Don't mess with the sex police.
We have always refrained from speculating about the sex lives of Megan McArdle and her so very close little group of DC think tankers and bloggers. It is none of our business, it is irrelevant to our task of fighting mindless authoritarianism, and the very thought is enough to make us cringe and retch a little. Virtually our only comment policy is "Don't mention McArdle's sex life, because there is just not enough mind bleach in the world and oh God I think I'm going to be sick."
But we are also willing to admit when we are wrong. It seems that it is our duty, nay, our privilege, to be moral scolds and point out public immorality, or rather immorality we happen to run across that includes someone who is a public figure, like a politician or member of the media who crosses the country giving lectures on how we don't really need Social Security because of Freedom!!!!1!
And speaking of public figures who enjoy being moral scolds, let's listen to Megan McArdle.
My colleague makes a persuasive argument for ignoring sex scandals--they have opportunity cost, after all, and what business is it of ours? Does it tell us anything about how they do their job?
Allow me to suggest that maybe it does. My take on the Clinton scandal at the time was that it got about the right result. Clinton lied under oath. And while I might ordinarily have been sympathetic to complaints that he shouldn't have had to answer such questions, my understanding is that Clinton himself signed into law the legislation under which his behavior--with, mind you, a state employee--was illegal. At which point, I thought the only person in the world who should have had to answer those questions was sitting in the dock. We impeached him, sending the message that, no, you don't get to lie under oath just because you're the president, and then we didn't punish him, sending the message that no, we are not crazy enough to remove the leader of the free world from office over a minor sex scandal.
But later I read Jeffrey Toobin's rather sympathetic account. And I was shocked. I'd had no idea how reckless Clinton had been, dragging off this girl he barely new for a little, um, grip-and-grin. It was completely, astonishingly irresponsible. For all he knew, she might have walked out of that office and told the world. He was playing around with her while he was on the phone with major world figures. Does that tell us something about how Clinton did his job? I think it has to.
Poor Monica Lewinsky, dragged off by Clinton and forced to submit to his unwanted advances. Oh, wait--Mrs. McArdle made an error, one that she no doubt deeply regrets even if she does not say so. Lewinsky was a very willing participant, not a helpless victim. Oh, well, we suppose the details don't really matter much, do they? We'll remember that for the future--it's just fine to accuse someone of sexual impropriety that didn't happen. The larger message is more important; a person's sex life tells us something about how they do their job and therefore we, the public, need to be informed.
What [Anthony Weiner] actually did is bad enough: sexting from work? With strangers he met over the internet? As with Clinton, this is strange and reckless behavior for a public figure whose inappropriate behavior could be used to blackmail him. I don't think it's somehow out of bounds to point it out, or how much we're losing by having less available air time to report forgettable sniping between Republicans and Democrats over the debt ceiling.
Blackmail! Is blackmail out of bounds?? Of course not! It's essential for national security that we discuss Weiner's sexting. And the private sex lives of journalists, who might be blackmailed into ignoring crimes.
[yap yap yap]
Maybe it's because I'm older and tireder but these days, the "not our business" school of sex scandal seems to function as a get-out-of-monogamy-free card for powerful men who want to behave badly. If Anthony Weiner were to, say, start randomly swearing at a constituent and calling her terrible names, would anyone argue that we should not report this on the grounds that the behavior's legal? How about if he'd been tricking old ladies out of their pension checks with a shady stockbrockerage? Sure it's legal, but we think it tells us something about his character, and that it's actually useful to know those sorts of things about the people we elect.
Or the people that report the news, and might be blackmailed into supporting a policy that is harmful! For instance, just imagine that a bunch of investment bankers were about to unload some bad loans on unsuspecting buyers while making a massive bet against those loans, and politicians knew about it! They might be blackmailed into letting the bankers get away with their shenanigans!
Of course if investment bankers were to do such a horrible thing McArdle would be the first person to call for their heads. Morality is incredibly important to her, and if bankers were shafting the poor and middle class by buying off politicians, or damaging the environment, or making the poor sick with pollution, McArdle would be the first to fight the immoral bastards.
[yip yip yip]
[...]I can't sign up for this. I don't think that cheating on your wife, or lesser betrayals like sexting, are minor marital pecadillos, [sic] of no more public interest than whether you remembered to pay the gas bill or unload the dishwasher. I don't think it's the government's job to punish infidelity, but that doesn't imply that society has no interest in whether people keep their vows. Marriage is a valuable social institution. There are good reasons that society should buttress it. So I'm not sure it's a waste of time, in the face of these sorts of allegations, to use a few of our precious news hours to say, "Hey, not okay!" Moreover, in the age of the internet, you cannot simply decline to report this as a neutral act. Instead, you send an affirmative message: "We don't really think he did anything wrong."
I am fighting a powerful urge to point out that virtually all of the people urging us to move on to something more important are men. But obviously, I'm losing the fight.
Marriage is important and must be bolstered. For instance, when Ross Douthat took Ta-Nehisi Coates to task for having a child out of wedlock Megan McArdle was right there to back him up. It's important for people to police others' marriage vows or people might stop getting married or start getting divorced or some other horrible consequence.
We don't quite understand why McArdle is so concerned with policing marriage only after the couple take vows, however; if one should publicly castigate someone for sexting other women and publicly castigate men for having children outside of wedlock, why is it okay for McArdle to have sex outside of marriage and live with men out of wedlock? Surely it's bad for women to sleep with men before marriage; why get married at all when you can have the cow's milk for free? And indeed, McArdle gave her milk away in the past and the man did not marry her, the poor cow.
It is absolutely essential for the strength of marriage to discuss in detail, preferably with pictures and video, all of these fornicating women who are killing the God-given institute of marriage by sleeping around. Who did Megan McArdle sleep with? Were they fellow bloggers? Are they now married? Which of her DC blogger friends has an open marriage? Who else is living in sin? We need discussion and op-eds, and perhaps a Muckety Map.
That doesn't mean they're wrong, of course. Maybe they're right, and it's pointless. But there's something a little too fifties about the "All men do it, so why should we care?" approach to this. I'd like to think that enforcing the norms which hold that infidelity is really, actually wrong is worth taking a few hours out of a slow news cycle.
Enforcing your tribe's norms, policing it borders and punishing its transgressors, especially when they belong to an enemy political party, is absolutely necessary to preserve morality and our society. Except for bankers, of course. When they do something wrong you must be vewy, vewy careful, for you never know and it's too hard to figure out and there are no villains. Policing Weiner's morals is so important that McArdle writes two more posts discussing how we simply must discuss Weiner's morals, don't you think? But not premarital sex; no matter what the moral police say, that's okay. For certain, better people.
I think we can safely say that premarital sex with more than one person is now normal in our society. That doesn't mean it's okay for a married man to have a girlfriend on the side. If this had happened while Weiner was still single, it would have been embarrassing, but -- aside from the possibility that he used government computers -- not particularly newsworthy. Once he started sexually explicit relationships outside of his marriage, it became an entirely different thing.
Phew! It seems that McArdle's fornication outside of marriage is perfectly acceptable, as long as she isn't
Society takes a greater interest in marriages than in other relationships because society, as well as the individual, has an interest in strong marriages. Strong marriages support a strong society. And society supports the marriage by encouraging people to do the very hard work of keeping their promises. One of the ways in which society ensures strong marriages is by tut-tutting (or worse) at people who don't keep to their vows: who abandon spouses, treat them badly, or yes, violate their trust by engaging in covert sexual activity. I'm a big fan of sexual privacy. But you cannot have a public institution that rests in part on fidelity, and also complete privacy on those matters.
Call me old-fashioned, but I think that social sanction can be very helpful in assisting us in doing important but difficult things. Marriage is stronger if people who find out that their friends are cheating don't say, "Awesome, is he hot?" but "How could you do that to Jason?" Marriage is stronger if people who cheat are viewed with slight revulsion, and so are the (knowing) people who they cheat with. Marriage is stronger when people who decide not to care for seriously ill spouses are met with an incredulous "What the hell is wrong with you?", not "Yeah, I couldn't handle that either." Of course it would be nicer if we didn't need this sort of help. But we are a flawed species.
This is, to be sure, a bit trickier in an era when people like me and Andrew accept that there can be healthy non-monagamous [sic] marriages. Maybe, folks have suggested, she was totally okay with this! This seems possible, but not really very likely. I know a decent number of people in open marriages, but they are very far from the majority of the people I know. Looking at what polls and research we have on this sort of thing, plus an unscientific survey of my friends and the women who have written me, I'm going to go out on a limb here and speak for heterosexual married women as a class: I'm pretty sure that most of us are not okay with our husbands sending racy photos to strangers, or engaging in phone sex with same within weeks of our wedding day. And if she's totally okay with this, how come she hasn't said so?
That's right. Bankers must always be given the benefit of the doubt, but people's private sex lives must be policed by perfect strangers. It's the American way.