I finished Azar Nafisi’s wonderful memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran just as the story of Weiner’s online sexual antics broke. Nafisi’s memoir of resistance to tyranny through the liberating power of literature makes the point that one should not let the political confiscate the personal. In one particularly eloquent passage, Nafisi argues, “At the core of the fight for political rights is the desire to protect ourselves, to prevent the political from intruding on our individual lives.”
Congressman Weiner is dealing with an excruciating entanglement of the political and the personal that makes us all recoil. His sexual obsessions are not unique but this bright, brazen man has created a new kind of hell for himself by providing the world with a gallery of images of his addiction that will live forever. Other people with great gifts have sinned grievously, survived the public shaming and gone on to serve the public good. But the fact that others hung on to public office despite their sexual stupidities should not be what shapes Weiner’s thinking on what he does next.
Perhaps in becoming increasingly resigned to new lows in behavior from those who aim for high office, we have encouraged the notion that standards of taste and decorum are not things we worry about too much in this highly charged, increasingly rude time of constant technology. To borrow from Nafisi’s memoir again: “Personal and political are interdependent but not one and the same thing. The realm of imagination is a bridge between them, refashioning one in terms of the other.”
Weiner seems to have the kind of energy and readiness to raise the volume on causes that he embraces that makes him an effective voice for his constituents. He does not have to give up his ambition to serve the public. There are many ways he can do that besides being a congressman. He can seize this moment of humiliation to demonstrate that his judgment is not entirely impaired. Despite the loyalty of his constituents, Weiner would do well to look to the likes of John Profumo, not John Ensign for what to do next. By stepping down now he would be giving himself the creative space in which to refashion how he might be the kind of public servant he seems to want to be. Stepping down would quickly wean the media and the public off their own addiction to the tawdry details of his transgressions. It would be an act of public service—and a statement of love for the wife he has unthinkingly dishonored–to demonstrate that it is indeed possible to refuse to let one’s private life be confiscated by the political.
“How does the soul survive?” “That,” says Nafisi, through the writers she explores, “is the essential question.”
“And the response is through love and imagination….to remain a poet in such circumstances is also to reach the heart of politics. The human feelings, human experience, the human form and face, recover their proper place—the foreground.” (Bellow, cited by Nafisi, 315).
The essential question is not whether Weiner survives in Congress. The question he really faces is whether to keep burning –or prove that he can rise from the ashes.