The Dim-Post

September 2, 2016

Politics, Weiner and Gossip

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 9:13 am

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.

27 Comments »

  1. “Weiner rails against this. ‘What does his private life matter?’ he demands. ‘What about the real issues?’ 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.”

    At the risk of being distracted from the real issues of your post, is this a fair comparison? I know nothing about Anthony Weiner, except that a quick scan suggests to me that his issues have been entirely personal and legal, so sorry if I’m incorrect on this. The NZ PM, however, was being accused of repeatedly abusing his privilege to get away with assaulting another person, even if he didn’t bother to consider he was actually doing this at the time. That’s obviously not a “real issue” to some people, but I think there’s a much more objective argument that it’s a relevant issue when the leader of the government is accused of breaking some serious laws than, for example, doing stuff that’s completely legal even if frowned upon.

    Comment by izogi — September 2, 2016 @ 9:26 am

  2. 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.

    Agreed. And it makes total sense that gossip is a key factor in people formulating ideas about their fellows via an informal information sharing system.

    So it’s good politics I guess to be a likable every-man inasmuch as it garners votes, but it doesn’t make the liked person necessarily effective in their role as a politician. Often quite the opposite I would think as it the politician is not incentivised to make controversial or difficult decisions for fear of being liked less.

    Senior politicians strong desire to be liked above all other factors seems to be a fairly recent phenomenon.

    Comment by Gregor W — September 2, 2016 @ 9:38 am

  3. A former MP told me his theory of delegation. Most people are not all that interested in politics and are disinterested in government. They’re much more absorbed in running their own lives, kids, schools, businesses, jobs, health… whatever. So every three years, they pay a little more attention, take a bit of a look at the people who are standing for parliament, and work out which group they can safely delegate the difficult business of government to. Which lot do they trust enough to do the job?

    I don’t think likability is such as issue – as Rob Hosking says, unpopular governments get re-elected – but that sense of competence matters. “He’s a good bloke” and “They look like a good bunch” are good enough reasons for voters choose one lot or another as the group to whom they will delegate responsibility for running the country.

    Gossip is an important part of working out which person and which group of people you can delegate to. So yes, gossip matters, and it’s important.

    As for Weiner, what an idiot. The self-sabotage is astonishing, and it’s a good enough reason to kick him out of the group of people you might delegate responsibility for governance to.

    Comment by Deborah — September 2, 2016 @ 10:05 am

  4. [Gossip] 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.

    Yep – it appears we’ve been at it for a long time: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150227-where-did-gossiping-come-from

    But I suppose Weiner’s point (“What does his private life matter?”) is that drawing conclusions about his ability and worth as a political figure from his penchant for dick picks represents a sort of category mistake – an assumption that because he has failings in one area, he must not be capable or trustworthy in another. Just as, for instance, I wouldn’t want Chis Gayle to come anywhere near my daughter, but he’d be a shoo-in to open the batting for my 20-20 team. The question then is, can we have a politics divorced from the personal character of those involved in it? Or, perhaps rather, how much should we try to have such a form of politics?

    On Weiner’s case specifically, I think his ultimate problem was that his particular peccadillo and the way he expressed it (“I woz hacked”!, “Carlos Danger”!) made him a figure of general ridicule and contempt. And you can’t really be a political leader – which requires wielding authority – if you are seen as ridiculous and contemptible.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — September 2, 2016 @ 10:12 am

  5. (Deborah posted while I was still writing – I think she pretty much answers my questions.)

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — September 2, 2016 @ 10:14 am

  6. The Herald has a Max Key fettish that’s pretty unhealthy. The thing with Weiner is that he sent photos of his genitalia to complete strangers and then repeatedly lied about it and then kept doing it. Which is pretty abnormal behaviour for someone in the public eye. So it’s always going to be news.

    Comment by Jimmy — September 2, 2016 @ 10:26 am

  7. “sent photos of his genitalia to complete strangers”
    This is possibly just as distressing to recipients and probably illegal, as the pulling of a ponytail, Izogi.

    Comment by Clunking Fist — September 2, 2016 @ 10:41 am

  8. Yes and on reflection having read more about this stuff, I’ll happily reassess my wondering of it was a fair comparison.

    Comment by izogi — September 2, 2016 @ 10:44 am

  9. The Labour Party seems to have spent decades fighting furiously against any suggestion that a leader needs to have any sort of populist appeal or “common touch” despite the evidence for the electoral benefits of doing so. Norman Kirk and David Lange both benefited from their ability to engage the non-political public, just as John Key does now. Or Barak Obama, for that matter. I’m not sure at all why that quality in a leader is viewed with such suspicion. David Lange and Tony Blair (who was also really good at it) both ended up terribly off side with their own core supporters for different reasons, so there’s that I guess. But neither of them ever lost a general election.

    Comment by Nick R — September 2, 2016 @ 11:02 am

  10. It is all gossip.

    But most of the time the focus is on policy, values – like the evils of the endlessly versatile neoliberalism – and ‘the real issues’.

    The ‘real issues’ of any political camp are set of topics that you feel most comfortable chatting about. The ‘real issues’ are not to be examined in detail, just talked about in a nice way since all the nice people have only good things to say about these issues.

    Comment by unaha-closp — September 2, 2016 @ 11:04 am

  11. Well, how do the Greens want to be gossiped about?

    “I hear that Metiria Turei lives in a castle” ain’t doing the party a lot of favors.

    A.

    Comment by Antoine — September 2, 2016 @ 11:15 am

  12. > And you can’t really be a political leader – which requires wielding authority – if you are seen as ridiculous and contemptible.

    Hence Shane Jones’ and Tuku Morgan’s departures from national politics?

    A.

    Comment by Antoine — September 2, 2016 @ 11:28 am

  13. The marketing value of Max Key’s little Snapchat vid of his dad washing the car is almost incalculably huge. The fact that the commentators of the left reacted with “contemptuous groans” is entirely predictable, given their almost religious refusal to acknowledge that such things are valuable.

    Comment by SHG — September 2, 2016 @ 2:25 pm

  14. “given their almost religious refusal to acknowledge that such things are valuable.”

    in always thought that this was a central part of the “contemptuous groans” – that the son was used to value up the dad

    Comment by framu — September 2, 2016 @ 3:50 pm

  15. I saw the headline about car washing this week but didn’t open it and won’t. Is there anything about it that suggests this is just a normal weekly Sunday regular thing versus a planned, posed, first-time-he-has-washed-his-car-ever-made-to-look-like-weekly thing? Just another level to it really – is the gossip about the regular guy thing based on an authentic underlying truth, or a house of cards (pun intended🙂. I’m not discounting Danyl’s point, I’m just expanding it because after Dirty Politics etc one can’t help wondering if what they get us sheeple to gossip about, isn’t totally contrived. And yet, and yet, if he really does wash his car weekly himself and the neighbours attest to it, well that and the fact he likes cats etc, well I can’t help it, it really works, it makes me like him despite everything I know. See, it works!

    Comment by Joe-90 — September 2, 2016 @ 5:12 pm

  16. Framu has it, SHG misses it. It’s not gossip if it’s staged. It’s the opposite.

    The alternative to intrusive reporting of personal stuff is not … “let’s just highlight what they hand to us, for their own ends”. I don’t want the front pages to be paparazzi pics OR propaganda. Is that so hard to get?

    Comment by sammy 2.0 — September 2, 2016 @ 5:59 pm

  17. “Coming up tonight on Seven Sharp: Marc Ellis and John Key talk about Fathers Day.”
    I’m not making this up

    Comment by max — September 2, 2016 @ 6:42 pm

  18. ” But neither of them ever lost a general election.”

    Because they both resigned due to being on the losing end of internal party conflicts before said conflicts ruined a party’s popularity and led to electoral defeat. Not a compelling case for their skills as political managers.

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — September 2, 2016 @ 7:28 pm

  19. “17. “Coming up tonight on Seven Sharp: Marc Ellis and John Key talk about Fathers Day.”
    I’m not making this up”

    Hard-hitting current affairs at its most incisive, max.

    Seven Sharp asks politicians the probing questions that you demand answers to.

    Comment by swordfish — September 2, 2016 @ 7:37 pm

  20. “So it’s good politics I guess to be a likable every-man inasmuch as it garners votes, but it doesn’t make the liked person necessarily effective in their role as a politician. Often quite the opposite I would think as it the politician is not incentivised to make controversial or difficult decisions for fear of being liked less.”

    The case of Jacinda Arden, as Danyl has pointed out more than once.

    I clicked on the Key carwash headline expecting to be embarrassed on behalf of the participants and was surprised to find it looked pretty normal.If they were acting they were doing a very good job.

    Comment by Tinakori — September 2, 2016 @ 9:28 pm

  21. Yes, it’s almost as if they chose to share it themselves. And nobody would have seen it otherwise.

    So any “surprise” is either fake or stupid.

    Comment by sammy 2.0 — September 2, 2016 @ 10:22 pm

  22. Then again, how well can political likeability survive near-unspinnable issues such as housing bubbles (crossing over into stagflation?) and water pollution?

    Comment by Kumara Republic (@kumararepublic) — September 2, 2016 @ 10:22 pm

  23. @22 probably pretty well? Check the next preferred PM poll when it comes out I guess… If Andrew Little is rating above Key then that will be a significant indicator

    A.

    Comment by Antoine — September 3, 2016 @ 4:05 am

  24. “Coming up tonight on Seven Sharp: Marc Ellis and John Key talk about Fathers Day.”

    Andrew Little is a father, why didn’t he insist on being included?

    Comment by Gareth Wilson — September 3, 2016 @ 8:15 am

  25. “Andrew Little is a father, why didn’t he insist on being included”

    Would he have even known? I don’t have an issue with Key doing it, it’s a gift. Key’s office may have insisted I don’t know. But The issue I have is with Seven Sharp just offering the PM up as a ‘celebrity’, their words, and offering up free publicity in a prime time slot.

    Comment by max — September 3, 2016 @ 8:58 am

  26. max #25: with friends in high places like Mike Hosking, Key doesn’t really need a state propaganda outlet.

    Comment by Kumara Republic (@kumararepublic) — September 3, 2016 @ 6:02 pm

  27. I’m pretty suspicious of anything that says we are ‘hard-wired’ to do something. It seems like a get out of jail free card.

    Comment by Simon — September 5, 2016 @ 8:43 am


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