Stumbling Over Weiner

The intersection of politics and the digital space has once again gained the spotlight as the Anthony Weiner saga winds its way through the news cycle. People and the media are trying to make sense of both the congressman’s narcissism, the 140-character publishing platform he used to self-destruct, and how they both intersect.

But there’s just not much new here. We have the scandalous and incredulous behavior of a high-profile elected official. Been there. And we have the Internet enabling it. Done that. Further, it’s all stuff we’ve seen centuries ago. Literally.

Let’s look at Twitter first. Like so much of the Digital Age, Twitter simply did what it does best: it easily enables people with similar beliefs to connect, share information, and then, ahem, expose truth. But even that isn’t so much something new as it is an evolution. The Digital Age represents, in part, a technological evolution of the printing press combined with an ability to supercharge good, old-fashioned conversation with friends, family, community, and complete strangers. And just like Gutenberg’s press and those conversations, it can cause amazing and awful things to happen when that technology mixes with humanity’s ideas, ideals, and it’s confusing and varied nature.

For example, just as the printing press enabled Martin Luther and the Founding Fathers by playing a large role in the Reformation and American Revolution, the Digital Age has enabled the emergence of the new Middle East. Just as the printing press enabled the dissemination of Mein Kampf, the Internet enables the easy dissemination of all sorts of hate. Just as the printing press and gossip hounds enabled the dissemination of scandalous fliers and tabloid-based news, so, too, can Twitter and the Digital Age. And just as the powerful have tried to control “the press” so, too, are the powerful trying to “control the Internet.”

In the end, it’s just a new tool, not an answer in and of itself.

Secondly, there’s nothing new about Weiner, either. Politicians and people of stature and power have been two-facing their scandalous behavior forever, and Weiner clearly demonstrates that certain types of people and our fascination with them just hasn’t evolved much. And I don’t just mean American politicos like Clinton. This behavior goes back way farther in Western culture. For example, remember the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? That story, in part, exposed the hypocrisy of the Victorian male. He acted like a proper saint and husband (Dr. Jekyll) by day, but at night, against the very covenants he espoused and elevated, sought prostitutes and all sorts of other salacious behaviors (Mr. Hyde). With such history, we can’t be shocked or even surprised by a U.S. Congressman doing the modern-day equivalent. In fact, when you look at this scandal, it is a pretty big knock on American culture and its “use” of the Internet and understanding of history and the Digital Age. Here we are, in the midst of the Digital Revolution, entire countries and regions of the planet are being reshaped, but here in the U.S., we still stumble around, foolishly shocked at the failings of these powerful people we were naive enough to elect in the first place. We write columns, and the news tries to make sense of it. Meanwhile, our country continues to be one in decline: our economy is in shambles, our schools are falling apart, Wall Street runs completely amok, etc.

It’s sad that with all this new knowledge and all these new tools, Americans haven’t really come that far after all.