By now, former Democratic congressman and recently twice-failed mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner is officially a household name. It should be an encouraging sign for the politically inclined that any U.S. politician would be a household name in a country where we monitor the statements made by “Duck Dynasty” cast members more closely than those of our congressmen. However, the New York City-native is not famous for introducing meaningful legislation or for exercising political clout. Rather, Weiner was cemented into the American mind when, as I’m sure you remember, a lewd photo of the congressman appeared briefly on his Twitter account in 2011, sparking a scandal that spanned over two years and caused a media frenzy.
While his original public position was that his account had been hacked as a prank, within weeks Weiner gave a tearful confession in which he admitted to engaging in “inappropriate online relationships” with a variety of women he had met on the Internet. The media grabbed ahold of the scandal immediately, and soon discussion about Weiner’s, well, “wiener,” was taking place on every major news network. Political journalists gleefully coined the term “Weinergate”and headlines following a “Insert-Your-Weiner-Pun-Here” formula crowded newsstands, particularly in New York where raking someone over the coals is practically an art form.
By the time Weiner resigned from Congress on June 16, he was the talk of the nation. His woes only continued during an attempted return to politics in the 2013 race for mayor of New York. During the campaign, more pictures and messages were released and Weiner was thrust back into the spotlight. He officially dropped out of the race in June, and once again a grown man sending suggestive photographs to women became a national news story. Amongst all the excitement that accompanies scandals of such longevity, many Americans failed to ask themselves an important question: Why should we care? The simple answer is: we should not.
We should not ignore such a scandal because Anthony Weiner deserves our sympathy or respect. Weiner is certainly a scumbag for cheating on his wife and embarrassing his family. You could make the case that he deserved to be dragged through the mud the way he was, but that does not mean we should confuse this type of frivolous gossip with actual news.
While political analysts in suits discussed Anthony Weiner’s “dick pics,” an unprecedented income gap between the have’s and have-not’s continued to widen, powerful lobbies in Washington continued to control more aspects of legislature than anyone cares to admit and the NSA was collecting masses of private data on American citizens without their knowledge. The opaque world of politics is ripe with scandals that actually affect the American quality of life. By giving airtime to something as unimportant (on a national scale) as the infidelity of a public figure, we’re spending less time digging into these far more pressing issues. It is just another example of our growing preference for spending our time on what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear. The problem with this trend, this sensationalist, substance-less version of “news,” is that it trades our political discourse for tabloid fodder.
To pass off the country’s fascination with this story as relevant because congressmen are supposed to be held to a high moral standard is laughable. Is “unfaithful” a description idealistically befitting of a congressman? Of course it’s not. But we as a people are either ignorant or lying to ourselves if we do not acknowledge that dishonesty and deception are traits for which politicians are naturally selected. The power struggle in Washington is a game in which politicians lie and cheat, and sometimes they’re going to get caught. Google “politician sex scandal” and look at the laundry list of familiar names. In fact, go check out what’s going on with France’s President Hollande at the moment — for the past week, his current extramarital affair has completely overshadowed his poor ratings. Is it really shocking that powerful, wealthy men who make a living on their appearance and ability to speak persuasively, stray from home? Is infidelity really where we want to draw the line for holding our politicians accountable? Is there nothing more substantive to investigate?
Disguised as rightful indignation at the unfaithful actions of a congressman, the frenzy that accompanies a scandal like Weiner’s or Hollande’s is, in reality, driven by the same love for petty gossip that inspires high school drama. The whole thing, really, is inherently childish, from the tireless use of the ridiculous term “sexting,” to the way Republicans chomped at the bit to get in their digs at a partisan opponent. While the news was caught up in this adolescent natter, the secretive and often sinister world of politics hummed along, continuing to be largely ignored and misunderstood by those who couldn’t take the time to pay attention unless there were half-naked public figures involved.
The only thing worth discussing about Anthony Weiner are his politics — they are the only relevant aspects of his life to the average American. If he is also an ass, that is unfortunate, but that doesn’t make it national news. If you follow politics independent of the occasional scandal, the “sexting” debacle is far from the first sign that Weiner is a total jerk. Prone to outbursts to and against the media, and often criticized as being more concerned with camera time and his mayoral aspirations than with passing meaningful legislation as a congressman, Weiner and his unfaithfulness seems almost a foregone conclusion. Yet we react with outraged indignation all around the country at the realization that an outwardly selfish and rude person did a selfish, rude thing.
It would be excellent to live in a magical world where infidelity was the most egregious crime committed by a politician. Unfortunately, this is the least of our worries. As long as corruption and inequality plague the inner workings of our governing bodies, it would do us Americans well to be unsatisfied with a scandal of such little significance. Every time we allow ourselves to hear stories like the Weiner scandal and consider ourselves to be “following politics,” we play into the hand of individuals who benefit from our interest in the petty and personal, and from our ignorance of the greater injustices at play. The next time a story of this nature arises, we would be wise to put small distractions like Weiner’s wiener to the side and focus on much larger issues.
Matthew Meyer is a second-year political science major.