The Worst Thing About Weinergate? The Total Obliteration of Sexual Privacy by Ideologues Like Andrew Breitbart
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Like most political junkies who tuned in to Anthony Weiner’s press conference confession of online flirtations, I went through a series of emotions: irritation at Weiner’s stupidity, anger at Andrew Breitbart’s sleaziness, frustration that this story gets coverage during an economic crisis, and embarrassment for the reporters who thought it appropriate to ask if he’s getting professional help or demand that Weiner’s wife stand around so that everyone can gawk at her. But one concern rose above all others. This scandal may represent the end of the presumption of sexual privacy for politicians, and possibly even for journalists, activists, and bureaucrats---anyone whose public humiliation could benefit the ideologues wed to the politics of personal destruction.
Prior to this scandal, the media and political operatives had to at least pretend that a politician's sex life had some bearing on the public interest before they picked up the pitchforks. Being an adulterer wasn’t, in and of itself, a matter of public interest. There had to be a hook. If you were a social conservative who advocated for using the government to control the sexual behavior of consenting adults, for instance, then you were held to your own standard and your adulteries were considered public business. If you opposed gay rights, your own history of same-sex relations was fair game. If you broke an anti-prostitution law you vigorously enforced on others, like Eliot Spitzer, you had no reasonable expectation of privacy. Arnold Schwarzenegger had a long past of being accused of sexual harassment, so the state of the marriage he used as a shield matters. Even at the height of the national panic over Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Clinton’s detractors claimed that it wasn’t the sex that was the issue, but the perjury. No one believed them, of course, but the claim at least paid tribute to the idea that the private sexual choices of those who support sexual privacy are not the public’s business.
But with this Weiner scandal, there’s not even the veneer of an excuse in play. Weiner has an outstanding record supporting sexual rights of others, with 100% ratings from NARAL and Planned Parenthood, and has a strong record of support for gay rights. No laws seem to have been broken, no public trust compromised, no campaign irregularities indicated, and there’s been no suggestion that his flirtations interfered with his ability to do his job. The entire rationale for the scandal is that Weiner isn’t living in accordance with strict social mores regarding monogamy, and that’s it. Even the whining about how he lied when initially confronted is hollow. In the past, lying when someone asks nosy questions that are none of their business was considered a socially acceptable white lie. (And really, who among us would be a paragon of transparency with Wolf Blitzer waving a penis picture in our face and saying, “Is this yours?”) The pretense that it has to matter to the public in order for the public to get involved has been dropped.
This loss of privacy should worry people more than whether or not Weiner was right to lie or even how rude it was of Andrew Breitbart to hijack the press conference. The presumption of sexual privacy may have been stretched at times past the point of recognition, but this represents the first time it’s really snapped, at least in my memory. If this Weiner scandal is more than a blip, and instead the beginning of a free-for-all of rooting through politicians’ trashcans to make sure their private sex lives adhere to someone else’s standards, where will it all end?