My old friend Karen Swallow Prior has some interesting observations about the excuses of both Bill Clinton and Anthony Weiner and their underlying gnostic assumptions. The good news is that the public is no longer buying it:
Media coverage of the story and the public’s reaction seems to indicate that we’ve come a long way in our professed sexual ethics since the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, circa 1998. At that time, then-President Bill Clinton insisted that oral sex did not constitute actual sex, and that he had therefore not committed adultery. Although 87 percent of Americans disagreed with Mr. Clinton then, much public discussion at that time centered on the exact definition of adultery, and which particular sex acts crossed the line (fellatio?) and which ones didn’t (cigars?).
However, with Weinergate (as the case, naturally, has been dubbed), the discussion is a bit more morally sophisticated. For the moral debate swirling around this scandal, besides whether or not Weiner should resign, centers not on the merely technical definition of adultery but on the more holistic, and even more biblical, idea of fidelity. If the Clinton sex scandal focused on the letter of the law, the Weiner situation seems to be more centered on the spirit of the law.
Neither the public nor the proliferating experts and bloggers seem to be buying into a bright line between actual physical contact (which Weiner denies) and online liaisons, despite Weiner’s attempt to cop that plea in his confession. In fact, a quick poll done by the Associated Press in the wake of his Monday confession found that many Americans say that it doesn’t have to be physical to be cheating. In another poll, “60 percent considered sending lewd photos over the Internet ‘to people other than your partner’ to be cheating.”
Like the public, experts, rather than being concerned with one specific sexual act, have been discussing the larger context of marital fidelity, one describing Weiner’s online behavior as “foreplay for an affair,” stating simply that “cheating is lying [to] and betraying your spouse.” Over and over, the experts are wisely identifying the litmus test for infidelity as the question, “Would you do this in front of your partner?” Many say the congressman’s conduct does constitute adultery or, at the very least, an “emotional affair.”
Both national sex scandals — first Clinton’s and now Anthony Weiner’s, with oodles more in between — reveal at work the old mind-body dualism that Christian tradition has worked hard to overcome. This dualism sees the human being not as an integrated whole self, but as a composite of warring elements, material vs. immaterial, physical vs. spiritual, and, in this brave new world of technology, “real” vs. “virtual.” The Clinton scandal emphasized the physical aspect, such as which kinds of bodily contact are considered adultery. Weiner, on the other hand, parses his transgressions according to this body-mind split: he acknowledges virtual liaisons, but suggests that his alleged lack of physical contact constitutes a difference in kind not degree.
In the space of a decade and a half, these two cases reflect a subtle transition of our cultural mindset away from a modernist way of thinking, one based in black and white classifications and definitions rooted in a scientific worldview, to a more nuanced (some would say postmodern) way of thinking that focuses more on the relationships and contexts that transcend the old categories.