08/07/2013 03:41 pm ET | Updated Oct 07, 2013

Whose Crime Is It Anyway?

There should be no surprise at the the media frenzy over the Anthony Weiner sexting debacle. Look at what's at stake. The story, so ripe with salaciousness, made it hard for news outlets to decide where to pounce first. But a curious thing happened. By the second day, the media coverage converged almost entirely on one question: why didn't Huma dump him? Conjecture about Weiner's political viability was overtaken by speculation about the marriage itself. The images of a tense but composed Huma, literally standing by her man at their cringeworthy joint news conference were inescapable. Stricken as she appeared, her presence may have been intended to staunch the political bleeding. But her attempt to deflect the attention back onto her candidate husband only served to intensify the focus on herself. Overnight, Huma the Wronged was transformed into a suspect in her own right, as if she were an accessory ­ not to a crime exactly, but, at the very least, to serious fall from grace. As if her display of acquiescence and forgiveness, connoted, in some way, complicity.

This has become a familiar exercise ­­ the intense scrutiny of betrayed political wives has taken on the aspect of a ritual ­ a kind of symbolic excavation. What is it we hope to un­earth? In truth, the public face of any political union is a screen onto which we project our collective anxiety about the fragile state of marriage today. A political marriage buffeted by a case of infidelity acts as a cultural Rorschach test, revealing attitudes about love, loyalty and even gender. The real question is not why did Huma stand by her man ­­ which in the end is unknowable ­­ but rather, why do we so avidly pose the question in the first place. Why do we care so much? The answer in the end says less about Huma Abedin and more about us.

The "Huma question" plays to a lurking discomfort with the idea that a women might stick with a man for reasons other than love and family. That the public should find Huma's motivation for staying in this marriage ­­ whatever it might be ­­ an object of such dire fascination should not be surprising. But the tone suggests we were trying to catch her out in some wrongdoing ­­ the "crime" of being driven; the sin of ambition. That Huma's public show of outraged righteousness was deemed insufficient suggested to various pundits that her marriage was founded on a contract in which romantic love plays at best a supporting role. Apparently people find this untenable. There is a further implication ­­ unwelcome as it is ­­ that the husband might have been a pawn in the wife's quest for power. Huma enters the stage as Medea, but she exits as Lady MacBeth.

And that's not all. The second salvo of Huma scrutiny was concerned with the role played by Hillary Clinton, Huma's mentor and employer, whose own decision to stay with her cheating husband became a national polemic against women seeking political power. The story started to sound like a paranoid conspiracy theory. We seem to be saying that yes we have identified a traitor in the house of love, but that the traitor is not the husband. Weiner might have broken his vows of fidelity, but Huma ­ and women like her­ are seen as betraying the premise of marriage itself. None of this would be an issue if we were comfortable with the idea of a multi­purpose marriage built to satisfy a variety of motives. But at the end of the day we aren't ready to give up on the idea that marriage, at least for women, is fundamentally a statement about love, devoid of any extra­personal goals.

It's also possible that we want to punish Huma, and the Humas before her, for not coming down harder on her husband for his compulsive, errant behavior ­ because culturally it is the role of wives and mothers to safeguard what is good and noble about manhood while at the same time reining in its less pro­social aspects. Somewhat perversely, we yearn for Huma to publicly demonstrate her punitive capacity ­ to enforce the moral order. According to this dubious line of reasoning, when men behave badly, it is women who must issue the rap on the knuckles, the order to straighten up and fly right, or else... It's as though without these repercussions, we would be lost in a world ruled by rowdy boys ­­ a world of chaos and unaccountability.

The no-­way-­out-ness of this situation is a kind of gender role hangover. Though we should be well beyond this, women are apparently still confined to a limited range of action, at least where marriage is concerned. A political marriage is a lightening rod for our most retrograde gender attitudes, as well hidden as they may be in other arenas. In the end, the surfacing of our on­going need for women to tow the line of traditional marriage and moral order is the most unsavory aspect of the Huma story.