If you’ve been sucked in by Weinergate (“hey, it’s a slow news day!”) it’s well worth checking out this excellent piece by my friend Megan McArdle over at The Atlantic. She raises a number of good points about why we should care:
Maybe it’s because I’m older and tireder but these days, the “not our business” school of sex scandal seems to function as a get-out-of-monogamy-free card for powerful men who want to behave badly. If Anthony Weiner were to, say, start randomly swearing at a constituent and calling her terrible names, would anyone argue that we should not report this on the grounds that the behavior’s legal? How about if he’d been tricking old ladies out of their pension checks with a shady stockbrockerage? Sure it’s legal, but we think it tells us something about his character, and that it’s actually useful to know those sorts of things about the people we elect. Gallons of ink have been spilled over Newt’s attempt to discuss the terms of his divorce while his wife was recovering from cancer surgery*, and rightly so; it’s an act of epic self-absorption, and it’s hard to believe that this would never have affected his job performance.
I don’t think that the good faith proponents of the argument for ignoring sex scandals actually believe that poor impulse control, accomplished lying, and a willingness to break one’s most solemn promises in pursuit of a covert thrill have absolutely no bearing on job performance. I assume they believe that this sort of sexual infidelity is so widespread among powerful men that it has absolutely no predictive power–and also that it’s not society’s job to punish people who break their marriage vows.
Maybe it’s true that infidelity is really this common–though I have a hard time believing that everyone is as blatant and reckless as Clinton. But if so, we should say that: “All powerful men cheat on their wives with as many women as they can get away with, and I don’t want to waste time challenging any of them on it.”
But I can’t sign up for this. I don’t think that cheating on your wife, or lesser betrayals like sexting, are minor marital pecadillos, of no more public interest than whether you remembered to pay the gas bill or unload the dishwasher. I don’t think it’s the government’s job to punish infidelity, but that doesn’t imply that society has no interest in whether people keep their vows. Marriage is a valuable social institution. There are good reasons that society should buttress it. So I’m not sure it’s a waste of time, in the face of these sorts of allegations, to use a few of our precious news hours to say, “Hey, not okay!” Moreover, in the age of the internet, you cannot simply decline to report this as a neutral act. Instead, you send an affirmative message: “We don’t really think he did anything wrong.”
I consider myself pretty socially liberal, and balk at anything that resembles moralizing. But I think Megan raises some really valid concerns, and I have to admit, she made me think about how it’s difficult to draw a line in the sand as far as character is concerned.
I mean, the story is still gross – and that press conference was super weird! – but at least I can say I’m watching the news reports because now it’s related to Congressional oversight, right?