What Is He Thinking?

Decoding the male psyche.

Everything Said About Anthony Weiner Is Wrong

Blame Weiner for weakening Dems. All else is hypocritical projection.

There's only one legitimate reason to be upset with Anthony Weiner, and that's because his behavior and its discovery has taken away a bold and effective voice in the Democratic party.  Everything else you think and feel about him is bull.

By bullshit, I mean it has nothing to do with him, and also little to do with broad generalizations made nowadays about the sex and powerful men.  The first is too personal and private for anyone to ever know.  And the second is so abstract as to be useless in understanding any individual situation.  What it does have to do with is you and me, with all of us, who are repeatedly enticed to either buy-in to or create fictive stories about sexual scandals that are little more than projections of our own forbidden or feared desires.

It's reasonable to wonder why a public figure does what he does, especially when it hurts him politically, but as I said, we'll never know a single real thing about Weiner's psyche.  And it's worth asking whether or not someone was hurt or victimized by his actions and to feel empathy for that person, but we'll never really know that either.  Consequently, I found the predictable roundtable discussion of the Weiner affair on CNN last night especially offensive, even if not atypical.  We had to hear Democratic Party luminary Paul Begala describing Weiner's behavior as "disgusting," adding that, since Weiner's wife is a "good friend," Begala certainly hoped Weiner would put that house in order first.  Then we heard from that champion of family values, Republican hack Mary Matalin, despair about talking to her 15 year old daughter about sexting.  And, finally, we had to listen to their "expert," Dr. Laura Berman, mis-use and inappropriately cite "scientific research" suggesting that Weiner's problem might well lie in the high testosterone so typical of alpha males.

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Anderson Cooper of course, had a more personal axe to grind, namely, that Weiner had lied to the press and, especially, to AC's buddy Wolf Blitzer, showing clip after clip of Weiner's dissembling.  The nerve of someone lying to Wolf!  I guess the press can't tolerate this being lied-to stuff-well, except if those lies and cover-ups come from every single politician that both Cooper and Blitzer has ever interviewed about real-world matters bearing on genuine human. 

The bullshit judgments, theories, and analyses that CNN and the other spin-rooms-masquerading-as-news-shows are generating can't possibly have much to do with Weiner, and, in fact, they don't.  They have do with the people spinning them, whether it's AC and his fellow bloviators or the rest of us who spin along with them.  I've seen a dozen men in psychotherapy who have done some version of what Weiner did and in each case we were able to piece together a complicated story that explained their behavior, a story involving feelings of disconnectedness, longing, anxiety, guilt, and omnipotence.  It was a story that made sense, even if it had led to behavior that caused themselves or others suffering.  It wasn't because they were "stupid," or "power-hungry men," or liars, but because of perfectly human motives, needs, and conflicts that, when understood with genuine curiosity and compassion, rendered the behavior anything but "disgusting."

The problem we face is that we do stuff all the time that probably doesn't reflect our best judgment, or feels somewhat compulsive, or self-destructive, or involves forbidden longings, fantasies, and needs, and that we not infrequently dissemble, lie, and rationalize in order not to face them or have them discovered by others.  It's not a comfortable part of being human but it does seem to come with the territory.  But one thing we all know for sure-we'd rather be the judger than the judgee.  We'd rather have the high ground than the low.  To adapt a crude image once used by LBJ about J Edgar Hoover, we'd rather "be inside the tent pissing out then outside the tent being pissed on."  Shrinks call this "turning passive into active," or "identification with the aggressor," but you don't need to be in therapy to know that it's ubiquitous.

Such dynamics run rampant today in the popularity of reality TV shows that feature humiliation and judgment as selling points.  And they emerge when our hunger for vicarious morality plays is evoked and exploited by the mass media around political sexual scandals.  If we've ever had internal conflicts about cheating or wanting to cheat, had sexual longings for or experiences with someone of the same sex, imagined being with a prostitute or had pedophilic fantasies, watched porn or coveted a neighbor's husband or wife, we're going to be drawn-in guilty fascination or fearful hostility-to public disclosures of both forbidden sexual behavior and it's humiliating confession.  Rather than happening inside us, it's happening outside and we can happily assume one side of the conflict, the judging/horrified/disgusted/critical side, completely free from any taint.  We can do so collectively and we can do so anonymously, heaping scorn on the perpetrator without being the object of it.  It's a moment when we can safely throw stones in our own glass houses.

But lest we seem to inadvertently reveal, even in our disapproval, our actual identification with the sexual miscreant in question, we must add another layer of self-deception and deny that any of it has to do with sex, that our criticisms or mockery reflects any hang-up about sex.  No, no, we say, it's not the sex, it's the lying and the cover-up.  It's because he was stupid.  But that turns out to be only another projection, this time of our own harsh intolerance of the various ways that, as flawed human beings, we are weak, get confused, act irrationally, act from shame and guilt, and routinely shoot ourselves in the foot.  Can anyone say they don't?

The only reason to get stirred up about Anthony Weiner is because his version, his perfectly human version, of shooting himself in the foot happens to have hurt a progressive movement which desperately needs him and people like him to fight for real victims and against important lies that actually do hurt lots and lots of people, the lies we hear from our political enemies today about who should prosper and who shouldn't in our society.  Every else about you think or hear about him is just, well, bull.

Michael Bader, D.M.H.,  is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is the author of Male Sexuality: Why Women Don't Understand It—and Men Don't Either.

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