Weiner and the modern e-ffair
By Monica Hesse,
A week into this — the bulge analysis, the certitude, the puns that pretended to be clever but were always lame (“Weinergate,” sigh) — and there is finally resolution.
He did it. He confessed.
It’s now time to analyze exactly what’s been going on here.
Here is what we’ve been dealing with: We’ve been dealing with four sad, grainy photos of Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) in various states of undress, looking pathetic in the pathetic way exclusive to men who are trying their best to look sexy. He sat shirtless at his desk. He sat shirted on his couch. In one particularly artful photo, he sat next to a picture of a dog in a sweater and held up a piece of paper with an arrow pointing to his own face. It said, “Me.” He apparently sent these photos to a single mom named Meagan Broussard, who responded with her own grainy pouts. He also texted with several other women.
He was guilty, but of what?
Here is what we are dealing with: We are dealing with the gray space where fidelity meets Facebook and with the boundary between our “real” lives and our online lives, which is constantly being pushed, and never where you expect it.
In previous sex scandals (Eliot Spitzer, Kwame Kilpatrick, Tiger Woods), such texted naughtiness was merely a signifier, virtual evidence of fleshly misdeeds.
But Weiner claimed that his actions were contained entirely within his personal computing devices. There was no touching. It was a virtual affair. It was — and here is an insufferable term that will become popular if it’s not already — an e-ffair.
It was wrong, and it would have been wrong 20 years ago, and it would have been wrong 200 years before that. In previous millenniums, if a married caveman had carved a picture of his junk onto a bone and thrown it into another woman’s cave, that would have been similarly wrong. Private-part self-portraiture: gross in every eon.
But 20 years ago, Weiner would have had to load his Nikon with film before pointing it at his crotch. He would have had to take this film to the Fotomat, wait 24 hours before picking it up, find an envelope, lick a stamp. In every preceding era, there were built-in checkpoints, moments in which one could ask oneself, “Is this a good idea? Does she want to see my dog in a sweater? Am I a congressman? Should that influence my decision?”
There was, in fact, a literal red flag: the one you flicked up on the mailbox to signal to your postal carrier that your correspondence was ready for the world.
Today, it’s possible for philandering to happen instantaneously and without reflection — the Amazon 1-Click influence on the way we conduct our modern lives.
Click. Here are my genitals!
Does this make me a cheater?
So much of what happens online is done with casual clicks. Of course, so much of what happens in the real world is also accomplished through the equivalent of casual clicks. We stumble and bumble through life, saying things we don’t mean to people we barely know, endlessly backtracking.
Objectively speaking, what Weiner did wasn’t so different from married men who, on their way home, stop at a bar for a drink and flirt.
The real world, however, does not come with screen-captured evidence, while online is nothing but. Online, entire lives are condensed into a series of screengrabs, profile pics, likes and dislikes. Personalities are distilled to lists.
The confusion comes when we mistake people for the shorthand, social-networked versions of themselves. When we assume we can read someone based on their curated Facebook profile, or when we cannot decide — as many online commenters could not Tuesday — whether Anthony Weiner was unfaithful to his wife. (His typing fingers were unfaithful . . . but his guy parts weren’t?)
We treat our virtual lives as if they have the same meaning, depth and repercussions as our offline lives, which is a noble impulse. But there is a difference. Having a Facebook friend is not the same as having a friend, tweeting a politically charged hashtag is not the same as being an activist and sexting is not the same as having sex.
In his excruciating Monday news conference, Weiner described his texting partners as “women I had met online.”
Later, in the same session, he said, “To be clear, I have never met any of these women.”
Was it a contradiction? Yes. And no.
He had met these women online, which means that he simultaneously knew them very well and not at all.