One of the many odd stories coming out of US politics recently has been yet another scandal involving disgraced former US Congress member Anthony Weiner, this one prompting his wife to leave him. There’s a documentary about Weiner, called Weiner, and it’s marketed as a comedy. After all, it’s got dick-pics, and a guy called ‘Weiner’ – what’s not to laugh at? But the movie is actually very depressing: a close-up look at a guy who seems to have everything, and an amazing future ahead of him, but who seems compelled to repeatedly engage in a form of self-destructive behavior that also humiliates and traumatises everyone close to him.
The movie takes a very critical view of the media obsession with Weiner’s scandal, showing us a prurient mainstream media obsessed with sex and personality issues, instead of ‘the real issues’. Weiner rails against this. ‘What does his private life matter?’ he demands. ‘What about the real issues? What about the middle-class?’ It’s an argument you hear a lot in politics, especially on the left, although the insistence on ‘the real issues’ gets suspended when, say, the Prime Minister gets caught annoying waitresses. But most of the time the focus is on policy, values – like the evils of the endlessly versatile neoliberalism – and ‘the real issues’.
There’s a very credible theory in evolutionary psychology that the main advantage that the evolution of language conferred on early humans was not communication when hunting, or the formation of elaborate plans, but rather the development of gossip. ‘Gossip is a peer-to-peer information sharing network’ as the academics put it, and it allowed humans to form much larger communities if they exchanged information about people’s strengths and weaknesses: who is good and bad to work with, who you might want to mate with, who to stay away from; who your leaders should be. If it’s true then it puts all this emphasis on policy and values over personality and scandal in a very different light. If we’re basically hard-wired to privilege gossip about politicians over other forms of information – and I don’t think that’s a bad way to make decisions about leaders at all; it’s certainly far more sensible for low information voters than trying to figure out the truth and substance behind policy debates – then trying to win on policy or ‘the real issues’ is just completely futile, especially if the gossip is malign.
Because there’s good kinds of gossip. There were a bunch of stories the other day about John Key washing his car, and it generated contemptuous groans from the online left. But if you’re someone who isn’t obsessed with politics, seeing the head of government making fun of himself, washing his car, spending time with his son – these are, y’know, likable things to most people. If I think my way through most of our crop of successful politicians its not hard to think of the stories they want to tell about themselves. Bill English is a gruff farmer. Paula Bennett is a feisty westie. Judith Collins is Crusher. Winston Peters is a wily old fox who keeps ’em honest. Andrew Little’s lack of popularity has been a topic of discussion recently, and I have no idea of how he wants to be seen in a positive light. What does he want people to say about him? Right now he’s just a grim, irritable man rasping away on my TV or radio all the time. People inside left-wing political parties gossip constantly about MPs and leaders and staffers and candidates and office-holders, and pretty much everyone else, and even though they’re consumed by gossip, they seem weirdly oblivious to its significance.