Despite the fact that I once taught a course (one credit, for freshmen) on love, sex, and politics from Aristophanes to Bill Clinton, I wasn’t going to say anything about Anthony Weiner’s peccadillos. But Laurie Essig knows how to push my buttons.
I’ll restrict myself to two observations. First, she makes the standard sophisticated point that professional and private lives can be separate, that the one need not have any impact on the other. So Anthony Weiner can be a bit of an exhibitionist in his private life (before and after marriage) and still be a good Congressman (I’m not going to follow her into the land of double entendres, as I’m sure many have already trodden that path). If I’m looking for an accountant or gardener, I might could agree with her (as we say down here). I’d be a bit more hesitant about hiring him as a colleague, because my job involves all sorts of contact with exactly the sort of people Weiner seems to like to, er, converse with.
Would he have been able to maintain his professionalism in all those circumstances? I have my doubts, and we’d only learn about his failures when he crossed the line (as all too many people in my business do). And then there’s the job Weiner actually holds: he represents people, which is to say, he speaks for them. When he behaves badly (as he has), it reflects on his constituents. So when we “hire” a Congressman, we’re not just choosing someone who holds an array of policy positions that we find congenial, we’re also hiring someone with a biography that we find admirable (most Congressmen and Congresswomen give us all sorts of personal details in the “About Anthony” sections of their websites).
Which brings me to my second point. Essig suggests that Weiner’s problem is that we bourgeois demand great discipline from ourselves. Here’s how she puts it: “That Weiner’s career as a politician is dead in the water is, sociologically speaking, understandable. His sexually undisciplined biography is stuck in a history of the rise of the bourgeoisie as the most sexually disciplined and least degenerate class.” If we weren’t bourgeois—if, for example, this were Restoration England—then Weiner wouldn’t be in a political pickle. If we were less uptight and more permissive, he wouldn’t have had to lie. Now, she doesn’t mention that he lied, perhaps because she thinks that the lying is only a byproduct of what’s really wrong—our bourgeois sexual morality, which is our fault, not Weiner’s. But I’d argue that the parts of his character aren’t so easily separated: he lied about cheating on his wife. Cheaters lie.
And someone who is willing to lie and cheat in these matters—in taking the most solemn vow that most of us ever take (O.K., I know that Bill Clinton presided over the wedding, which perhaps ought to give us a sense of irony about the whole thing)—is surely willing to lie and cheat in matters of less moment.
Perhaps Essig thinks that being concerned with lying and cheating are also merely bourgeois hangups. In that freshman seminar I taught, I required that students read Machiavelli’s Mandragola, in which “the good doctor of Italy” (as Francis Bacon called him) shows how successful hypocrisy can conceal and maintain sexual pleasure. If honor devolves into mere reputation, then we can manage our pleasures without harming our standing in the community. I offer that as an antidote to our bourgeois hangups. Is that the medicine she’s prescribing?
I’ll go this far: Anthony Weiner is a total failure as a Machiavellian, but not for want of trying.