.”

If people are scum, it follows that they must be controlled. Americans accept Lord Acton’s aphorism that power corrupts; thus we admire the wisdom of the founding fathers for crafting a system of government based on checks and balances.

A corollary of the assumption that people are inherently bad is that the ability to resist temptation is rare, and thus admirable. George Washington, we are told, stands as a paragon of virtue for retiring, Cincinnatus-like, resisting the siren call of his admirers to stay on as a sort of American king. The perfect American leader is like Washington — self-effacing, self-denying.

When Anthony Weiner, then a relatively obscure, verbally combative New York Congressman, was, um, exposed sending photographs of his genitals via Twitter in 2011, what happened next initially followed a familiar political redemption narrative. He resigned, apologized, and vanished for a while. A little while. Then he gave a pair of carefully crafted interviews that put his attractive wife, and by extension their marriage, front and center.

He apologized again. No more sexting, he promised.

Next he announced his candidacy for the mayoralty of America’s largest city. Though not necessarily a step down in his career, neither was it perceived as an attempt to leap forward.

So far so good. Weiner climbed quickly in the polls, and no wonder: though few people could identify with his proclivity for self-photography, it didn’t seem as serious as actual cheating — boning a young intern in the workplace, for example. New Yorkers are fond of feisty politicians, even more so nowadays when people feel betrayed by a system run by and for the 1%.

As a liberal Democrat, Weiner didn’t face accusations of hypocrisy (c.f., former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, a “family values” right-wing Republican who bashed gays on the Senate floor while cruising for them in the St. Paul airport men’s room). Anyway, New York is the most liberal city in the country, hardly a bastion of Bible Belt self-righteousness. It didn’t hurt that his principal rival, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, was a singularly unattractive candidate, physically as well as politically. Few New Yorkers have forgotten Quinn’s perfidy in using her City Council to overturn term limits — which had been passed by a wide margin on the ballot — so that her ally, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, could run for a third term.

But then a low-rent website, The Dirty (!) revealed that Weiner had continued his old shenanigans. Not only was he sending out more photographs of his junk to random women online, he was carrying on cheesy virtual relationships with them. As Rachel Maddow said on MSNBC, this was something new: lying in the apology. And things got worse from there. It wasn’t just one woman, maybe it was three or six or whatever, who could really count? These days, the man who would be mayor can’t even say that he has stopped.

With the media, Democratic Party establishment, and even his wife’s mentors, Bill and Hillary Clinton, aligned against him, Anthony Weiner is plunging in the polls. It’s hard to imagine how he could recover by next month’s primary.

When you talk to voters in New York, they’re more amused by than disgusted at what Weiner did. Taking photographs of your penis, after all, is silly. Getting sexually aroused, or expecting women to get sexually aroused, by sexting seems kind of juvenile. It’s a boring kink, like a foot fetish. It isn’t gross, but it’s incomprehensibly goofy. Most people react to this sort of thing with a shrug. Whatever, if it makes you happy. And if his wife’s okay with it, why should we care?

What people really hold against Anthony Weiner is his lack of control. Clearly this man has a compulsion. All he had to do to become mayor of New York City was to stop sexting for 18 months. Clearly he couldn’t help himself.

It’s not the sin. It’s not the sexual proclivities, the unusual desires. It’s his lack of stoicism. His inability to suppress his compulsion.

Like all cultural assumptions, we take this one — our admiration for those who know how to play the game and our contempt for those who can’t/don’t — for granted. But it isn’t universal. Former Italian prime minister and media baron Silvio Burlosconi may well be heading to jail for tax evasion, but Italian voters didn’t give a damn about his prodigious sexual appetites, which manifested themselves at his notorious “bunga bunga” orgies, which featured under-aged prostitutes.

It’s easy to see how the inability to resist one’s primal sexual urges might make one a poor candidate for a position that required top-security clearance, for example. But Mayor of New York? I don’t really know the answer.

If the trash gets picked up on time and the subways run faster and the streets get cleaned and the schools improve, would it matter if the city’s chief executive spends his spare time setting up just the perfect shot for his private parts? If poverty is reduced and development is managed intelligently and the city’s budget gets balanced, would there be much harm in emailing dirty photos of himself to Midwestern floozies?

Like I said, I don’t know the answer. But we should be thinking about these questions — about what our societal priorities ought to be — more than about what is going on in Anthony Weiner’s brain.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Devils We Don’t Know

Who Are the Libyan Opposition?

Hi. You don’t know me. See that big guy over at the bar? I’m going to pick a fight with him. Wanna back me up?

That’s what we, the American people, are being asked to do in Libya. We’re not picking sides. Picking sides implies that we know what’s going on. We don’t.

Give George W. Bush this: he respected us enough to lie us into war. Obama wants us sign a blank check, no questions asked.

“We do not have any information about specific individuals from any organization that are part of this [war],” Hillary Clinton said on “Meet the Press.”

“But of course, we are still getting to know the people [rebels] leading the Transitional National Council [TNC].”

“Of course.”

This was over a week into the war.

I don’t know what’s more frightening. That Secretary of State Clinton expects us to believe that the U.S. government is fighting, spending, killing—and soon, inevitably, dying—for a cause it doesn’t know anything about? Or that she may be telling the truth.

For all we know the Libyan TNC, also known as the National Conference of the Libyan Opposition, is composed of and led by noble, well-intentioned, freedom-minded people everyone can get behind. But that’s the point: we don’t know.

Obama’s defenders say he’s different than Bush. Look! No cowboy talk! He got an international coalition! Even the French are on board!

Big deal. Hitler had a coalition too. Which also included the French.

Remember how, after 9/11, we got a history lesson about Afghanistan? Remember “blowback”? Remember how Al Qaeda came out of the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s? How, if it hadn’t been for the U.S. and its CIA, Osama bin Laden would today be working for his dad’s real estate development business in Saudi Arabia? The last thing U.S. policymakers should want to do now is replicate the 1990s, when they had to tramp through the Hindu Kush, buying back Stinger missiles from the Taliban.

Incredibly, in Libya today, the U.S. may be crawling back into bed with a bunch of crazy Islamists.

Who are the Libyan opposition? We have few clues. From what we can tell, the TNC is apparently a peculiar alliance of convenience between monarchists and Islamists.

One TNC leader is the pretender to the throne. The TNC uses the flag of the former kingdom deposed by Kadafi.

Western media outlets ridiculed the Libyan dictator for blaming unrest on Al Qaeda. On February 25th CNN’s Paul Cruickshank reflected this official line: “Militant Islamists have played almost no role in the uprisings in Libya.”

How much changes in a month.

As bombs were raining down on Tripoli, military officials began to concede an open secret: eastern Libya has long been a hotbed for Muslim extremism. “Al Qaeda in that part of the country is obviously an issue,” a senior Obama official told the New York Times on condition of anonymity. NATO military commander Admiral James Stavridis admitted to a Senate hearing that there were “flickers” of foreign fighters affiliated with Al Qaeda and Hezbollah presence among anti-Kadafi insurgents.

Constitutionalists to return to the Founders’ original intent. They say Congress, not the president, ought to decide whether or not to go to unleash the military. Obama didn’t even bother to get the usual congressional rubber stamp for this latest invasion.

But never mind Congress. War should be voted upon by the citizenry. After all, we—not Congress—bear the costs. If a president can’t be bothered to explain why we should kill and be killed and spend billions of dollars on a conflict, too bad for him and his pet defense contractors.

Starting with Obama’s carefully calculated conflation of civilians and insurgents, everything about Obama’s Libyan war stinks. The U.N. has authorized military operations to protect “civilians.” How, no matter how likeable they are, do Libyan rebels armed with anti-aircraft guns qualify as civilians?

As does this nightmare of a president’s what-if scaremongering, so reminiscent of Bush during the run-up to the 2003 attack on Iraq. What if there are massacres? But there weren’t any. What’s next—WMDs?

Hillary cites Kadafi’s “history and the potential for the disruption and instability” as casus belli. Funny, Moammar’s history didn’t bother her in 2009 or 2010—when her State Department had full diplomatic relations with his regime. As for the “potential” of “disruption and instability”—aw, hell, that could happen anywhere. Even here.

“If Jeffersonian Democrats take over in Libya, he’s a hero,” Robert Borosage of the Campaign for America’s Future said of Obama. “If he gets stuck in an ongoing civil war, then it could be enormously costly to the country, and to him politically.”

Which outcome would you bet on?

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL