And so another up-and-coming politician bites the dust of sexual misbehavior. Poor Anthony Weiner. Move over Clinton, Gingrich, Sanford, and don't forget all the ministers of the gospel who have taken the plunge into hypocrisy. For what it's worth, here's my take on this latest Washington misfortune.
I have always believed that those who read great literature have the best education in human nature possible. One of the truly great American novels, "The Scarlet Letter," is but one example of how society fails in its judgment of what most Americans would call a sinner, Hester Prynne. Hawthorne presents the community of Salem, MA, as the arbiter of convention, religion, and decency, but he gives us a negative example. The good citizens of Salem are vicious in their rectitude, unmerciful toward the human need for love, and cruel in their punishment of a young woman whose only "sin" is to be caught in a loveless marriage that traps her spirit and degrades her soul. It is she, the wearer of the scarlet letter, who is the only virtuous character in the entire novel. Her lover, a minister, who should stand by her, rejects her in favor of his God, a demanding, punitive force that works through Salem's townspeople, who enjoy the deliciousness of punishment as much as they detest mercy and tolerance.
In the recent NYRB Stephen Greenblatt compares Milton's "Paradise Lost" to Wagner's "Die Walkure." Without going into his whole, very cogent argument, let me draw out what I believe is one of his most important points. Both artists create a world wherein humans choose human love over transcendence into the sublime. Both Milton and Wagner emphasize the loneliness of God/Wotan, whose power and unmatched status isolate them utterly. Their isolation is their agony, and it lasts forever. Humans who choose earthly love escape their loneliness, if only for a time. It is clear in both works that, while being thrown out of heaven or denied Valhalla is tragic, living without connection to other human beings is worse. (Who is more lonely than a tyrant?)
Both Milton and Wagner consider self-love the origin of mature love. Most psychologists would agree. Ourselves reflected back to us is what we most want to see. Isn't this what loneliness is? The desire to be known by another as well as you know yourself? This impossible need drives man like the furies. Laws and customs prevail not because they reflect what people do, but what they so often don't do. Otherwise, we would need no laws. When a couple promise to be faithful to one another, the promise is serious precisely because it is difficult to keep, so difficult that we need to stand up before the community and commit ourselves to a choice, not an inevitability.
I believe that Anthony Weiner does love his wife and is a good man. I don't know him, but he's a friend of Jon Stewart, and for me that's a good recommendation. So far as I know, he did not sleep with any of his online contacts, which makes him, I suppose, technically innocent. But the question is not one of innocence or guilt; it is a matter of private thought. Thank god we are not mind-readers. Our thoughts are our own, and we are accountable to no one for them. The most terrifying thing to me about totalitarian systems is their invasion of the mind. Mr. Weiner, I believe, was indulging in a bit of make-believe and obviously never intended it to see the light of day. I had a professor in graduate school who once said you know you haven't really lived if, when you find a note on your desk that says "all is discovered", the only thing you do is chuck it in the wastebasket.
American society in the 21st century is as blinkered and puritanical as 17th c. Salem. We recoil--with delight--when the mighty are brought low. If we can stand in judgment, perhaps we won't be judged ourselves. If we proclaim the supremacy of virtue, maybe our own peccadillos will never be brought to light. (Newt, are you listening?) It feels so good to see another righteously punished, and I suspect this feeling is a mixture of envy and revenge, neither of which is laudable. Why should an intelligent, compassionate, loving young woman be humiliated and shunned simply because she brought life into the world through a loving act? Why should a congressman be vilified because in the middle of the night he felt a universal, existential loneliness and reached out to another mind for a moment's tenuous connection? Oscar Wilde said that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. Another fine aphorism is, never presume to understand a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.
What Mr. Weiner did is embarrassing. No, he shouldn't have done it. But he was flirting with danger, no more. A man who deceives his wife and children over a long period of time, who condemns others for doing the same, who believes that apologizing for an act is as good as never having done it, is a whole different kettle of fish. The French have their mores. When the prime minister's illegitimate children appear at his gravesite and no one blinks, it is clear that French society has found an accommodation to the frailty of man. This sort of thing goes against the American grain, perhaps for good reason. If we go back to what I said earlier about the highest form of love being mature, mutual connection with another soul, not because nature dropped an anvil on our head and rendered us helpless, but because such a relation requires a choice forged in our deepest selves, then love is more sacred than prayer. It is also nobody else's business. We should feel sorry for the hapless Mr. Weiner and remember that we all have our secrets. He deserves our commiseration, not our condemnation. He owes his wife an explanation and undoubtedly a lengthy apology; he does not owe the rest of us the destruction of his career.
So what is the difference between Newt Gingrich, who cheated on two wives, one of whom had cancer, and Anthony Weiner who took some embarrassing photographs of himself--not anyone else, mind you, himself? Mr. Weiner has that deer in the headlights look of stunned amazement. His apparent lack of affect is presumably an effort not to break down in sobs before the cameras as he sees his life and career slipping inexorably away. Newt, on the other hand, puffs himself up like a bantam, tosses off a cursory apology, and blames "the pressures of work," thus trying to blame his own conscientiousness for his own tawdry behavior. One is a poor slob; the other is a pompous ass. One has critics baying for his resignation; the other throws his hat in the Presidential ring, and no one chokes on it. Who is really to blame here? I suggest that, as with the good men and women of Hawthorne's Salem, the real evil is in our own hearts.