There are few things more sickening -- or revealing -- to behold than a D.C. sex scandal. Huge numbers of people prance around flamboyantly condemning behavior in which they themselves routinely engage. Media stars contrive all sorts of high-minded justifications for luxuriating in every last dirty detail, when nothing is more obvious than that their only real interest is vicarious titillation. Reporters who would never dare challenge powerful political figures who torture, illegally eavesdrop, wage illegal wars or feed at the trough of sleazy legalized bribery suddenly walk upright -- like proud ostriches with their feathers extended -- pretending to be hard-core adversarial journalists as they collectively kick a sexually humiliated figure stripped of all importance. The ritual is as nauseating as it is predictable.
What makes the Anthony Weiner story somewhat unique and thus worth discussing for a moment is that, as Hendrick Hertzberg points out, the pretense of substantive relevance (which, lame though it was in prior scandals, was at least maintained) has been more or less brazenly dispensed with here. This isn't a case of illegal sex activity or gross hypocrisy (i.e., David Vitter, Larry Craig, Mark Foley (who built their careers on Family Values) or Eliot Spitzer (who viciously prosecuted trivial prostitution cases)). There's no lying under oath (Clinton) or allegedly illegal payments (Ensign, Edwards). From what is known, none of the women claim harassment and Weiner didn't even have actual sex with any of them. This is just pure mucking around in the private, consensual, unquestionably legal private sexual affairs of someone for partisan gain, voyeuristic fun and the soothing fulfillment of judgmental condemnation. And in that regard, it sets a new standard: the private sexual activities of public figures -- down to the most intimate details -- are now inherently newsworthy, without the need for any pretense of other relevance.
I'd really like to know how many journalists, pundits and activist types clucking with righteous condemnation of Weiner would be comfortable having that standard applied to them. I strongly suspect the number is very small. Ever since the advent of Internet commerce, pornography -- use of the Internet for sexual gratification, real or virtual -- has has been, and continues to be, a huge business. Millions upon millions of people at some point do what Weiner did. I know that's a shocking revelation that will cause many Good People to clutch their pearls in fragile Victorian horror, but it's nonetheless true. It's also true that marital infidelity is incredibly common.
If Chris Matthews or Brian Williams or any politician ever patronized or even visited a porno site on the Internet or had a sexually charged IM chat with someone who isn't their spouse, shouldn't that now be splashed all over the Internet so we can all read it -- not just the fact of its existence but all the gory details? After all, this is about character, judgment, veracity: these are Important Journalists and Politicians, and how can we trust them if they're not even faithful to their spouse? Isn't that the standard now -- the one they're gleefully propagating?