Kent Pitman

Kent Pitman
New England, USA
Philosopher, Technologist, Writer
I've been using the net in various roles—technical, social, and political—for the last 30 years. I'm disappointed that most forums don't pay for good writing and I'm ever in search of forums that do. (I've not seen any Tippem money, that's for sure.) And I worry some that our posting here for free could one day put paid writers in Closed Salon out of work. See my personal home page for more about me.


JUNE 20, 2011 7:37AM

Curse of the Zombie Weiner

Rate: 11 Flag

The Coming Morality

Everyone’s trying to talk like this Weiner thing is over and we can get back to where we were. But we can’t go back. The matter is dead, but it wasn’t killed correctly. It was just transformed into a zombie state that will haunt us going forward.

We once lived in a world where people stayed in office because they were elected to office and that was the final word on the matter. Today we live in a world where election is not the final word. Shame is. And shame is too easily manufactured—too easily forged. It just takes money and a media enterprise and the will to make mischief, or worse. And there’s a rich supply of that right now.

We had a political system ruled by the Constitution, but we traded it in for one ruled by the Media—and the unelected people with the power to control it, people we can’t shame into leaving office if we don’t like them, people whose names we might not even know. We’re moving away from government transparency back toward government shadowiness.

And, yes, Weiner did something Bad. We’re all supposed to agree on that. We do, don’t we? Well, let’s suppose—just for the purpose of discussion here—that we do, in fact, completely agree that Weiner did Bad.

But does the stipulated fact that he did a Bad thing mean we agree generally on what Bad is? Because that’s the subtle trap, isn’t it? In the process of trying to argue over whether what he did was Good or Bad, we implicitly bought into the idea that individual personal Goodness or Badness, whatever that means, is what should decide whether a person is allowed to remain in office.

The Democrats, a party that has traditionally rejected the notion of a Theocratic state, got tricked into out-moralizing the Republicans, and in the process implicitly accepted the validity of the Moral State. That was no victory. It was unilateral surrender.

Our Collective Distraction

In fact, the meaning of “Bad” is not something we all agree on. We all use the word, but we mean different things by it. That’s what was troubling about this situation. Our differing views overlapped enough in this one case that we allowed ourselves to be distracted by that fact into thinking it was acceptable to allow Badness to be the guiding rule.

If you even get to the point where you think there’s one right answer to what’s Good and what’s Bad, you have to next wonder who is going to give it to you. That’s why we have the First Amendment, and its so-called “establishment clause,” to remind us that there are many ways to answer such philosophical questions and that we must not presume that there is only one. Because the judges of Good and Bad are not our legal system, they are our parents, our religions, our friends. Are those to become our new government? Who says? If we are to use terms like Good and Bad as the criteria for who may serve in office, we must dispense with the First Amendment’s protections against the establishment of a state religion, because that’s really what’s in play just now.

So I don’t like that we just saw a sitting US Representative removed from office because of what amounts to sleight of hand. A trick. Certainly not a procedure under due process guaranteed by our Constitution. Not a procedure that can be reliably employed, but one that worked at the moment because we were collectively looking the other way.

In a magic trick or a con job, that’s the key. Get the victim to take their eye off of what is really at stake. And so the key in the feat of political legerdemain we just went through was to get us all to take our eye off of the issue of due process. People were led to cry so loudly in common agreement that they felt Weiner’s behavior was Bad that it distracted everyone from the question of whether Bad was the critical criterion. So many just wanted the matter ended that they became disinterested in other questions.

The same trick of distraction was used when we lost our privacy rights to the Patriot Act. Everyone was so in much agreement that they wanted to protect themselves and get revenge that they took their eye off of the Constitution. There again, we sacrificed our rights to save our freedom. This gambit is one we should be recognizing by now, not falling for repeatedly like a chump.

Crouching Liar, Hidden Damage

I will return to the matter of lying, since some seem to focus on that. But it won’t be in this post. For now I want to move on to examine the damage caused by asking Weiner to step down.

It seemed so innocent, what we did in our mob mentality. Weiner did Bad. We removed the Bad. Now things are Good. End of story. Right?

Alas, no.

The media focus seemed to obsess on the question of whether he deserved to remain in office, but sadly I heard almost no serious discussion at all about whether his constituents deserved for him to stay there. The media treated reports out of that district as a mere curiosity. Yet many of his constituents were outspoken that they did want him to stay, and the media just glossed right over that. It didn’t fit the narrative. They and their witch hunt were the champions of the narrative, and it would be a messy detail if the people they were saving didn’t feel saved.

Just look at how hard MSNBC host Ed Schultz worked to spin the message in another direction even as the facts of his very own presentation pointed elsewhere. The people interviewed here do not uphold his message. Yet in a move worthy of Bill O’Reilly, he still pushed for an outcome that seemed more about reassuring audiences that he was on the side of Good. Having recently found himself on the wrong side of the Morality bulldozer, he did the thing I’m suggesting to you is becoming the order of the day. He came to attention and offered a crisp salute to the peddlers of Morality, doing his duty to ferret out the immoral among us. Because that’s the new order of the day:

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So the needs and indeed the rights of the people of Weiner’s district took a back seat to other concerns. Concerns about personal morality. And in so doing, material concerns took a back seat as well. To quote Ed’s guest, Michael Blozen, “I didn’t vote for him for his sex life or that kind of thing. I voted for him for his views on women’s right to choose, on environment, on education, on saving social security, on Medicare, on Medicaid ... Why do the Republicans have us back-biting each other when the richest people are taking all the tax breaks?”

In the end, the needs and fate of the people in that district were the only issue. Did this process do right by them? I can’t see how it could have. Neither was due process upheld nor is the result likely to end in better representation for that district.

Who’s Driving this Bus, and Why Are We Seated at the Back?

I should also note that standards of Good and Bad change over time. In the modern world, shifts in perception are accelerated by media manipulation. Our beliefs are constantly being molded. And it’s bad enough the television moguls have such a strong influence on our election process every few years, but at least we used to get a period of time between elections when work could sometimes get done. In fact, one might argue that the real genius of our political system is that we effectively schedule our political overthrows. We put them on the calendar and do them in an organized fashion so we can get work done in between.

No longer. With this new tool, political overthrows can happen at unscheduled times for totally petty reasons. That throws a serious monkey wrench into our ability to do anything useful with the time between revolutions, and puts everything off balance. We see now that the decision of one or more media outlets to relentlessly badger a candidate can cause great political upheaval, not just as the next election but immediately, even to the point of removing a candidate from office. After all, what really brought Weiner from office was said to be the distraction. And what is television if not a Distraction Machine?

And distractions don’t have to be righteous. They can be utterly fabricated. We’ve shown we have a high tolerance for that. Even the President of the United States was forced to show his papers to prove he was an American citizen.

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Obama happened to pull a rabbit out of his hat by getting bin Laden, but that wasn’t a done deal at the time he released the long-form birth certificate. A lot was left to chance, and history could easily have been very different. It could have been that we failed in the attempt to get bin Laden and that all that happened was the giving in to badgering about the birth certificate. It should never have happened. But it did. And it’s further evidence of the power Media is taking in deciding what we must not allow Media to decide.

With every election, there now comes an almost inevitable fuss over questions of voter fraud. We care a lot about that as a public because we feel every vote should count and count correctly. But what good is all that fuss if ultimately that same person so carefully elected can be pushed out without an equal degree of process? A media giant doesn’t need to interfere with an election if successful candidates can be disposed of later, yet the result will be just the same.

Sure, Media should still be allowed to report, but We The People must reserve the ultimate right to decide, and I’m worried we’re quietly ceding that right.

Yielding Our Right to Disagree

Cognitive dissonance is a powerful force. We don’t like to feel we might be hypocrites and we work very hard to avoid feeling that way, even sometimes adjusting our fundamental beliefs until they allow us to live with ourselves in what we perceive as internal consistency.

So as long as someone has to convince you that you should do something they want you to do, they have an uphill battle. You are your own person and can take whatever position you like. But as soon as they can get you to admit or even imply that you want a thing, your freedom of choice is lost. Forever after, they no longer have to convince you that you want to do what they want. They just have to convince you that you admitted that you wanted it, and why wouldn’t you do what you want? It’s wedge they can drive to make you go crazy in a search for self-consistency until you finally agree to do what they want you to do.

So they no longer have to convince you that morality should be allowed to throw someone from office. That was yielded in this battle. Democrats already admitted that morality is a good reason to throw someone from office. So the Republicans no longer have to have a political fight about whether that’s a good criterion. All they have to have is a religious fight about what constitutes Good. That’s a much easier fight for them, and from that they can get what they want.

I have been remiss up to now in not prominently featuring author Robert Bolt’s brilliant take on this philosophical matter. In his master work A Man for All Seasons, he sums it up so much more eloquently than I imagine anyone else ever will:

Alice More

Arrest him!

Sir Thomas More

Why, what has he done?

Margaret More

He’s bad!

Sir Thomas More

There is no law against that.

Richard Roper

There is! God’s law!

Sir Thomas More

Then God can arrest him.

Richard Roper

Sophistication upon sophistication.

Sir Thomas More

No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law.
I know what’s legal, not what’s right.
And I’ll stick to what’s legal.

Margaret More

Then you set man’s law above God’s?

Sir Thomas More

No, far below, but let me draw your attention to a fact— I’m not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can’t navigate. I’m no voyager. But in the thickets of the law— oh, there I’m a forester. I doubt if there’s a man alive who could follow me there, thank God.

Alice More

While you talk, he’s gone!

Sir Thomas More

And go he should, if he was the Devil himself,
until he broke the law!

Richard Roper

So, now you’ll give the Devil
the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More

Yes! What would you do?
Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Richard Roper

Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More

Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?

This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law,
for my own safety’s sake!

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This was an amazing situation where the media played it like a fiddle. I am glad things ended with his leaving his post otherwise we would look pretty badly on the world stage. Thanks for you insight and more.
Algis, as you perhaps guess, I disagree that it was good for him to step down, but, that said, I'm fearful that this post's length will be a barrier to a lot of people reading it, and you certainly get points for showing up at all. Plus I do like to hear what people think, even when they disagree. Thanks for visiting!
It may be lengthy but it was worth reading every word. I like your analysis and the videos, especially Goldie Taylor. Perhaps Ed used the wrong word, I would have used whore. I feel strongly that Weiner should have let his constituents decide but then I feel like he did nothing wrong, even his lying was on the lame side. His wife is the only one who should care and hopefully she will not be hounded to talk about it.
Excellent post
rated with love
Hi, Poetess. Thanks for taking the time to read and for adding your perspective. It's good to know you thought it was worth your time. And I'm really glad you liked those videos. I was really struck by how solid both of those segments were when I saw them originally aired and it's fun to be able to share them.
I’m not thrilled with many of the people in congress including Weiner; however I agree they should be paying far more attention to the real issues than scandals that don’t affect the work they do. If not for the obsession of the corporate media which practically never covers important issues in an honest manner this wouldn’t be as big of an issue. Clearly when the mass media was allowed to consolidate they turned into a propaganda machine that ended anything close to a free press that has the ability to reach the majority of the public.

Furthermore after hearing that he was one of the only ones speaking out to remove Clarence Thomas for corruption and speaking loudly on the House floor about how the Republican’s are a “fully owned subsidiary of the insurance companies,” I suspect this may be an attempt to remove one of the less extreme members so the establishment can get even worse. This doesn’t mean that the Democrats have done much if any better on these issues including Health Care which has involved exchanging one system that doesn’t cut costs to non medical expenses for another.
Zachery, right. If one is going to talk morality, those would be better places to start in my opinion. They really affect a lot more people.
Anthony Weiner is a sad case indeed. His politics are sterling, but his behavior was sleazy. And ultimately, it was his personal mis-steps and his own decisions that led him to resign from Congress. Others, like David Vitter or Barney Frank, have gone through sex scandals and have had the resolve to eventually let the publicity pass, letting the voters in their districts decide whether they should stay or go. Rationalizing what should have or could have been done in L'affaire Weiner is moot. What's done is done.
It was a tactical decision by the Democratic leadership. Was the guy worth the bad PR? They decided no.

The problem is that the public isn't interested in distinctions.

And I think it isn't about morality, per se. Rather it is about grossness.

The Ick factor.

It was impossible to defend him without taking some collateral damage.

Remember the last Republican Presidential cycle? Huckabee made some unsupportable remark about Mormons. Like not being Christians.

So then he goes on TV and apologizes over and over and over. Admits he doesn't really KNOW what they believe. But somehow the words Romney/Mormon were uttered dozens of times in the same sentence.

No one was going to let anyone stipulate anything.

Any discussion was going to devolve into a rehashing of exactly what he did.

Ergo -- Under the Bus.

Matters of principle -- that's what the ACLU is for. And why they are so unpopular.
Gordon, I deemed your response off-topic. I've moved your comment and my reply to The Cornfield.
Lefty, I'm a little surprised you're giving them a pass on this one in that there's a specific paradigm in play for advancing unfavorable political change wherein one chooses precisely a situation in which everyone agrees there's a bad thing to be dealt with. They want you to say “I have no love for this person” because you are at your least scrutinizing just then. But I allege more was put in play than the stuff you say you happily accept. That's why I cited the Patriot Act as another example. I'm not sure what you're saying I'm trying to rationalize.
Nick, what you're calling grossness may relate to the visceral nature of there being photos. I find myself wondering if there were pictures of some of these others have done if that would have made the difference. That is, no change in the fact pattern, merely in the visible nature of it. That doesn't sound implausible. I wonder too if it's just bad luck with being the first worked case of this coming up publicly in any detail. Public discussions of such personal matters make me cringe, as do a variety of bathroom and bedroom products advertised on TV, but they are becoming increasingly common in public discussion such that perhaps after a while sensitivities will be dulled.

And maybe it's that these things just can't be overcome. Comedians often try to make light of even the most horrendous of things, but some things are very difficult to joke about. Ordinarily, I think, the mention of a given noun lights up different associations in your brain that you try to assemble into a thought, but certain pain points show up so incredibly brightly that they just dominate all other thoughts and one can't separate it. That's how it is for 9/11 for example. And Hitler has long been cited as an example like that as well. (Godwin's Law and all that...) So maybe that's the problem, that it simply short-circuits rational discussion in a way that makes discussion of the other matters difficult.

Nonetheless, I still insist that this is something people should be aware of because it allows very negative things to be slipped in unseen. Sort of like the effect that happens on a Friday afternoon when bad news is announced because people know it will not be adequately covered by the media over the weekend. Protections need to be built up once you notice a pattern like that or it will be exploited. And it's to this that my piece here speaks, not to the original event.
Well thought out and well explained.

I have felt something really bothering me about this whole circus,but I couldn't grasp exactly what was so bothersome. You nailed it here.

As far as the length, I thought the first two paragraphs "stated your case pretty well. As usual, you justified what you are saying at length.

Note to Zacherytaylor: I was an insurance exec for years,and I can honestly tell you the industry owns Democrats as well as Republicans. IMHO the industry's legislative assets in the Democratic party provided a fine return to the industry both in the Clinton and Obama healthcare reforms.
Steve, thanks for visiting. I'm glad this helped clarify things for you.
I agree that the media has been playing a much more important role about the fate of politicians over the last 20 years or so. And it's not only related to politicians, but for court cases among others. As you know, many well-known cases became a circus, which affected their outcome, and the one about Casey Anthony is next in line. I would not be surprised if the case fizzles out because of the media attention.

p.s. We should put Gordon’s entire blog in The Cornfield.
I guess the idea presented here is that an individual's personal and professional lives are separate; both lives are judged by different moral standards, and immoral or abnormal behavior in one area of life really means very little in the other area of life. Thus, if Weiner does weird sexual stuff in his private life, that shouldn't be held against him or used to judge him in his public life.

This is a view that I call the "split personality" view of human nature, except in this case the split is not in the person, but in how we judge the person's behavior. So if the individual breaks a promise, lies, deceives, and stabs someone in the back in his professional life, this has no implications for his personal life. Likewise, if an individual breaks a promise to his wife, lies to her, deceives her, and stabs her in the back, then that's none of our business, because it is part of his personal life.

I'm not convinced that things are so nicely compartmentalized. For example. what are we to say of a politician who is on the "right side" of women's issues, while he deceives and betrays the woman to whom he has promised fidelity?
Kanuk, I worry less about circuses in the accidental, chaotic sense and more about orchestrated pacifying events, which I guess you could still call bread and circuses.

As for Gordon, I try to take his posts one at a time, as I try to do with everyone, ever hopeful there will be some interesting on-topic content. I want people of all stripes to feel that if they come here for a serious discussion, one is available. And that's really all I want to say on the issue. Let's stick to the thread topic to set a good example.
Mishima, you raise a couple of issues. I'll take them separately. :)

Part of the reason for compartmentalized is pragmatic. There is an implicit assumption that the people whose private lives no one has dug into are any better. Some probably are, some probably aren't. I see no reason to treat Weiner like he's the only one in Congress doing that kind of thing. I bet a lot of them are. They just didn't have adequate media collateral for anyone to care.

I've long made the same argument for authors. We had a spirited discussion in Salon's TableTalk years ago in which a number of us debated the question of whether knowing that your favorite author was a schmuck changed anything. I argue that it should not. In part again because you really can't know whether certain people were, so that makes a strange standard. In part, too, because I think we need the voices of people with all points of view. See the Chris Rock quote in my recent article Oh, the Hypocrisy, where he notes that what he likes in Clinton is that he has “real problems like you and me.” I think there's some substantive truth there, that if you get a lot of (alleged) “holier than thou” politicians, you're going to get a focus on things that really are not going to make society better. That's the kind of thing that got us the Prohibition.

(More on the other issue in a bit.)
Mishima, as for women's issues, I think it does women a disservice to say that marital relations are a “women's issue.” It does men a disservice, too. Marital relations is not a women's issue. It's an everyone issue. That's my take, anyway. I care about my marriage every bit as much as my wife does. If we have a beef with each other, it's both of our issue, but it's no one else's.

If a spouse cries out to the media “why aren't you helping me?” then indeed we should consider rushing to help. But I haven't seen that yet. If we have material reason to think the spouse is abused and suppressed and that an intervention is required, that's also a different issue. But I don't see either of these dynamics in play.

Also, there's not even enough information to know what the significance of this issue is. It's called straying by people on the outside, but there are marriages that are just for show, and there are marriages that are solid marriages but open ones. There are also situations in which a spouse neglects the other and we wouldn't necessarily know about that. I'm not saying that's in play here, and I don't mean at all to make any characterizations about this particular situation. Just the opposite. What I mean to say is that we don't know and ought not want to know what their personal relationship is. If they want to share it, let them hold a press conference and say. He did. But he shouldn't have had to. He did it not because he thought it was something he wanted to advertise. I bet his wife wasn't done any service by advertising it. He did it because do-gooders invaded and forced the issue.

I don't want this to be a legitimate topic of political discourse unless it's with a politician who is trying to dispense legislation on this topic. That is, a politician who wants to invade the bedroom or the marriage and say how it should be ought to have this investigated. But ordinarily, I think it's just private as longa s politicians leave it private.

The worst part is that I think the reason we have such a lousy array of potential candidates all the time is that most people with any self-respect would never put themselves through the scrutiny process to run for office. Even very good people aren't squeaky clean to survive this kind of thing and smart people are probably would rather not bother. And we're all the poorer for it.
Kent, there's another issue here related to Weiner's judgment.

We live in a society in which many people take the sexual morality of public figures seriously, and in which the media are always on the lookout for the latest scandal. This is the "staus rerum," as they say in Latin, the way things are, the situation on the ground. Perhaps things shouldn't be this way, but this is the reality in which we live.

Weiner knows this. He knows of the many politicians who have been disgraced, been forced to resign, lost influence and credibility, and at the very least, have become distractions.

He knows all of this, and in spite of what he knows, consciously chooses to risk it all for the sake of his weird sex photos. The people who voted for him put their trust in him, and part of that trust includes the expectation that he won't turn himself into a scandal. But he does anyway.

What does this say about his judgment, his common sense, his loyalty (or lack thereof) to the people who voted for him?
Tilapia, I moved your off-topic comment to The Cornfield.
Mishima, I understand your position here but all I can say is that I disagree. That is, in my estimation, the judgment issue here is minor and not job-related. In general, most of the material judgments he makes (speeches, votes, etc.) are heavily scrutinized. And, moreover, there are people who have not been exposed for doing such things (though for all I know, they still do them) who have bad judgment. All in all, on matters of legislation, he's shown pretty good judgment—much better than President Obama on a number of issues, even though Obama seems more squeaky clean. So I hear you and I don't dismiss that you have a different sensibility here, but I think you're wrong in thinking that I'm either ignoring it or not acknowledging the point. I do acknowledge it and I don't find it a fatal flaw. Many others in Congress have worse judgment in my opinion and are allowed to continue to serve.
I've been ambivalent on the Weiner resignation. Foolish behavior unrelated to one's job shouldn't result in having to resign. But his value as an uncompromising critic of the right wing agenda was undercut by those tweets. He lost a great deal of his effectiveness but was nonetheless well within his rights to await the decision of his constituents next year. And as Lady Miko put it in another post, he might well have said that he'd resign right after Ensign does.
Abrawang, saying he wouldn't resign unless others did would at least have upped the ante some, yes.
I have a much shorter take on it. :=) I think it aligns pretty much with your own longer article.

He was stupid. He lied. I probably wouldn't vote for him as a result. I don't care about the stupid pictures, but I care about the stupid and the lies. If you were hiring him to represent your interests, would you hire him?

Nancy Pelosi was stupid. She meddled. Obama was stupid. He meddled. It was none of their business. It's not the Republican's business, nor the Democrats business, even if they're embarrassed to be seen with him.

They should have just said "it's up to his constituents whether this affects his ability to do his job."

Because it is. Or rather -- it should have been.

It was really stupid to set the precedent. But I'm not in Pelosi's district.

As you may have guessed from my tone, I find the whole thing one more irritation in a long line of irritants. I find partisan politics annoying. I find the media attention to sensational private matters annoying. I find the Democrats taking the Republican's position on this to be highly disconcerting -- sort of a political Stockholm Syndrome.

I think it worth comparing and contrasting his offense, and punishment, with those outlined at this historical link from 30 years ago.

(It's amazing the fun and interesting things you come up with when fact checking -- yes I even fact-check my rants. Ms. Bachmann should give it a try.)

Yeah, I agree with your post in full. Also, I think scenarios like this one are indicative of the short-sightedness and pettiness of American society at large. The imagined link between sexual exploits and ability to legislate is baffling.

You point out the tactic; “Get the victim to take their eye off of what is really at stake.”

I don’t think it’s really even necessary for them to have to “Get the victim to take their eye off of what is really at stake.”

“…but We The People must reserve the ultimate right to decide …”

As if we actually do? The powers-that-be decide the choices we have from which to choose.

I think there is an aspect to this that isn’t really discussed, at least to my knowledge. There are only a very few members of Congress who truly support anything resembling a progressive perspective. Now there is one less such member. Weiner wasn’t a screaming left-wing radical, but he wasn’t exactly in line with Pelosi, Reid, Obama, and the other mainstream Dems that have sold out progressive ideals.

As a result of his refusal to simply go along to get along, most of the Dems refused to support him and went even further than that; they simply sold him out like they have done to most of their voters. I won’t be voting Democrat in upcoming presidential elections, and I will look for any third-party candidates I can find in my state elections, as well. If that causes more Republicans to win elections, I figure that’s okay because if we’re going to have Republican ideology dictating policy, we might as well be able to blame actual Republicans for the results.