The strange case of Anthony Weiner: a story of morals and ethics in the political landscape

Many have fallen into the extremely public pitfalls of social networking. When politicians- and more specifically, elected officials – are caught in a blatant misuse of Twitter and Facebook, this can range from sheer mockery to immediate, almost simultaneous resignation. The constant mix in the definition of morality in one given country versus an actual breach of political ethics has reached a severe degree of intensity in the case of Anthony Weiner, pushed to resignation by the former House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. When President Barack Obama himself expressed that had he been Weiner, he would have resigned, the representative for New York City’s 9th district, a shining star in the House of Representatives, suffered a nervous breakdown. The following press coverage focused on whether the resignation was called for, and what lies ahead for one of the most popular Representatives in an age of political apathy.

Anthony Weiner, three days ago, as he announced his resignation from office

New York City’s 9th district representative Anthony Weiner has been the shining star of the House of Representatives for the past year. A fervent supporter of single-payer health care who shamed Obama’s final bill because it wasn’t inclusive enough, a staunch advocate for 9/11 responders and often launching an aggressive offensive on Republicans, especially since John Boehner took over the role of Speaker, it is safe to say Weiner was one of the Democrats’ biggest asset in an election year that promised to need more than regular campaign promises: 201 Yesterday, said asset was forced out of office, citing his Twitter activities to be a “distraction” from his job as an elected official. In an election year, this is far from common, mundane political mishap. It’s bad news for the city of New York, bad news for the State, and definitely bad news for the Democratic Party which until now, was doing a relatively decent job staying out of tabloids’ headlines.

The question lies in whether one’s moral conduct is affecting, or cheating, on their sworn efficiency in office, and if said office is effectively tied to a code of ethical conduct. Two specific cases are brought to mind, and both are as far from Weiner’s situation as one can be.

Chris Lee's picture as posted on Craigslist and his resignation announcement

Earlier this year, in February, Chris Lee, representative of the extremely Republican 26th district of New York, was the subject of an instantly popular article on New York City-centered gossip website Gawker. Chris Lee, a married man elected in the only district of New York State considered to be a permanent Republican seat, answered a Craigslist ad in the “dating” section with a shirtless picture of himself taken in his bathroom with his phone. Following the publication, Chris Lee immediately resigned – subsequently opening the door to a staunch race for his seat, now occupied by Kathy Hochul, a Democrat – in one of the most followed electoral race of the year. Outside of desperately seeking attention beyond the conjugal home, Lee is only guilty of having used an outlet so easily detectable and usable by the press. In regards to the political ethics transmitted by the GOP, Chris Lee made the necessary decision: attempting to find validation and potential affection through an online dating site does not find approval within the socially conservatives ranks of the Republican Party, attached to values of strong, male-and-female marriages, children, and christian morals of faith over lust. Within his district, never shying away from a right-wing move, Chris Lee knew he would never be re-elected or even endorsed by a colleague. However, whether this, again, affected his behaviour as local representative has never been assessed. The separation line between the politician and the man has been blurred and forever deleted the moment he decided he was no longer fit for office.

“Bill Clinton’s 1993 short brush with impeachment was such a national affair of dramatic proportions it consequently led to a code of morals in private conduct to be followed by any elected official”

Senator John Ensign, a Republican representative from Nevada, found himself in even more troubled waters last month. First suspected of having an affair with the wife of his campaign manager, the Senator decided to let the couple go, and have his parents write them a cheque for $96,OOO, qualified as a “gift”, but suspiciously respecting the perfect timing of them leaving Ensign’s side. A sex and lobbying scandal that first had Ensign remain in his position of Senator – after a race won over the sweat and blood of Tea Party’s favorite, Sharron Angle – before quickly turning around and making a swift exit on May 3rd. Ensign did everything he could to avoid a very public and potentially very damaging public hearing and probe by the Senate Ethics Committee, launching an investigation not only on unlawful lobbying – securing clients for his very own chief of staff – but more drastically on the allegations of corruption behind this infamous cheque. In a very telling article, local newspaper The Las Vegas Sun titled “How Moral Failure Brought Down Senator Ensign“, who had occupied his seat for eleven years, compares Ensign with the most famous case on the matter, that of Bill Clinton’s:

There are those who talk of Ensign’s fall from political grace, and the resignation that takes effect a week from Tuesday, with a hint of pleasure at the irony of the situation, brought about by the hypocrisy of his actions. There are others who will defend him as the consummate objective moralist, who when confronted with his own faults, heeded his own advice.

Ensign may not belong at either end of that ethical spectrum. Because the pendulum of Ensign’s moral purism, it seems, swings both ways.

Ensign certainly fell on the sword of family values — morals he’d spent much of his career espousing as absolute, and portraying himself as embodying.

But Ensign also voluntarily departed from the dogmatism of the values-conservative position more often than most, especially in the wake of his scandal.

Here lies the non-existing specificity of being an elected official: a state or federal representative owes to his or her constituency to uphold the rule of law, to vote in accordance with the Constitution, to be fair in its voting and to listen to their voices when a vote is to be passed. A representative does just that: it represents the people of the district, state, or nation he was voted in. A lawmaker, a policy-maker, a representative is not a judge nor an arbitrary. Bill Clinton’s 1993 short brush with impeachment was such a national affair of dramatic proportions it consequently led to a code of moral private conduct to be followed by any elected official from across the board. Once again, the thin line of office behaviour and private affairs is to be highlighted: Bill Clinton had an affair which, despite being consensual, was conducted in his position of President, with a female member of staff, and inside the walls of his own office. The same way Ensign started a sexual relationship with a member of his campaign staff and tried to shut her family down with money, the lines between office and private affairs were blurred to a point that called for an ethical inquiry. Whatever happened to Anthony Weiner has never affected neither his place of work or the content of his work per se. A call for moral cleanliness among the elected officials nationwide has been launched. This seems to lead to more corruption, misconduct, not from officials but also community and religious leaders.

Lucien Roman (left) and religious leader Alan Rekers (right)

In 2010, Alan Rekers was caught spending a vacation in Bermuda with a young man with whom he appeared to behave intimately. It would not be that bad of an issue if Rekers wasn’t the co-founder of the Family Research Council with James Dobson. The FRC, also parent company to Focus on the Family, is an anti-gay, pro-life, and generally extremely conservative lobby that has made itself clearly known the last few years for supporting anti-gay initiatives in the states proposing gay marriage on the ballot, and for financially covering any anti-abortion initiatives nationwide. Moreover, Rekers found his lover, Lucien, on the website rentboy.com, a notorious and infamous online gay escort service. Instead of facing up to his actions, which would obviously discredit Focus on the Family and their “family-oriented” values, Rekers claimed that he visited the website and met Lucien in Bermuda in order to “help with (his) luggage”. Despite the blatant hypocrisy, Rekers was not an elected official. The only people he had to answer to was the members of his parish and the FRC’s hierarchy. Because Rekers’ behaviour was specifically the strict opposite of what he had always preached, called for, and advocated, because Rekers’ lobbying company and religious affiliation is in strict opposition to relations of homosexual nature and in a broader way, of extra-marital affairs, Rekers has crossed the line in what is publicly acceptable in his leadership role. Weiner has yet to breach any of the rules of his own making as a Representative of Brooklyn and Queens, in his role as New York City progressive, as a member of Congress, and as a member of the Democratic Party.

” The fascination the public holds for misconduct is one that should never override the efficiency of the lawmaking sphere”

But what is it compared to dangerous and reckless conduct? A senator arrested for drunk driving, another slapped with corruption charges, a secretary of defense allegedly guilty of war crimes, a governor abandoning her role halfway through her mandate: those stories are being covered and conducted on the same level of gravity and scrutiny Anthony Weiner had to undergo in the last couple of weeks. Many have come in support of the Representative – and many have qualified the incident of ‘minor’, protecting privacy in the name of his achievements in Congress. Weiner surrendered to pressure claiming that his Twitter activities were a “distraction” to his real motivation. Considering the time span during which the direct messages were sent, Weiner had been successfully active in promoting the progressive agenda in Washington and had been relentless in his call for change in the institution. Whether his actions deserve a punishment sees his wife as the only judge. As a Democrat, Anthony Weiner had never supported any legislation on morality (or lack thereof), social conservatism, or anything that would see the federal government make a decision regarding a citizen’s family. Anthony Weiner may have acted in a way that is morally condemnable, but in no way were his actions unethical under the banner of his political mandate. The fascination the public holds for misconduct is one that should never override the efficiency of the lawmaking sphere; and if Anthony Weiner is one to hold himself accountable and step down in order to assuage a part of his constituency, it is only fair that Senators and Representatives who are themselves criminally negligent should also step down and release themselves in the hands of the relevant Ethics Committee. The witch hunt on personal conduct’s bottom line is morbid curiosity; political recklessness, however, is a public and national matter that belongs in the realm of civic pro-activism.

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Territoriality, Exclusion and Shallow Processing

Recently invited to a book fair organized by a french association dealing with racism and identity issues, Albin Wagener attended the proceedings to present his book on national identity.  Little did he know everything which would surround him was a display of everything he thought he would be fighting against. 

“I became scared about how France is actually  dealing with intercultural dialogue, tolerance or diversity”

Tolerance is a fashionable feature for public policies and individual or collective initiatives. It remains much needed and, nowadays, the introduction of this very concept and its epistemological offspring (interculturality, recognition, diversity, etc.) is mostly backed by general sentences such as “in these times of globalization” or “today, international exchanges are more intense than ever” – strange truisms actually, if you only think of the history of mankind and its various momentums for discoveries, travels and trades. When observations start with such phrases, one may think that the following conclusions are simply meant to be limited in their interpretations and spheres of actions. This is, of course, not entirely true; sometimes, it is just worse than that.

A few weeks ago, on May 22nd, I had the chance and honor to attend the 4thBook Fair on Antiracism and Diversity organized by the

poster ad from the LICRA: "our skin color must not determine our future", with a dark-skinned baby wearing a janitor's uniform

happily lobbying LICRA, the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism. To be honest, this association is not that international; it is only fair to emphasize the fact that the LICRA is mostly Parisian and white, surely less focused on racism as a whole than anti-semitism as a specific. Being only one upon many authors invited at this book fair, I was struck by the fact that most of the present authors were indeed white. The thin crowd, loafing around in this cocky salon of the municipal building of the 6th arrondissement, was not more diverse either. The most diverse thing I noticed was a bumptious selection of Louis Vuitton handbags, golden necklaces and bourgeois hairdos. Not only were the attendees mostly Caucasian: they were also wealthy and willing to show it. So much about diversity and antiracism, I guess. One may argue that I feel frustrated with having sold only three copies of my book: fortunately I am not so misleadingly proud. I was indeed frustrated (and I still am), but with a more essential reason: I became scared about how France is actually  dealing with intercultural dialogue, tolerance or diversity.

Cover of french satirical cartoon magazine "Fluide Glacial"

The late debate on French national identity already taught us that much. Still the tradition of this country is bound to a faith in the actual regime – the French Republic. And this model is not made for a multicultural society, for the absolute Republic stands high above human differences. As it stands, cultural diversity is put forward when it comes to the worldwide preservation of the French language and culture. Yet on national territory, cultural homogeneity is promoted and encouraged, on the street and even within the home. This is probably why recently, representatives of Sarkozy’s party, UMP, tried to reignite an old recurrent issue: the threat of dual citizens, probably undermining the national future. To cut a long story short,  some politicians would argue that dual citizens should only be allowed to keep a single citizenship, preferably the french one, thus denying any right to recognition, diversity and – let’s not be afraid to state it – human complexity. To some extent, it is implying that you are legally french, or you are not; that french citizenship does not stand the challenge of sharing a burden with another country of citizenship. So what happens next? Should I choose to be only French, will I only be allowed to drink red wine, eat camembert and wear a Basque beret? The French no longer need stereotypes: they are producing them. Should I let go of the French citizenship, what is the next step? Will I be treated like a regular citizen? All these questions are taken to a higher level of incongruity, because diversity is seen, displayed and treated as a problem that has to be solved with simple solutions. In France, no one seems to want to live with complexity as a metaphysical condition of mankind: the national choice is political reductionism made for polls. I still do hope that we will fulfil our duty as citizens to be more informed, more educated, more pro-active in the understanding of our own identities.

“Options are not based on the need to include, integrate and share, but on the need to shut out, separate and exclude”

This manipulation of ideas such as diversity, tolerance and interculturalism is only possible because of three major phenomena: territoriality, exclusion and shallow processing.  If French history is an acceptable explanation for this conceptual blend, it is still not an excuse; different social choices could be made in order to make this model evolve. The problem is that French politicians are mostly focused on national self-references and are not easily inspired by foreign models. This confusion is made easier by a European crisis of identity, making nations question the social models of diversity and multiculturalism without looking at the original causes of collective turmoil – unemployment, an ever-growing poverty and the creeping conviction that the economic choice of international capitalism no longer fits. We would then need to ask the right questions by reinventing our social and political models, our system of consumerism and our relationships to others. This would require energy, time and serious means to tackle them: it is easier to believe that it is someone else’s fault, particularly when we do not share the same cultural values, social references or religious beliefs. Come to think about it, it becomes really convenient to define a delimited territory when borders are traced on the basis of self-imposed stereotypes of what should and should not be. Since France has always been reluctant to surrender to the European alarm calls for a collective policy of recognition, it now has the opportunity to spread this message around the world: “you see, we had it coming – we knew this would never work”. In this sense, the crisis of the European identity and its projects work well with the risk of a territorial fallback.

This brings us to a second point: exclusion as a solution. In recent political developments, I did not sense any notion of inclusion. In other words, the submitted options are not based on the need to include, integrate and share, but on the need to shut out, separate and exclude; if the territory has clear borders (in a national, social and cultural sense), then it is easier to leave people behind than to redefine said borders in order to allow a recognition of diversity. Even the LICRA applies this model, as an assembly of white Parisian bourgeois talking about diversity and racism without working activities in, for instance, Parisian suburbs, where high crime rates, massive immigration and a slow disintegration of the social fabric demand ground-breaking initiatives. Another discourse is mostly contained in sentences such as “it’s not that we want to exclude them – they just do not want to integrate”. Again, the blame is never on us and we should not have to make any effort: in fact, it is our country, isn’t it? Why bother thinking about opening minds, when they already knew they were closed before they were coming? Caricaturing may not be an option, yet it helps showing what this is about: when I let someone new in my social or individual space, it means that I will inevitably have to question elements that I took for granted. Living together requires a certain level of social intelligence that should probably be taught at school, yet the basic instinct of exclusion is often backed by political discourses and nationwide policies.

a man diving in shallow water

Still, these manipulations would not work without the steady support of regular citizens, basically you and me. This is made possible by specific cognitive trick named shallow processing. The concept of shallow processing means that your mind will focus on so-called concepts and connect them together in order to create a basic context for understanding the message. Our brain works like that; it always does. What it does not do, however, is perceive when these concepts are manipulated for the sake of a certain goal. We are thus trained to recognize concepts and link them together with things we already know. Shallow processing does not teach us how to question things: it tells us how to make basic connections in order to guarantee a relevant understanding of the message, regarding to a cohesive environment. In this sense, if anyone is already providing us with truncated information or orientated messages, it is our responsibility to recognize that these are actually incomplete and purposely built. We have to gather pieces of information and educate ourselves in order to build up a broader knowledge of the world we live in and therefore participate to maintain. If we reduce our intellectual skills to the cognitive necessity of shallow processing, we become party to the decisions that are made and sustained thanks to our inability to save a couple of minutes for hindsight.

This is, truly, what is most scary about the current decline in the collective disbelief in identity, recognition and the benefits of intercultural exchanges: we make this possible for we make it happen, each time we receive sneaky messages drowned in a communicational flood and each time we base our vote on partial, incomplete and slanted elements. We are responsible for not double-checking information and for taking our convictions for granted. If we do not let the benefits of complexity enter our lives, then there will never be enough room for a real and sustainable policy of diversity and recognition, and there will still be people mistaking Muslims for Islamists, immigration for crime and national borders for battlements against differences.

Albin Wagener is Dean of the Faculty of Modern Languages and Linguistics (IPLV) and Head of the LALIC project (Languages, Linguistic and Cultural Interactions) at the Université Catholique de l’Ouest, Angers, France. He is also the co-founder and president of the OISC.