I am interested in Anthony Weiner’s wiener and so are you. Here’s why: Anthony Weiner has been behaving in such a way as to undermine the public career that he is, quite obviously, in love with. Weiner is in love with politics, he is in love with power, he is in love with being a public figure, he is in love with the things he can accomplish as a Congressman. He wants to keep his job and he wants his career as a politician to grow. He is also in love with doing naughty things that, by their nature, threaten the other things he loves. We’ve all been poked to a greater or lesser degree by the horns of this dilemma, and so we are interested when we see someone else getting poked, too.
But there are always those who say that commentators should keep their interests to the abstract realm of issues, debates, politics, and policy. Both Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker and Glenn Greenwald of Salon have come out in the last few days with columns decrying the lack of substance that surrounds Weinergate. Greenwald claims that Weinergate “sets a new standard: the private sexual activities of public figures — down to the most intimate details — are now inherently newsworthy, without the need for any pretense of other relevance.”
I will leave it to someone else to draw out the complicated connections between Greenwald’s sometimes holier-than-thou political writing style and his inability to understand that the private sexual activities of public figures “down to the intimate details” do not need “other relevance” to be inherently relevant. The private sex lives of public figures are inherently relevant because it is fascinating to observe human beings acting strangely, or acting as we’ve always suspected that they are acting, or doing things counter to their own interests, or messing up, or ruining themselves. Consult Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky for more.
Perhaps the definitive defense of the relevance of Weiner’s wiener can be found in Ron Rosenbaum’s now-classic article for Harper’s from 1983. Rosenbaum was defending the New York Post in an article he called “Why Alexander Hamilton would have liked Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post.” The Post, as we should expect, has been all over the Weiner story, writing classic headlines such as “Weiner is Shrinking” when Weiner’s staff was trying to keep him out of the public eye, and “Weiner hung out to dry – Fellow Dems keeping hands off Anthony’s expanding scandal.”
Rosenbaum is highly approving of such Post headlines and anticipates, in his 1983 essay, the disapproval of the Hertzbergs and Greenwalds of the world. Rosenbaum writes:
[T]he people who unthinkingly make fun of the Post and its concerns are the victims of a serious intellectual misconception, a kind of kneejerk gentility, a schoolmarmish journalism-school mentality that sees the only fit subject of “investigative reporting” to be official misconduct, bureaucratic sins as opposed to those of flesh and blood.
The attitude that Rosenbaum is criticizing here is exactly the one recommended by Glenn Greenwald (who can be, by the way, a very good investigative reporter). But Glenn doesn’t always do so well with flesh and blood. In complaining about the coverage of Weinergate, Greenwald writes, “Can one even imagine how much different — and better — our political culture would be if our establishment media devoted even a fraction of the critical scrutiny and adversarial energy it devoted to the Weiner matter to things that actually matter?”
Perhaps. Perhaps our political culture would be better if journalists ignored the wieners. But it wouldn’t be about us, about the human beings that I see before me on the streets, the ones I have been living with and of whom I count myself a member.
Rosenbaum makes one more point in his essay. He reminds us of a question Alexander Hamilton once asked: “Has it not been found that momentary passions … have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility, or justice?” Yes, that fact has been found. It has been found time and time again. The lesson of it, nevertheless, eludes us almost as rapidly. We know about the passions, we know that we are creatures of the passions, but we pretend that it would be possible to erase those passions and become creatures of pure reason.
We can all understand, I suppose, Glenn Greenwald’s wish that matters of policy, utility, and justice were of preeminent concern. We can understand it, but we know it is not true to the reality of human experience. We’ve learned in the last few days that Anthony Weiner would rush with bated breath from his latest important vote in Congress to get to the locker room nearby where the next important work of the day could begin, that being sexting with his lady friends. That short trip from the halls of Congress to the House Members gym is a journey through the deepest pathways of the human soul. It is a journey from reason to passion, from the realm of policy debates and public interest to the realm of sexual desire and pubic interest. That journey from the House floor to the House gym is a lesson in how we are, if not always how we want to be. The New York Times may be the paper of record for the first part of the journey, but the New York Post is most definitely the paper of record for the second. A true story of human behavior in all its facets requires both. As another New York Post headline about Anthony Weiner put it so eloquently, “The Beat Goes On.” • 15 June 2011