Monica Lewinsky is trying to make lemonade out of 16-year-old lemons. Good for her, and good, ultimately, for us.
Not so good, of course, for Hillary Clinton’s nascent presidential campaign, but not fatal either. Lewinsky’s decision to reemerge as a public figure, this time committed to alleviating the scourge of cyberbullying, is awkward.
Still, it is inevitable, even without Lewinsky front and center, that Bill Clinton’s deplorable conduct in office will come up as a topic during his wife’s campaign, assuming she gets to the general election this time. The earlier it’s talked about, the more old-newsy the whole mess will seem by the time Clinton’s opponents try to make it relevant.
In the meantime, Lewinsky is making an important point about the role of the Internet and accompanying modern technology as an accelerant in the destruction of personal reputation and the associated harm caused by online exposure.
“Overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one. I was Patient Zero,” Lewinsky said in a speech Monday to Forbes’s Under 30 Summit in Philadelphia. “The first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the Internet.”
Lewinsky’s “Patient Zero” claim is more than a little overblown. Even without the medium of the Internet, without the Drudge Report to break the news on the Web or dial-up connections to let readers access the Starr report in all its detail, the story would have emerged, and it would have been huge.
Ask Donna Rice and Gary Hart. As Matt Bai has recently reminded us, Hart’s presidential campaign was instantaneously destroyed and Rice’s name became a household word, back when a mouse was a rodent and blog was a typo.
“Somehow, political and personal lives had collided overnight to create what was, in hindsight, the first modern political scandal, with all the attendant satellite trucks and saturation coverage and hourly turns in the narrative that Kafka himself could not have dreamed up,” Bai writes in his book “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid.”
In truth, politics has always had its tabloid aspect. Grover Cleveland’s critics chanted “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa?” referring to an illegitimate child during the 1884 presidential campaign. And reputations have always been susceptible to overnight ruin.
But Lewinsky is also correct when she says that “the experience of shame and humiliation online is different than offline. There is no way to wrap your mind around where the humiliation ends — there are no borders.”
She described how it felt “to watch yourself — or your name and likeness — be ripped apart online . . . For me, that was every day in 1998. There was a rotation of worsening name-calling and descriptions of me. I would go online, read in a paper or see on TV people referring to me as: tramp, slut, whore, tart, bimbo, floozy, even spy. The New York Post’s Page Six took to calling me, almost daily, the Portly Pepperpot. I was shattered.”
This is where Lewinsky’s effort can be most helpful. Few of us, thankfully, will be subjected to a Lewinsky-level public shaming. But many of us, and many of our children, will suffer the cyber slings and arrows of Internet-enabled humiliation and abuse.
Since Lewinsky’s moment, the mechanisms for humiliation and the venues for abuse have multiplied. Imagine Linda Tripp with a webcam and smartphone. Imagine the episode in the age of Twitter and Facebook.
Lewinsky says she was moved to come forward by the experience of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide after his roommate secretly taped and streamed video of Clementi kissing another man.
“Having survived myself, what I want to do now is help other victims of the shame game survive too,” Lewinsky said. “What we need is a radical change in attitudes — on the Internet, mobile platforms and in the society of which they are a part.”
Indeed, the response to Lewinsky’s speech — and to her decision, either courageous or foolhardy, to join Twitter — only serves to underscore the ugliness she decries. “#HereWeGo,” Lewinsky wrote in her maiden tweet, and so the Twitterverse did, in all its predictable coarseness.
If Lewinsky’s solution to this “compassion deficit” feels unformed — well, she’s not the only one who is struggling with how to re-civilize society. Simply going public may be Lewinsky’s greatest service. A parent trying to comfort a teenager victimized by cyberbullies can point to Lewinsky and say: If she can survive, so can you.