Education, health, women's issues and politics.
For women in the developing world, few public health strategies have the potential to be as transformative as increasing the rate of male condom usage.
This truth—more controversial than it sounds—is hammered home today by a New York Times report on a new study that found injectible hormonal birth control, such as Depo-Provera, can double a woman’s risk of contracting HIV from her male partner, even as it prevents pregnancy. This catch-22 is unacceptable. Expanding women’s economic and political power means empowering girls and women to avoid three all-too-common fates: early marriage, unintended pregnancy and HIV infection.
It would be great if women and girls could accomplish some of this without the cooperation of male partners. That’s why so much hope has been poured into the development of microbicides—vaginal foams that, theoretically, could prevent both pregnancy and HIV transmission, without men having to do anything at all. But the fact of the matter remains that an effective microbicide has never been developed; that male circumcision, while effective at tamping down on female-to-male HIV-transmission, has far fewer benefits for women and gay men; and that a number of studies now show that hormonal birth control can increase women’s HIV-infection rate.
The problem, of course, is that increasing male condom usage requires massive public education efforts, since cultural attitudes remain a powerful barrier. In Uganda, for example, only 30 percent of people who know they are infected with HIV consistently use condoms, and usage has actually gone down in recent years. Some men in the developing world resist condoms for the same reasons some Western men do: they don’t feel as good, and then there’s plain old misogyny. And over the past decade, all around the world, increasingly effective HIV-treatment methods—as well as hype about the possible benefits of circumcision—have convinced some men (and women) that it isn’t as important to use condoms as it once was.
The problem is that women are left out of the equation when men make this choice uniltaterally, or pressure women for condom-free sex. This new study confirms that the World Health Organization, NGOs, and philanthropists should keep their focus on the only gold-standard method of both pregnancy and HIV-prevention: the male condom.
At Time, Amanda Ripley reports that the South Korean government is so concerned about test-cramming that it is raiding late-night hagwons, or tutoring academies, that flout a law banning test-prep after 10 pm. The irony, of course, is that South Korea is turning away from a testing-obsessed educational culture just as the United States is doubling down on test-focused reforms, in an effort to tie teacher evaluation and pay to student achievement data. These policies are leading to the creation of many more standardized tests in some school districts.
In August, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a speech in which he recounted South Korean President Lee Myung-bak complaining to President Obama that South Korean parents are “too demanding.” Duncan quipped, “We wish we had those challenges here!”
Ripley’s report paints a dispiriting picture of an educational culture that depresses children and seriously disadvantages the poor: 74 percent of South Korean high school students engage in private test-cram tutoring, at an average annual cost of $2,600 per student. “You Americans see a bright side of the Korean system, but Koreans are not happy with it,” Education Minister Lee Ju-ho tells Ripley. Indeed, concerned that South Korean children are being trained more as memorization machines than as creative innovators, President Lee promised reform at his 2008 inauguration, saying, “One-size-fits-all, government-led uniform curriculums and an education system that is locked only onto the college-entrance examination are not acceptable.”
There’s a lot of work to be done on upping the rigor of the American educational system, in terms of better preparing students for college and the workplace. But it’s important that we not overlearn the lessons of our international peers.
This morning President Obama will announce that due to the intransigence of Congress, the administration is moving forward unilaterally to reform No Child Left Behind. In what is being referred to as the “waiver process,” the Department of Education will offer states the opportunity to ignore some of the law’s most absurd dictates—for example, that every single student be “proficient” in math and reading by 2014, regardless of whether a child is disabled or fluent in English—in exchange for embracing a narrower reform agenda.
The administration’s preferred reform strategies are no surprise, since they were also part of the earlier Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant programs. They include asking states to embrace the new Common Core curriculum standards in high school math and English; using student performance data—often standardized test scores—to evaluate teachers and principals; and overhauling underperforming schools by replacing the principal or significant portions of the teaching force. States will also have the option of closing schools down entirely and “restarting” them under different management, sometimes a charter school operator.
But under the new waiver process, states will be expected to overhaul only the bottom-performing 5 percent of schools using these “whole school” reform strategies, while intervening in a less catastrophic way in an additional 10 percent of schools, those that show low performance for specific subgroups of students, such as African-Americans or Hispanics.
This is a significant change from the original NCLB, which asked states to intervene in every school labeled “failing.” According to the DOE, an estimated 80 percent of American schools are on track to “fail” by 2014. No Child Left Behind’s 100 percent intervention requirement was always unrealistic, and could never have been enforced. Nevertheless, it is stigmatizing to states, teachers, schools, neighborhoods and students for schools to be labeled “failing,” so there is ample incentive for states to apply for the waivers.
House Republicans have been pushing their own education reform agenda, which would entail allowing local school districts to spend as they please funds currently intended only for disadvantaged and disabled students. The Obama administration has strongly resisted such proposals as an affront to civil rights, but its waiver process will allow some funding flexibility by allowing states to redirect about $1 billion currently allocated by NCLB for tutoring and school choice programs.
Only about 1 percent of eligible students were ever able to take advantage of the law’s “choice” provisions. Students in failing schools were theoretically allowed to transfer to a non-failing school within their own district, but in many troubled urban districts, the vast majority of schools are underperforming, and thus not attractive to transfers, while the few high-quality schools are oversubscribed, so unable to accommodate extra students.
The law’s tutoring mandates were similarly underutilized.
A more progressive rethinking of NCLB might have allowed students to transfer out of their home school districts to integrated, higher-performing suburban schools: we know from the experiences of Milwaukee, Seattle and Hartford that when such programs are available, they are extremely popular among low-income families and lead to improved academic outcomes.
On curriculum, it would have been worthwhile to encourage states to scale-up programs that introduce teenagers—in an academically rigorous way—to potential occupations, since we know one of the best ways to fight dropouts is to demonstrate to kids that education is relevant to their futures.
But the Obama administration remains committed to a narrower slate of reforms focused on curriculum standardization and value-added evaluation of teachers. As Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute demonstrates in his recent blockbuster essay, these policies will continue to be controversial on both the left and right, as teachers’ unions and many parents resist test-driven instruction. Meanwhile, much of the Republican base has tired of bipartisan education reform, with the GOP primary field embracing a reactionary “parental rights” ideology that resists almost any federal effort to improve schools.
On school reform, the center is narrowing, but as usual, the Obama administration is rushing to stay within it.
Should schoolchildren be required to receive the three-course vaccination against HPV, the sexually transmitted infection that causes 12,000 cases of cervical cancer each year? Michele Bachmann has made the issue a major line of attack against Texas Governor Rick Perry, who signed a 2007 executive order requiring female public school students to receive the vaccine before they enter the sixth grade. (Texas parents have the right to opt their child out of the vaccine.) “I’m a mom of three children. And to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong,” Bachmann said at Monday night’s GOP debate. “That should never be done…. Little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don’t get a mulligan. They don’t get a do- over.”
This type of misinformation is dangerous. Cervical cancer is known as a “silent killer” because in its early stages, it is typically symptomless. That’s why women are advised to undergo regular gynecological exams and pap smears to screen for HPV: If they do not get regular check-ups, the cancer may be discovered at too late of a stage to treat it effectively. For this reason, the disease is closely associated with poverty and lack of health insurance. What’s more, treatment of HPV and cervical cancer, which can include scraping of the vaginal walls and hysterectomy, can be very painful.
So Rick Perry was absolutely right on Monday when he said, “What was driving me was, obviously, making a difference about young people’s lives. Cervical cancer is a horrible way to die.”
It’s important to point out, however, that as uninformed as Bachmann’s critique of Perry has been, there is no broad consensus on whether HPV vaccination should be mandatory. In 2007, for example, the New York chapter of the American College of Obstreticians and Gynocologists (ACOG) came out in support of a state vaccination requirement for school enrollment. But in August 2008, after the Bush administration required the vaccine for young immigrant women seeking green cards, a coalition of health care, feminist, and immigrants’ rights organizations—including the national ACOG, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum—opposed the move. “Prospective immigrant women should have the same opportunity as American women to make an informed decision about whether or not to be vaccinated against HPV,” ACOG stated. In November 2009, the CDC and Department of Health and Human Services, then under the control of the Obama administration, reversed the policy.
Last year, the national ACOG recommended the HPV vaccination for all girls and young women between the ages of 9 and 26. About twenty states now require vaccination for school enrollment, although in legislatures, the topic continues to be a contentious one. On both the left and the right, there is concern over the profit-motives of Merck, the company that manufactures Gardasil, the most common HPV vaccine. Vaccination conspiracy theories are unfortunately quite popular across the political spectrum, in part because of celebrities who have embraced the debunked claims that childhood vaccinations cause autism. And social conservatives argue that innoculating young girls against a sexually transmitted infection somehow condones sexual activity and promiscuity, and that school enrollment requirements, even with an opt-out, violate “parental rights.”
A reality check: more than 95 percent of Americans have premarital sex, and more than 50 percent of sexually active Americans contract HPV at some point in thier lives. The disease can cause genital warts in men, and a small percentage of affected women will develop cervical cancer.
The HPV vaccine is also FDA-approved for boys and men, and I happen to believe that the best way to fight cervical cancer would be to encourage both girls and boys to undergo vaccination; after all, innoculation is most effective when it occurs throughout the population. That said, schools and medical professionals need to do a better job of providing parents with accessible, accurate information about vaccination. In the absense of such public outreach efforts, we let Michele Bachmann frame the debate, and conspiracy theories fester.
On Monday evening, HBO will debut Gloria: In Her Own Words, a documentary about iconic feminist leader Gloria Steinem. I caught a sneak peak of the film at the Time Warner Center Tuesday, and while it’s an interesting, often moving look at Steinem’s life, it has very little to tell us about her actual legacy: about how issues ranging from reproductive rights to the pay gap have evolved over the past forty years, or about what kind of women’s movement Steinem has helped build and argue for.
Though there are interviews in Gloria about how upper-middle-class, straight feminists came to embrace lesbian rights and economic justice for poor women, there is no explicit discussion of an equally enduring and arguably more fraught issue: the relationship between feminism and struggles for racial equality. The film does feature archival footage showing 1970s white feminists arguing that men’s only bars are the equivalent of Jim Crow lunch counters. Doesn’t that contention cry out for debate, for analysis—for something? We see Steinem appear alongside her 1970s “speaking partners,” the black feminists Flo Kennedy and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, but we don’t hear much about how these women (who were so often overshadowed by the more famous Steinem) navigated their dual identies as women of color within the feminist movement.
Steinem notes that her own brand of feminism was more radical than that of her elders, women like Betty Friedan, who were concerned mostly with the plight of white, college-educated housewives. Yet there are no interviews with either Steinem or other movement veterans that reflect explicitly on the relationship between feminism and civil rights. We hear about how Steinem’s sexy good looks helped propel her to prominence, but not about how her whiteness helped make feminism seem less threatening. We also learn nothing about the sophisticated set of critiques women-of-color, such as Angela Davis and bell hooks, have long made regarding mainstream feminism: that its focus on abortion detracted from their own struggle for maternal rights and that the assumption that women represent a united interest group often downplayed the struggles of non-white women in overcoming racism.
Gloria’s lack of an open dialogue on race is especially regrettable given the role Steinem played in the 2008 Democratic primary, a subject that, surprisingly, never even comes up in the film. A Clinton supporter, Steinem declared in a New York Times op-ed, “Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House.” Such claims became known as engaging in Oppression Olympics: counterproductive argument over whether racism, classism, or sexism is more pernicious.
During a discussion with Candy Crowley following the film Tuesday, Steinem repeated her condescending claim that many young women supported Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton not because they were inspired by Obama’s rhetoric against the Iraq war and in favor of racial healing but because their boyfriends told them to. I myself was very sympathetic to Hillary, but this argument always struck me as absurdly offensive, especially given what we know about Generation Y’s policy preferences, and the fact that we are the most racially diverse cohort ever to reach voting age.
The best parts of Gloria tell the story of Steinem’s transition from glossy magazine journalist to committed feminist activist: she’d had an abortion after college and nearly a decade later, was activated by the New York City legalization movement. The segments on Steinem’s parents are also especially poignant. Her mother was an Ohio newspaper reporter who had a breakdown after leaving her job to become a stay-at-home mom, and suffered from mental illness for the rest of her life. Her father was a traveling salesman who divorced his wife. Steinem has deep regrets about letting her relationships with both parents falter in the face of her overwhelming role as a movement spokesperson and organizer.
Gloria is an enjoyable gloss on the life of a feminist heroine—but it’s not the sophisticated and critical film retrospective that Steinem, and the Second Wave feminist movement, really deserve.
Last weekend, two very different speeches on the future of the teaching profession made news.
The first was from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who appeared Friday before the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, which runs the elite National Board certification process for teachers. The United States must follow the example of nations that out-perform us educationally, Duncan said, and begin to recruit most of our public school teachers from the top thirds of their college classes. To do this, he argued, we will need to raise average starting salaries from $30,00 to $60,000 and average salary caps from $70,000 to $150,000.
Is that really possible in a climate of federal, state and local budget cuts? We can find the money, Duncan said, by utilizing technology to “reorganize” schools (read: raise class sizes and shrink the teacher corps); instituting teacher merit pay based in part on student test score data; loosening teacher job security protections; and cutting teacher benefit and pension packages and redirecting some of the funds toward salaries.
Duncan knows such proposals remain controversial among teachers. “I respectfully urge everyone to take a deep breath, hold their fire, and see this as an opportunity to transform the entire profession,” he said, “not as a threat or as an investment we don't need.”
The second speech was from the actor Matt Damon, a public school graduate and son of a teacher who made news in March when he slammed the Obama administration’s teacher evaluation and pay proposals in a CNN interview. Speaking at the Save Our Schools protest march Saturday near the White House, Damon brought some in the crowd to tears as he painted a more holistic, even romantic portrait of the public school teacher’s role.
“I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test,” Damon said. “If their very survival as teachers was based [not] on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning, but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths, and helping us realize our talents. I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that.
“This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel.”
After the speech, Damon and his mom did a short interview with a libertarian Reason.tv reporter. After criticizing “MBA-style thinking” in education policy and defending teacher tenure, Damon angrily contested the cameraman’s assertion that 10 percent of the nation’s 3.2 million teachers are bad at their jobs. “Maybe you’re a shitty cameraman,” Damon countered.
The video went viral.
The Obama administration’s education policies have always been controversial among more traditional education liberals, who are disappointed to see a Democratic president pursue an agenda of standardization and weakened union protections. But the always-contentious school reform debate has gotten even nastier over the past several months, with the role of multiple-choice tests emerging as the flashpoint.
Adult test-tampering scandals in Atlanta; Washington, DC; Los Angeles; Pennsylvania; and elsewhere around the country have focused new scrutiny on efforts to tie teacher evaluation and pay to student test scores. Polls of teachers’ opinions on performance-based pay schemes are divided; according to Education Next, 72 percent of teachers oppose such policies, while the National Center for Education Information finds 59 percent support them. What’s clear is that there is no teacher consensus in favor of the testing regimen created by No Child Left Behind, and that teachers don’t broadly support the Obama administration’s attempt to expand high-stakes assessments to subjects other than math and reading. Education Next found that 60 percent of teachers oppose tying tenure decisions to test scores. The NCEI poll reported that 44 percent of teachers are dissatisfied with student achievement testing in general.
Teachers (and parents, and Matt Damon) are right to be skeptical of the administration’s testing push. While “standards-based-assessment” doesn’t have to mean that students are sitting for dozens of new bubble tests—there are other ways to “test,” including portfolio-based systems, performance tasks and presentations—the fact of the matter is that some states and school districts will respond to the incentives of Obama’s Race to the Top program in ways that over-rationalize learning.
Case in point: While reporting from Colorado this past winter, I observed a school district, Harrison District 2 in Colorado Springs, that gives pencil-and-paper exams in every subject at every grade level. The second grade physical education exam asked, “Draw a picture of how your hands look while they are catching a ball that is thrown above your head,” and, “What are two rules students can follow so they do not run into others when running around in physical education class?”
The results of this exam, which tested reading, writing and drawing far more than physical fitness, impacted the gym teacher’s evaluation score and pay.
Arne Duncan is aware that there is a difference between sophisticated student assessment and bad student assessment. That’s why the Department of Education should provide states and districts with much more specific guidelines about best practices in assessment, particularly in non-traditional subjects such as art, music and physical education. In fact, this would be a great subject for one of the department’s national conferences, something akin to the event the DOE hosted in Denver in February on union-district partnerships.
Absent that kind of guidance, the protests of the Matt Damons of the world will only grow louder, and the Obama administration will lose crucial public support for its teacher-quality agenda.
If you watched Rupert Murdoch’s weak-sauce testimony in front of the British Parliament Tuesday, you might have felt just a teensy bit sorry for former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, who sat directly behind Murdoch the entire afternoon, pouting.
Sure, Klein is probably earning more money than God in his new role as executive vice president at News Corp. But the Justice Department attorney turned data-and-accountability school reformer signed up with Murdoch to get out of the harsh political limelight and help News Corp. make a mint selling educational technology products to school districts. Instead, Klein now finds himself heading up the company’s internal response to the explosive phone-hacking scandal, which has tainted nearly every august institution in British society, from Fleet Street to the Cameron government to Scotland Yard.
The FBI is currently investigating News Corp. to learn if its illegal and unethical activities victimized any American citizens, or penetrated the company’s US holdings, which include Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post.
But what’s been less well understood is the impact the scandal might have on Murdoch’s attempt to make a profit off the American public sector, most notably through seeking to provide technology services, such as data-tracking systems and video lessons, to public school districts.
Last November, shortly after hiring Klein, News Corp. acquired Wireless Generation, an education technology firm that had worked closely with Klein during his tenure as chancellor on two projects: ARIS, a controversial (and buggy) data system that warehouses students’ standardized test scores and demographic profiles; and School of One, a more radical attempt to use technology to personalize instruction, reorganize classrooms, and reduce the size of the teaching force.
The acquisition put Klein, who was set to supervise Wireless Generation, in an awkward position vis à vis city ethics regulations. The Times reported:
Conflict-of-interest rules set strict limits for city employees, both during and after their tenure, which could make Mr. Klein’s transition a tricky one. City employees are never allowed to disclose confidential information about the city’s business dealings or future strategy, and they cannot communicate with the agency for which they worked for one year after they leave. The rules also bar them from ever working on matters they had substantial involvement in as city employees.
It seemed unlikely Klein would be able to fully follow those mandates when, in May, the city Department of Education renewed its contract with Wireless Generation, asking the company to provide testing materials and software. Last month, New York State moved to award Wireless Generation a $27 million no-bid contact to create a state student data-tracking system similar to ARIS—despite the fact that many New York City principals have decided not to use the $80 million software, which doesn’t track helpful day-to-day information on attendance, behavior or homework completion.
So far, only the teachers’ union and a few New York progressive organizations—including the Working Families Party, Common Cause/New York and New York City Public School Parents—are using the hacking scandal to call attention to what they see as a series of sweetheart deals between New York and News Corp. Wireless Generation Senior Vice President Zachary Silverstein told Education Week that drawing any connection between Murdoch’s UK troubles and his American education business is “is really a stretch and frankly unfair.”
But scrutiny on Murdoch’s school agenda is growing. Aware of the media titan’s relationship with former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, education reporter Alexander Russo tried to find out if Murdoch had donated to StudentsFirst, Rhee’s PAC. The group’s goal is to act as a political counterweight to teachers’ unions.
“After two days of emails and phone calls—they must have been freaking out behind the scenes trying to figure out what to do—a Rhee spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny the Murdoch money,” Russo wrote.
“Our policy doesn't allow me to reveal who our donors are or aren't,” the spokesman said.
With new evidence of standardized test score-inflation and straightforward adult cheating on K-12 tests in Atlanta, Washington, DC, and across the country, you’d think it would be exactly the wrong time for the Obama administration to commit $500 million to developing additional state tests for a totally new population of children: pre-schoolers.
After all, we know that when we tie school funding and teacher and principal pay to student standardized test scores, tests begin to tell us less and less about what children actually know and how teachers and schools can improve instruction. In social science, the phenomenon is known as Campbell’s Law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
That said, I’m cautiously enthusiastic about this latest, early childhood-focused round of Race to the Top, and here’s why: the model the administration has in mind for pre-school assessment is low-stakes for individual teachers and students and measures not only academic performance but also children’s social, emotional, physical and artistic readiness for kindergarten.
Maryland has perhaps the most advanced pre-K assessment tool in the country, and one the Department of Education is pointing to as an example. The state’s “Model for School Readiness” requires incoming kindergarteners to be assessed in seven “domains of learning”: language and literacy, mathematical thinking, scientific thinking, social studies, the arts, physical development and social and personal development. Teachers perform the assessment by looking at a child’s drawings and writing, watching the child attempt to identify letters and numbers, and observing the child playing and interacting with both peers and adults.
The purpose of the system is to improve instruction for kids, not to reward or punish individual educators. “Kindergarten teachers use the findings to inform classroom instruction, provide appropriate support for individual students, and promote better communication with parents about children’s abilities,” Maryland reports. “Local school systems use the findings to guide professional development opportunities for teachers, inform strategic planning, target resources, and successfully help children make the transition from early childhood to school.”
That said, to protect the integrity of such assessments, the Department of Education will need to provide very specific guidelines. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is also asking states to create a tiered rating system for pre-school programs; if states design systems in which student assessment scores figure heavily into those ratings, pre-K administrators and teachers could be incented to focus on raising student assessment scores above all else. This could corrupt educational practices within pre-schools, where learning should be hands-on, low-pressure and connected to play.
The kindergarten-entry assessments are “probably the most radical part of the [Race to the Top early learning] program,” says Sara Mead, a pre-K expert and senior associate partner at Bellweather Education Partners, a nonprofit Washington, DC, consulting firm. “It would drive a big shift towards much more measurement of early learning program outcomes, which parts of the early-childhood education community have traditionally opposed.… But these are not intended to be assessments to determine whether or not an individual child is ‘ready’ for kindergarten, and they never have high stakes for kids, in terms of denying them entry into kindergarten.”
Laura Bornfreund, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation’s Early Learning Initiative, has written that pre-K assessment remains controversial:
Concerns over inappropriate assessments of young children are rampant, so it bears repeating that appropriate kindergarten readiness assessments are not “tests” in the way adults might think of them. They do not require children to sit down with a bubble sheet and number-two pencil. Often they are based on teachers’ observations of children’s drawings or playtime interactions. For many literacy assessments teachers conduct them by sitting down with students, one by one, to ask them questions about sounds and letters or to point to pictures. The idea is to create a low-pressure experience. But there are still many questions in the research community about how to ensure that assessments are administered in ways that are sensitive to a child’s age and stage of development
What’s promising is that the acknowledged best practices in pre-K assessment are both holistic and child-centered. While Obama’s K-12 education policy calls for student test scores to weigh heavily in teacher and principal evaluation and pay, the Department of Education’s new pre-K policy heeds the advice of leading psychometricians: use test scores to help teachers better target instruction toward individual children, not to reward or punish either individual children or adults in the system.
K-12 education policy would, in fact, benefit from bringing its own approach to testing in-line with the leading early-childhood assessment systems.
I disagree with Amanda that Weiner’s online sexual habits are irrelevant to his role as a congressman or liberal bulldog. As I’ve already argued, I find it alarmingly unprofessional that Weiner pursued these activities from his Congressional office in the middle of the day, with his staff just outside the door. (As an employee, I certainly would feel uncomfortable if I guessed my boss was spending his workday in this way.)
And though I feel sorry for Weiner’s wife, whom he lied to about this contretemps (and who, it now emerges, is pregnant), my annoyance with him has little to do with outrage over his violation of the sanctity of marriage. (That’s their business.) Rather, as someone who feels passionately about some of the issues Weiner has championed, including universal healthcare, I’m angry that he would risk his important role in the public debate by giving strangers access to such embarrassing photographs He must have—should have!—known there was a chance the pictures could leak, putting his career at risk.
Having seen an iPhone photo of a photo of Weiner’s naked penis—yes, I admit, I clicked through—I might be kind of distracted next time I see him on TV criticizing Republicans. It curves slightly to the right; now I know, and I just can’t erase my brain.
This entire thing is so demeaning and such a distraction from the issues. Most frustratingly, it could have been avoided if Weiner had just not publicly tweeted a photograph of his crotch. I don't think Weiner is as innocent in this scenario as the mugging victim to which Amanda compares him. A person can't reasonably be expected to never walk around late at night; an elected official can reasonably be expected to be careful with photographs of his genitals.
I fear we’re over thinking things if we’re too quick to paint Weiner as a victim here, no matter how much we hate Breitbart and his role in all this. That said, I believe it should be up to the voters in Weiner’s district to decide whether or not he deserves another chance to represent their interests. There surely are second, third and fourth acts in American life, and I certainly hope that Anthony Weiner’s future is a lot brighter than this last week has been for him.
While I share Amanda Marcotte’s frustration with the prurient media circus that developed around Weiner-gate—and truly, I find few people as odious as Andrew Breitbart—I’m puzzled by Amanda’s contention that Weiner is the victim of an anti-sex “free-for-all of rooting through politicians’ trashcans to make sure their private sex lives adhere to someone else’s standards.”
I’m not here to be a prude. If Congressman Anthony Weiner was plumber Joe Smith and digital exhibitionism was his personal kink, pursued inside his own home and without misleading his wife, I’d be the first one to stand up and defend his right to privacy.
But let’s face it—any public figure who indulges this particular fetish is asking for trouble. Let’s review exactly what Weiner did. Over the course of several years, he repeatedly met strange women online and then proceeded to consensually swap semi-nude photos, sexts, explicit e-mail and Facebook messages, and occasionally engaged in phone sex with them.
In the case of Meagan Broussard, the Texas mom who just happened to have ties to an as-yet unnamed Republican political activist, Weiner reached out to her at 3 pm on a Thursday; a photo he sent her depicts him sitting at a desk. He seems to have had phone sex from his Congressional office two days earlier with another woman, Lisa Weiss, just before he went down to the House floor to vote on a healthcare bill.
Weiner is a well-known workaholic. I’m not suggesting that he ever failed to fulfill his duties as a representative of New York’s 9th district. And it isn’t illegal to have phone sex from one’s Congressional office. But what sort of mature, adult professional carries on in this manner during business hours, with one’s staff just outside the office door? Not one with his priorities in order.
How did Weiner finally get caught? Due to his own stupidity when, on May 27, he miscoded a direct message containing a photograph of his crotch. Instead of sending the photo to Gennette Cordova, a Seattle college student, he blasted it to his public Twitter feed.
At that moment, Weiner lost any tenuous claim to privacy he may have had. (Remember, he was already aware that five women across the country possessed indiscreet photos of him. He was playing with fire.) I’m no fan of our debased and decadent media culture—heck, I usually write about education policy!—but I think that in America in 2011, it is simply absurd to suggest that the media not ask questions about a photo of an erect penis blasted out over a Congressman’s Twitter feed.
Nor does it appear that Weiner’s online hijinks were okay with his wife, Huma Abedin. At his press conference Monday, Weiner said he had lied to her about the chain of events until that very morning, claiming his account had been hacked. In fact, Abedin’s lack of approval was likely a major motivation behind Weiner’s public cover-up attempts, as well. While Abedin may have known that Weiner participated in such activities before he met her, there is no indication whatsoever that this was some sort of shared, agreed-upon sexual fetish within their marriage.
Amanda worries that scandals like this one will keep good people who just happen to like non-normative sex from going into politics. I have to say, I’m not too worried. If people who can’t get through the workday without from-the-office phone sex don’t run for Congress in the future, I think the Republic will survive.
Read Amanda Marcotte's response "On Weinergate: Before Throwing Stones..."