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The Roasting of Weiner and the Public Good

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Okay, so Anthony Weiner has resigned. Now everyone can go home happy and make believe all is well in our Republic. We got the lying tweeter.

Democratic leadership can stop worrying that Republicans will use Weiner's inappropriate tweeting against them in a "values" attack in the next election. Their transparently political witch-hunt, pursued for them with such uncharacteristic unity of message and purpose, has succeeded. Though Democrats have, in the past, defended far worse boundary crossing behavior and lying by their leadership, all the way up to a former President, this tweeting transgression apparently just pricked them too deeply. Anyway, we have been told that the leadership of the party never really liked Weiner anyway -- something about his always preening for attention and wanting to be the largest presence -- and there is something poetic about tar and feathering a tweeter.

Republican leadership can also feel quite satisfied with having deflated Weiner knowing that their hypocritical self-righteous attacks helped push Weiner to fall on his sword. Given how many Republicans have perpetrated and lied about physically real sexual transgressions rather than virtual sexual transgressions -- transgressions that run the gamut from playing with congressional pages, to paying prostitutes, to soliciting in bathroom stalls -- it must be of tremendous psychological release to project anger, guilt, and judgment on Weiner.

Most of the mainstream media can also feel pretty good having pursued this important story to the bottom of every last tweet. No doubt by giving head lines to Weiner for two weeks the nightly ratings on FOX, MSNBC, CNN and our so called major networks were up far more than they would have been had they lead with news about our five wars, the fourteen million plus Americans who are unemployed, the millions of our fellow citizens who have lost or are about to lose their homes, or the general unraveling of the social contract between the wealthy class and the rest of America. But there is nothing like being able to offer salaciousness, in the guise of serious news, to arouse the viewing public. Weiner's tweets became our treats.

And of course We the People -- 92% of whom, according to last week's Pew study, believe in God -- endowed by our Creator with an inalienable right to pursue happiness -- have enjoyed one more Fall from Grace story. It almost doesn't matter what the cause is as watching someone above us fall is thrilling and these days does not even need to be a secret thrill. This trope is almost banal: we hate what we idealize -- be it power, fame, wealth -- because what we idealize we know deep down is not worth wanting and so we feel embarrassed and even dirty for wanting it so. How much easier it is to sacrifice Weiner on the public altar than for us to reflect on our own desires we feel are shameful. The pleasure of scapegoating Weiner is simply far easier than exposing our desires to examination or deliberating about the state of our own culture.

Tweeting sexually suggestive texts, including highly inappropriate images, to seven women was stupid, tasteless, and crude as well as narcissistic and sexually immature. But Weiner is a teeny issue that we have blown up to avoid confronting something deeply wrong in contemporary America. We pounced on Weiner for lying about his tweets, which he did out of a justified sense of embarrassment, all the while that we lie about the sexual eccentricities/pathologies of our own culture, which surely embarrass us. Weiner is the tip of the iceberg of our sexual issues. Estimates are that the porn industry in this country is a fourteen billion dollar industry that reaches into our finest corporations. Comcast, the nation's largest cable company pulls in more than 50 million dollars from adult programming. You will not read in it their annual reports but all the nation's top cable operators, from Time Warner to Cablevision, distribute sexually explicit material to their subscribers. Same with satellite providers like EchoStar and DirecTV which may make as much as five hundred million dollars off of the adult entertainment business. Then there are our big hotel chains: Hilton, Marriot, Hyatt, Sheraton and Holiday Inn, which all offer adult films on in-room pay-per-view television systems. And they are purchased by a whopping 50 percent of their guests, accounting for nearly 70 percent of their in-room profits.

But wait there is more. According to a CBS News 60 Minutes report 89% of porn is created in the U.S. $2.84 billion in revenue was generated from U.S. Internet porn sites in 2006. $89/second is spent on porn. 72% of porn viewers are men and 260 new porn sites go online daily. And all this is in addition to what we know about the hyper-sexualizing of advertising and just about everything in the popular culture, to the increase in date-rape, to the myriad of illicit relationships that have become a normal part of the American sexual landscape.

Personally, I am not at all interested in taking away anyone's freedom and I am on the sex is good side of religion but it is not Victorian to conclude that we have a bit of a problem with desire, sex, and the erotic. Clearly, there is something out of sync between our moral outrage at Weiner's adolescent behavior and what appear to be the normative sexual habits of our country. Yes, I know we have higher expectations of our leaders and so because Weiner could no longer be a role model, and because he no longer had the confidence of his esteemed colleagues -- though the majority of his constituents did not want him to resign -- Weiner had to go. Personally, I have no skin in this game as Weiner was not my representative and long ago I stopped thinking politicians were role models but now that the roasting of Weiner is over what exactly have we gained besides the nasty pleasure that comes from watching another person humiliated.

Without in any way justifying Weiner's behavior but given we took such extraordinary interest in this tale that really bears no significance on our life are we any better either as individuals or a country? Have we had any conversations -- even if just in the privacy of our own conscience -- about where we may have crossed sexual lines which if revealed would embarrass us? Have we reflected about the relationship between public virtue and private vice in a world in which increasingly the public and private are blurred? Have we asked why Weiner's tweeting got more public attention than the five teenage suicides this year connected to sexting combined? Have we thought about what would have happened if we had a political culture in which owning up to our misdeeds did not automatically mean we would be destroyed?

What if our political leadership had chosen to not use the Weiner mess as a club to beat each other up and score points but instead had risen to the occasion and said to the country: "We are saddened and embarrassed for our colleague as his behavior is not what we expect from a member of the House. We expect him to address the emotional issues that have driven him to behave so inappropriately and in fact we are strongly suggesting he take a leave of absence in order to do so. But there is a difference between being terribly crude and inappropriate and being a criminal. We also know that, though we wish it were not the case, there is often a gap between our private face and public face and while we should always be working on narrowing the gap, especially if one is a leader, there is a difference between public morality and private morality with regard to consequences for transgressions. As political leaders who care about building a good society we are well aware our culture has a complicated relationship to sex and with powerful new technologies there has been an explosion of sexual expression. We believe Rep. Weiner needs to get this area of his life in order and that ultimately his constituency will determine whether he is fit for office at the next election less than eighteen months away. We think that our banishing Weiner for admittedly very poor behavior would be unfair given the history of our Body in this area and more importantly, would ultimately be a deflection from our collective need to take a serious look at the culture around sex that we collectively are responsible for creating. We urge the citizens of this country, in all of our diversity as individuals, families, groups, and communities, to use this moment to reflect about how, in this age of unprecedented freedom, transparency, and technological capacity we want to handle one of the most powerful desires of all.

Well, maybe next time.

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