Last week, a congressman’s illicit instant message correspondence – masturbatory inquiries, dreamy offers to fondle a teenage page’s “one-eyed snake” – tossed itself all over the news. While parents cringe and debate whether to give their teenagers another lecture on internet dangers, e.g. congressional alcoholics on AIM, Florida Democrats should be thankful for Representative Mark Foley’s questionable online activities: It’s damned near impossible to create negative campaign stories this sensational.
Simultaneously disgusted and fascinated since ABC News broke the story Friday, America has gobbled up the debacle. Blame the media, but they wouldn’t run it if we didn’t watch it.
Further reports from The Washington Post reveal that the FBI has known about the messages since July; the text from a specific conversation with a former page (lacrosse player, 16 years old, masturbates in bed) is available on Slate.com. Allegedly, there were other such correspondences in 2003 and 2004, although Foley’s attorney told CNN the congressman is “absolutely not a pedophile” and “has never had inappropriate sexual contact with a minor.”
Slate’s John Dickerson wrote, “The Mark Foley scandal has already accomplished two difficult feats: It has made a deeply unpopular Congress look even worse, and it has replaced Iraq and terrorism as Political Topic A.” He’s only half-joking – and that’s a problem.
Americans love gossip. There’s a Persian proverb that translates as “Gossip is ventilation of the heart.” Members of Congress are just as susceptible to the attractiveness of scandal, especially among their own.
The rest of us, we shudder, aghast that a representative – someone a disappointingly low percentage of us chose – known as a proponent of a child-safe Internet would be doing such things. We try to look away when the story comes up on the news. But we still click on each new Slate or New York Times offering. We relish the most painful, embarrassing and, yes, illegal goings-on of others.
But what, exactly, is so exciting about the case? It’s a middle-aged politico caught in an episode of Capitol Hill misbehavior. Not only does this deal with a public figure, it deals with a frightening social taboo: sex with the underaged.
With “Lolita,” Vladimir Nabokov crafted some of the most passionate and sexually charged prose of the last two centuries. Forget that Dolores Haze is 12 years old: “I would find (her) dipping and kicking her long-toed feet in the water,” narrator Humbert Humbert muses, ” .the quicksilver in the baby folds of her stomach were sure to cause to se tordre – oh Baudelaire! – in recurrent dreams for months to come.” Oh, what tension, what bubbling sexual current – and what a terribly dirty feeling once you remember the novel’s context. Nabokov’s novel is meant to induce that creepy, dangerously wrong sensation, and the reader’s brief dip into Humbert’s world only enforces our stance on too-young-to-call-it-May/December relations.
But with Foley, consummation of latent pedophilia isn’t the true Republican nightmare. It’s not just a case of implied sex with minors – it’s implied gay sex. Considering homophobic American hegemony, the fact that the naughty correspondences were with a 16-year-old boy instead of girl is more unsettling. It’s only another reason why the Foley story will stay in the paper longer than Michael Kennedy’s involvement with his family’s teenage babysitter. Would President Bush be as concerned about this scandal if it didn’t deal with a young male?
Ultimately, the revelation of Foley’s hypocritical, seedy activities will only provide more water-cooler fodder. But the notions we should take from the scandal are ones we already know but don’t necessarily acknowledge: We eat up dirty laundry and let society’s ideas of what’s appropriate dictate our opinions, for better or for worse. Nothing new. But you’ll only stop hearing it about once you stop paying attention.
– Chou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.