Anthony Weiner and Liberal Morality

The New York mayoral candidate's two big failures: terrible political sense and a lack of compassion
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Andrew Sullivan offers a defense of Anthony Weiner, who has recently been shown to have continued his online affairs even after he resigned from Congress:

No one outside a marriage can fully know what's in it, or what makes it work. For my part, I favor maximal privacy for all married couples in navigating the shoals of sex and life online and off. Monogamous, monogamish, and open relationships are all up to the couples themselves and all have risks and advantages. But ultimately it is up to the spouse to decide if there has been a transgression or not, and whether to forgive and move forward or not. The truly awful spectacle yesterday was seeing Huma Abedin being forced to undergo another public humiliation as the price for her husband's public career. But she clearly stated she was not abandoning her husband. And for me, as for us, that should close the matter.

And let's be clear, there is no victim here. A flirty, horny 22-year-old who talks a great sex game is not a victim. She's a player - and good for her. This nonsense about her being "immature" and Weiner being "predatory" is belied by the facts. She knew he was married when she sexted him and he returned the favors. The only salient question is whether, having lied in the first place about sexting, Weiner was caught deceiving the public again by claiming he had stopped sexting and re-built his marriage, while the compulsion was clearly not over. That's a question of public trust, and there's little doubt that Weiner has squandered it. On the question of lying, the NYT's harrumph this morning is a valid one. Once a politician has deceived people, he gets a second chance. When he deceives them a second time on the same issue, he loses whatever public trust he might have hoped for.

But I see no reason why that trust should not be tested where it should be: at the ballot box. Weiner should not, er, withdraw prematurely. He should do us all a favor, if his wife agrees, and plow on until we can all smoke a collective cigarette. In this new Internet Age someone has to be the person who makes sexting not an excludable characteristic for public office. If it becomes one, then the range of representatives we can choose from in the future and present will be very, very different in experience and background than the people they are supposed to represent.

There's a lot here that I agree with, but I don't get many opportunities to get to the right of Andrew. In all seriousness, I think there are two separate issues. The first is the idea that there is something wrong with online sex. We can dispatch that fairly easily: There isn't. The second is that the mere act of infidelity makes you unfit for public office. I don't think there's much ground for that argument either.

But the problem that I suspect a lot of people have with Anthony Weiner is not that he had an affair, but that he does not seem particularly good at the job of politics. Part of being good at politics is being good at pitching your arguments. Part of pitching your arguments is your public image. We know this. Those of us who are partisans do not examine "favorable and unfavorable" ratings in our polls simply for amusement. We examine them to see who might make the best pitch for the policies we endorse. The actual reasons why some people are viewed favorably and others are not may not always strike us as intelligent. But they are real. Politicians know this and thus guard their image accordingly.

Anthony Weiner is a politician who relished antagonizing the opposition. His appeal was singular and tribal -- in an age of seemingly vacillating, gun-shy Democrats, Weiner took on whoever may come. You never once got the feeling that he was ashamed to be a liberal. He must have known that this made him a target for conservative activists. A wise man in Weiner's position would be watchful. But Weiner is not a wise man. It is not his desire to get off that offends, it is the thick-wittedness of sending nude selfies on Twitter. It is the incomprehensible silliness of handing your opponents a gun and saying, "Please shoot me." Repeatedly. It is wholly sensible that those of us who believe the liberal project is about more than embarrassing Republicans would not want Anthony Weiner as a pitchman.

There is something else at work here also -- a lack of compassion. Here is where I differ with many of my liberal and libertarian friends. I believe that how you treat people matters. It is folly to embarrass your pregnant wife before an entire nation. To do the same thing again is cruelty. And there is the promise of more to come. One argument holds that what happens between Weiner and his wife is between them. I agree with this argument. But cruelty is not abolished by the phrase "consenting adults." And the fact that the immoral is not, and should not be, illegal does not make morality meaningless. Huma Abedin has one choice. We have another. The choice should be made by voters -- there should be no sense that if not for the powerful editorial pages Weiner would have won. As a city we deserve to see who we are, and what we actually care about.

I don't think it is wrong to care about how people treat each others, which is another way of saying I believe that morality is important. I find the argument for same-sex marriage compelling not in spite of morality, but because of it. I think public office is an honored, and honorable, position. I do not think it is wrong to ask that our officers be compassionate. I do not believe it is wrong to ask that our officers be wise. I do not believe that it is the fate of all men to send dick pics hurtling through cyberspace. And I do not believe that Anthony Weiner is the best we can expect from maledom, to say nothing of New York liberals.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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