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 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.)


13 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Calvin, Hobbes and Anthony Weiner

  1. Yeah, this is a tired argument. It’s the old “who cares about someone’s character, the only question is can they get the job done?”. As noted, it’s a tired argument — trotted out every time a politician is caught in a compromising position.

    It’s tired and doesn’t hold water. Ted fails to acknowledge Burlosconi’s lack of character is directly linked to his actual crimes. If the Italians had held him accountable, perhaps they wouldn’t have elected a criminal in the first place. Had Bubba been able to keep it in his pants, perhaps he wouldn’t have wasted the country’s time defending himself his entire second term. The people had an opportunity to hold him accountable for his juvenile antics before electing him, but they failed to do so.

    Bush and Obama haven’t suffered similar fates and the country has been better off for it. Say what you will about their effectiveness in general, but it is not in dispute that the country has not wasted time with endless investigations into their character. That is worth voting for.

    As for Weiner, the key word has already been noted: Juvenile. I don’t want a juvenile representative of any kind and neither should anyone else. This reverse-pious attitude of “let’s elect prostitutes and scumbags” isn’t cool, it isn’t hip, and it certainly won’t be effective. It’s just as juvenile as the juvenile acts of these losers thinking they can lead.

  2. The “point” , for me, is, who gives a shit if ANY of these fuckers win, because none of them will change anything. WE have to do that, and, “we” will not get there by talking about/refusing to talk about/pretending it matters/pretending it doesnt about anybody’s childish sex life

  3. Ted,

    Lots of things to thing about in this one. I like the discussion of Jonathan Edwards and the concept of “God hates you” as a founding principle. It’s interesting to me that atheism hasn’t been a significant part of the American political/cultural system. What would happen to the psyche if, instead of a “God hates you,” mindset, we had a political base who thought, “God? You mean the boogeyman priests used for centuries to trick the gullible into feeding, clothing, and housing them? Come on. You can’t make policy decisions on that, so knock it off already.”

    But, Ted, I think I spotted a flaw in your article — a rarity indeed. Yes, I find Christine Quinn loathsome, but her physical appearance isn’t really relevant. Anthony Weiner — to me — looks like someone who’s hiding a case of progeria. Let’s keep this highbrow.

  4. @Ex: I can’t subscribe to your argument that a man who commits sexual improprieties will necessarily commit political ones (like Burlosconi). There are too many exceptions to your alleged rule for that to hold water. The trouble with Burlosconi is that he is right-wing and corrupt, without the people’s interests at heart. Compare him to Barack Obama, who almost certainly is faithful to his wife. Yet Obama is a mass murdering psychopath who also doesn’t have the people’s interests at heart. Or to any number of revolutionaries with prodigious sexual appetites who sacrificed everything for the people.

  5. @Alex: When I referenced her physical appearance, I was handicapping the NYC mayor’s race. Physical appearance matters in the television age. Perhaps I didn’t make that clear. Those, these days, Weiner isn’t looking so hot himself.

  6. If Anthony Weiner did nothing but lower the subway fares back to a buck fifty, he could send me as many raunchy tweets and emails as he likes. If he taxes Wall Street, cancels any public and private debts to Wall Street, brings back CBGB, all along with the reduced fares, I’ll send him raunchy back. If he does all of the above as well as provide housing for homeless people, curb eminent domain abuse, and start a massive jobs program in the City, I’ll send him raunchy in person.

    Because I’m a New Yorker, not a Bible Belter.

  7. Men who receive suggestive photos of women are usually aroused. So young and ignorant men think that women must be equally aroused by suggestive photos of men. This is a contra-factual, and any male over the age of 18 who still believes it is mentally challenged.

    I was teaching IT to some young women, and wandered by to see what they were all giggling at, and saw a Weiner-style picture (which they quickly minimised). They were NOT giggling because the picture aroused them, but because they found it amusing that a young man would think that it would.

    Weiner should be old enough to know better.

    Gail Collins of the New York Times keeps saying Buchanan was the worst president, but she’s a whippersnapper. I was taught that Buchanan was a cipher, not bad or good.

    I’d say Truman was worse: read Graham Greene. Truman was the one who, given the option of supporting either the French or Ho, decided to support a tiny, unpopular, corrupt Christian group in Vietnam. (I’ll skip what Truman did to Palestine.)

    The result was Johnson (just as stupid) thinking that the US HAD to support that group, so he sent 500,000 troops and dropped more tonnage of bombs (including the nukes) than all of WWII on Vietnam. So a really stupid president can hurt the US, and a really stupid mayor can hurt NYC.

    And Weiner is about as stupid as one can get.

    (NB Clinton always gave his instrument, not a tweet of his instrument, to young women in private. And, had Monica not preserved the stain, Clinton would have had his usual ‘plausible deniability.’ Since Monica DID preserve the stain, many of my Palestinian friends say she was working for Mossad, because Clinton was being too even-handed. So I, personally, see no correlation between Clinton’s careful attempts at plausible deniability and Weiner’s tweets that he should have known would be re-tweeted.)

    • @Michael: I agree about Truman. Truman sucked eggs. To wit: he singlehandedly began the Cold War, breaking the WWII alliance. Enabled McCarthyism. Dropped the atomic bomb, establishing a precedent that it may be used. Destroyed unionism (c.f. Taft-Hartley Act).

  8. @Ted: A person’s character is directly related to their actions. A person who’s morally bankrupt in their own lives is more likely to be morally bankrupt as a leader. As to Obama, your point is irrelevant. To quote Chomsky, every American President since WW2 is a war criminal. So, your point is irrelevant. You’d be a war criminal too if you were elected. You think not? Then you don’t understand the presidency.

    As to the broader point, the country hasn’t wasted any time on the sexual proclivities of Bush 2 or Obama, and that in and of itself has been worthwhile. Dickhead Clinton wasted four years of this country’s time (not the Republicans, Clinton wasted that time) by not being able to keep his chode in his pants. I, nor anyone else, wants a repeat of that crap. Ever. To that end, fuck Weiner. His juvenile antics have no place in public office and he should have dropped out already.

    A politician’s personal character matters. I’m not interested in electing playboys or hotties. If they want attention, let them get put on some reality show. The rest of us need leaders.

  9. Yeah, I agree ‘sex scandals’ say more about us. I also agree that Weiner is a shithead.

    I’m just tried of the ‘sex scandals’ and tired of Weiner. I’ve no patience for such a dense, immature, vitriolic person as he. Same goes for all right-wingers who ignore the plight of Palestine. I’ve noticed that almost no topic recently on has generated so much discussion as Weiner’s Weiner, which disappoints me.

    Susan, you’re too funny.

  10. @Michael

    That’s an astute observation. I’d say Bloomberg is smarter than Weiner by far, but Bloomberg used his position as mayor to enrich himself, his friends and cronies, and has absolutely no appreciation for the public culture of the city.

    Is it possible to be stupid in one thing but not another? Or does encompass someone’s entire psyche?

  11. It should be upsetting, but I’m just disappointed instead. Truman was a childhood hero of mine. “The buck stops here.” But just like Lincoln, FDR, JFK, LBJ, Bubba, etc. he did so many shitty things. I always had a problem with the argument to drop the atomic bomb. Of course, I have a problem with demanding unconditional surrender. Germans who wanted to end the war felt they had to support Hitler. Japanese felt they had to fight to the end or be massacred.

    I know too many people who seem completely reasonable until they get on a certain topic such as god or politics. My grandmother is brilliant until we get to talking about Israel/Palestine, then it’s “Those poor Jews.” I’ve also met people who come off as intelligent, fair, etc. until a closer inspection of their lives.

  12. You’ve made a good point, Jack. There are a lot of people (most people?) who cannot evaluate anything objectively once they’ve “taken a side” or have allowed their subjective emotions to overide.