Frank Rich has come up with a gem of a descriptive phrase. He wrote on Sunday that Hillary Clinton’s account of her Bosnia landing reveals the “political perils of 20th century analog arrogance in the digital age.”
What a phrase. I’ve been thinking about it all week. It describes reality in our time. Rich’s point–among other things–is that narrating your way out of a falsehood, or a mis-statement, is much more difficult, if not impossible, in the digital age.
Why? Because words can’t counter images. Mrs. Clinton was shown on the tarmac in Bosnia walking upright, not with her head down under threat of sniper fire as she had stated. She wasn’t ducking for cover, she was strolling and smiling. The footage showed up on You Tube. Her explanations seemed to add to the perception that she was misrepresenting the truth.
For a couple of days she tried to sustain the narrative. But as it became clear she couldn’t combat what we saw, she recanted. Even her recant seemed clumsy, however, as she depicted her earlier claims as “mis-statement.” Her words were not reassuring, they were desperate. So it goes in a digital culture.
Rich refers to images but his point is much broader.
“A bottom-up media culture is challenging any candidates control of a message,” he writes.
In an analog world words reined supreme. Things could be explained away and sometimes lies could be sustained because stories could be contained. Then the world changed.
Digital technology put the ability to share information broadly into the hands of nearly everyone–at least in most of the world. More people are empowered to send more information without restraint than ever before. The gatekeepers don’t control the story anymore. And neither do the fabricators.
Explanations of wrong-doing are more likely to meet suspicion and challenge if enough people want to challenge them. And refutation is much more likely to get lost in the same media chatter that takes allegation to the world.
Those pols who think they can tell falsehoods or behave inappropriately without being caught live in a world of analog arrogance that doesn’t recognize this change. And as Eliot Spitzer realized, it can be a fatal miscalculation. His claim that his traffic with prostitutes was a “private matter” was myopic.
There are two issues here, probably many more. The first is tactical. It centers on the idea that you can cover up misbehavior or explain it away. Bad tactic. Not to mention ethically and morally unacceptable.
Once a story is out in the ether it’s too late to wrest control. Scandalous stories have a life of their own. And this is fed not just by images, it’s also fed by the instantaneous reach of email. With the push of a button gossip is global today.
If it’s in a blog, search engines pick it up and make keyword associations and the damage is done, probably irreparably. From the moment of the first allegation, “Spitzer” became associated with “prostitution” and “scandal.” (Try a Google search on Spitzer and see what you get.)
And this will remain until someone finds a way to get it out of the system, which is nearly impossible with a big story and isn’t easy with small fry if it’s repeated and quoted widely.
The second issue: Why do people–smart, powerful, public people–engage in behavior that puts them at risk? Why is it often sexual behavior? And why do men, in particular, risk careers and families for sexual behaviors that are often contrary to their own personal values?
Social psychologist Martin Monto talked about this with Michelle Norris on NPR following the Spitzer revelation. He speaks of the disconnect between the actual risk involved in such behavior and the person’s recognition of the risk. Enter analog arrogance.
I suspect inappropriate behavior becomes internalized as it is repeated over time. It is also rationalized and becomes routine, if not an entitlement. How many commentators rationalized Spitzer’s behavior as an outgrowth of the intensity of his always-on public persona? Under this intense pressure, goes this line of reasoning, cavorting with prostitutes was a release.
When boundaries fall in this way, it’s inevitable mistakes will be made and the behavior exposed. I talked with one person who believes this blind arrogance may be so internalized among big-time public figures that it takes national humiliation to bring them to recognition. Bill Clinton. Eliot Spitzer.
Which leads to another question: How could associates close to this behavior not know about it? My guess is that a culture of denial evolves into a support system that enables it, not because people believe this is for the best but because they don’t know how to cope with it short of blowing the whistle. And blowing the whistle on powerful people is not exactly a career advancing strategy.
This is corrosive and toxic. It implicates others who wish not to be implicated and it sows seeds for its own destruction. In the digital age it seems inevitable that these “private matters” will implode like a star that throws off mass as its core burns away. Crises such as this throw off the innocent and the complicit in an eruption that burns all involved.
When the story is spun out we’re more cynical about the integrity of our leaders, our institutions and our public morality. The quality of our civic life is damaged because we are less trusting, we disinvest our best and highest passions and if we engage we do so cautiously and with reserve. And perhaps some of us, no matter how distant from the imploding core, feel sullied.
Analog arrogance in a digital world is a costly, hurtful malady.