Friday, June 17, 2011
Point, Click, Post — Oops!
Imagine, for a moment, that 30 years ago a passionate young woman had seen a handsome congressman make a fiery speech on network TV and had sent him an exuberant and effusive letter of support. Imagine, further, that said congressman, after reading the letter, decided that the proper way for him to acknowledge her kind words would be to send a close-up photograph of his underwear.
It would have been an undertaking. He would have had to find a camera, which people didn’t readily keep at hand in those days; probably get some film to put in it; shoot the entire roll of film (wouldn’t want to be wasteful), after carefully focusing and calculating the F-stop and shutter speed; rewind the film and remove it from the camera; take it to the drugstore; wait overnight for it to be developed; select one of the prints; dictate a cover letter to his secretary; put the picture in with the letter and mail it.
And somewhere in this long and tedious process you would like to believe that a light bulb would come on inside the congressman’s head and he would say, “You know, maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”
Perhaps not; politicians have been a historically randy lot. Our Founding Fathers were not, as a group, very good at restraining their sexual appetites. They weren’t Tweeters (though Ben Franklin would have been a great one), but plenty of their hand-written correspondence survives to this day and can be readily viewed by any scholar who needs confirmation on the point of their morals.
The recent epidemic of digital dissemination of personal erotica is less about lust, as most past scandals have been, than it is about exhibitionism, a character defect greatly encouraged by the internet and by social media in particular. “Look at my underwear” is merely an aberrant (and probably more entertaining) variation of the “Look at my family” or “Look at my pet” photo that people daily inflict on their Facebook friends.
We now have the tools to call attention to ourselves instantaneously, without stopping to think about whether we really should. And when just about every member of Congress carries an iPhone or Blackberry, there’s no protective staff member standing in the way of the execution of his worst impulses. I say “his,” because, to this point, women in politics have been more circumspect.
One of the wisest observations about this phenomenon was buried deep inside a recent New York Times story, and it bears quoting in full:
“The digital revolution for a lot of people in politics is like a high school party where they experience alcohol for the first time,” said Mark McKinnon, former media adviser to George W. Bush and John McCain. “They get very excited, lose their inhibitions, say and do things they shouldn’t, and realize too late they’ve made complete idiots of themselves. And then can’t undo it.”
He continued: “Digital politics invites and rewards quick triggers and does not reward thoughtful reflection or careful judgment. And so it is no surprise that we see so many politicians fail to clear their holsters before they drop the hammer.”
Given that Twitter, Facebook, and the internet aren’t going anywhere, we should appreciate that the danger they pose is not so much making us immoral as making it too easy for us to be juvenile. The take-home message, and not just for politicians, is: Be careful. Be very careful. If you’re not, you could end up acting like a teenager in front of the whole world. Remember how bad that was the first time around, when only the people at your high school were watching?