I know, it’s tempting. But before we rush to gawk at sexting former congressman Anthony Weiner’s latest catastrophic embarrassment, and congratulate ourselves on our superior marriages and social media savvy, we might want to examine our own consciences a little more carefully. Our smugness about Weiner proves how quick we are to toss out our objections to invasions of online privacy and pry into other people’s marriages when we have the opportunity to polish our self-righteousness and satisfy our own vulgar curiosity.
Weiner’s most recent self-immolation happened just days after hackers launched their latest salvo against “Ghostbusters” actress Leslie Jones. After Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos and denizens of the nastier quarters of the Internet aimed a tidal wave of racist, sexist vitriol at Jones on Twitter — fueled by fake tweets that Yiannopoulos used to paint her as homophobic — hackers took over her personal website and posted intimate photos of her, as well as images of her driver’s’ license and passport.
That attack was widely and justly condemned. But Weiner’s latest exposure has mostly prompted self-satisfied cackling.
I understand the reaction. Weiner was trading pictures with the woman who seemingly provided them to the New York Post, while the photos of Jones were stolen from her. The latest round of ab and crotch shots from Weiner reveals a new level of tastelessness to his behavior: In one of the selfies Wiener sent, his young son had wandered into the shot. Jones, by contrast, seems to have been singled out for abuse — first for simply having the temerity to appear in a movie, subsequently for having been the catalyst that belatedly prompted Twitter to ban Yiannopoulos.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, though, the disparity between our response to these two releases doesn’t have a solid basis in principle.
The only reason for this latest disclosure about Weiner’s extramarital communications to be treated as news instead of something akin to revenge porn is that, having already judged him to be incomprehensibly reckless, we crave further proof. Maybe seeing these pictures reassures us that Weiner wasn’t unfairly hounded for one or two small mistakes in his marriage; three times seems to be, if not charming, confirmation that Weiner is a sexting addict. And maybe these pictures justify a serious inquiry into Weiner’s judgment as a parent.
But even if intimate material reaffirms our previous conclusions or exposes unpalatable behavior, that doesn’t mean we should feel terrific about how that material reached us. We can feel smug about Weiner precisely because we’re not examining our own behavior too closely. If we did, the shame of reveling in another person’s violated privacy, or the hypocrisy of justifying one person’s humiliation while condemning another’s, might just force us to stop. And where’s the fun, or self-righteousness, in that?
While the New York Post isn’t exactly known for restraint or good taste, even a more highbrow Weiner exposé turns out to have a queasy-making side to it. “Weiner,” the documentary about his attempted 2013 comeback to run for New York City mayor, is one of the best films of the year, a wrenching portrait of a marriage under tremendous pressure. And when the movie came out this spring, it raised a different sort of question about Weiner’s judgment: Why on earth would he and his wife, Huma Abedin, agree to be filmed even as the campaign crashed on the revelation that Weiner was still sending explicit messages to women?
It turns out they did so because, it appears, they believed that Abedin wouldn’t appear in the movie. Weiner has said that Josh Kriegman, the movie’s co-director and his former chief of staff, promised that he wouldn’t use footage of Abedin without her consent.
Kriegman and his collaborator, Elyse Steinberg, sensing correctly that they had a sensational movie on their hands, seem to have decided that the footage was too good not to use, no matter the ethical implications. The more I learned about the making of “Weiner,” the more culpable I felt as a consumer and a critic. Kriegman and Steinberg were responding to a hunger that I and others shared. In the process, they — and we — put Abedin in a position to be doubly exposed, both by her husband and the people her husband trusted and asked her to allow into their lives.
So when we look at Weiner, be it through the lens of a trashy New York Post exposé or a glossy, ambitious documentary, we should be clear with ourselves about what we’re seeing. Pushing our noses up against the glass to ogle him can be a way to avoid examining our own voyeurism too closely.