They're Just Like Us

The opening pages of US Weekly feature a column with a title that has always struck me as more than a little obvious: Stars -- They're Just Like Us! A smattering of celebrities are shown in ultra-unflattering photographs, a recent sampling of which includes these stars "looking bored at meetings," "inhaling hot dogs," "choosing paper over plastic," and "eating off the ground while holding something," a hybrid of the worst of New Yorker caption contests and de-tagged Facebook photos.

The fantastical furor surrounding former congressman Anthony Weiner's lewd Twitter pictures seems to me the ethical iteration of these inane opening pages. The fascination with which the nation latched on to the discovery and dissemination of these photographs has been accompanied by a raft of explanations, all of which seem to divert from the most salient point -- Anthony Weiner -- he's just like us!

The first trope trotted out every time a politician is caught with his pants down is that political power makes the formerly humble believe the rules no longer apply to them. A variation on this theme is that politics disproportionately attracts people who never believed the rules applied to them. Opinion pieces of this nature are usually accompanied by a quote from a political science professor with a pop psychological bon mot and a story about the Kennedys.

The second explanation of the cheating politician was exemplified by Sheryl Gay Solberg's New York Times article last weekend, "When It Comes to Scandal, Girls Won't Just be Boys," the crux of which is that women take their seats more seriously as congressional minorities, and perhaps more dubiously, "run for office to do something, while men run for office to be someone."

I have an alternate theory -- Anthony Weiner is a human being, as liable to make mistakes particular to his life path as any of us are in our own lives. On the Richter scale of transgressions, I would register sending lewd Twitpics around a five, and far below a litany of offenses the public has forgiven public figures for.

We are so keen to opine about what Weiner's story says about our elected officials, but have wondered shockingly little what our invasive and vindictive response says about we who elected them. How can we respond to the private pain of a young marriage with headlines such as "Stick a Fork in Weiner," "Weiner's Rise and Fall," and "Fall on Your Sword, Weiner" and profess to occupy the moral high ground of sensitivity? How can we rail against mistreatment of Huma, while exacerbating her misery with our every pun?

A hearty degree of schadenfreude has been displayed throughout the entire breathlessly relayed affair, coming to its frothy conclusion at Weiner's farewell speech, where hecklers burst into applause at his resignation, and continued to jeer as he thanked the young people who had worked for him "with very little pay, for long hours" because "they define public service." If the line where the offensiveness of the reaction surpassed the offensiveness of the crime had not already been crossed, here seemed to be the point of no return.

Every morning I picked up a newspaper during the first two weeks of June and saw a story on Congressman Weiner above the fold, I was struck by essential unkindness and lack of sympathy in the coverage and its reception -- never mind by the fact that stories about civilian deaths at the hand of the government in Syria would have wait until page C17. By the time Ms. Solberg's column ran in the Times, I was so thoroughly done reading the inane and insensitive analysis I decided I would have to abandon my usual practice of reading the Sunday paper cover to cover, and picked up instead Anne Roiphe's Art and Madness.

A hundred pages in, a passage on the façade of the cheery 1950s wrenched me back to that morning's papers: "Underneath the shirts and ties," Roiphe wrote, "underneath the crinolines and corsets, the hearts of men and women beat with all the old familiar regrets, the same encounters with mortality that had brought the previous generations to their knees in prayer." Where in this Weiner debacle was our remembrance our own moments on bended knee, unsure of which bad option to pursue? And what was the point of every mistake we had ever made, if we could not use it to remember that we are all fallible, all have the capacity to make bad choices and thoughtless mistakes?

"Be kind," Plato said, long before there was Twitter or Arnold or the National Enquirer "for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Anthony Weiner's hard battle now includes very little money after a lifetime of low-paying public service work, dim job prospects, and soon, a child to support. Stars, politicians, fighting hard battles, they're just like us and the people we love, fighting hard battles too. They will do things we hope our children, our husbands, our parents, we ourselves, would never do. But we may too someday find ourselves on our knees, under crinolines and corsets, shirts and ties, wondering how we got there when we so ardently knew better. And we would do well to remember every time the misery of someone else falls above the fold, to spare them more misery than they are already enduring, like we too would hope to be spared.