Weiner Boggles the Sociological Imagination

Anthony Weiner from his Web site

There are all sorts of reasons not to write about Weinergate. First, well, it’s called Weinergate, and it involves a photo of the man’s package and people, myself included, who cannot help but make sophomoric comments about the entire pathetic affair. Second, Congressman Weiner insists that he will not resign and that we all need to move on and keep our “eye on the prize” (rotfl—he said that, seriously—of course it would have been funnier if he’d said “keep our eye on the ball”).

Besides the obvious downside to Weiner jokes, there are the larger political and ethical issues of whether or not politicians who are not hypocritical—who do not tell the rest of us how to love and have sex and with whom—should have to expose their private lives at all. In other words, maybe Weinergate is really none of our business and has absolutely nothing to do with a person’s ability to rule. I believe that. I have days where I am a damn good professor and an absolute failure as a parent. But while a person’s personal actions do not necessarily shape their professional ones, there is something important in all political sex scandals, something that sociology can do a pretty good job explaining.

According to C.Wright Mills, the sociological imagination allows us to understand individual biography within the larger and more structural frame of history. Anthony Weiner’s biography is complex: an ambitious Congressman from New York who was already gaining a reputation as one of the few progressive Democrats unafraid to stand up to the right-wing assault on workers and seniors. His spirited defense of the social safety net won him friends and enemies. Weiner also had a very public and politically savvy marriage to Huma Abedin, an aide to Hilary Clinton. Weiner, a Jew, and Abedin, a Muslim, were married by Bill Clinton, the closest we moderns get to “village elder.”

This individual biography takes place within the history of the ruling elites in the United States. Since the birth of the modern age, the men who have ruled have insisted they have a right to do so because they are more disciplined than the rest of us. When the bourgeoisie rose to power in the mid-to-late 19th century, they did so not because they inherited the right to rule, but because they claimed it as part of their “work ethic.” The bourgeoisie presented themselves as not just working harder, but having more discipline and resolve than the upper and lower classes. A middle-class man showed control of his appetites, participated in the newly formed sporting culture, and confined his sexual practices to the conjugal bed (unlike the degenerate elites like Oscar Wilde or the degenerate working classes, who spread disease and imbecility and threatened “good American stock”).

This claim that the right to rule is based on discipline—particularly bodily discipline—has become even more pronounced now, in our own age, when we can see not just evidence of discipline but when anything and everything about public figures is known long before it is admitted. Why did George W. Bush seem like a better man for the job than Bill Clinton to so many people? Because Dubbya never cheated on Laura, let alone got chunky on junk food the way the undisciplined Bill did. Why did Weiner get married? Love? Maybe. But surely Weiner also got married because he was ambitious: A single man will never go very far in this culture, since we need evidence that our rulers are disciplining and controlling their sexual desires.

So now his career is more or less over, at least for now (although it might give Weiner some hope for a future to see formerly-caught-up-in-gross-sex-scandal Eliot Spitzer commenting on CNN about whether Weiner should resign). That Weiner’s career as a politician is dead in the water is, sociologically speaking, understandable. His sexually undisciplined biography is stuck in a history of the rise of the bourgeoisie as the most sexually disciplined and least degenerate class.

But what boggles the sociological imagination is, Why? Why would anyone destroy his career and perhaps even some of those around him for sexual pleasures that did not even involve actual sex? Why would Weiner engage in such pleasures even though he knew there was a right-wing group on Twitter watching every move he made and every young woman he befriended? That is a far deeper and more psychological question, and one that sociology cannot even begin to answer.

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