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Mr. Dilettante: Technology adds new layer to political sex scandals

Social media make it easier to get close to a person without ever meeting him.

Bill James is best known as a baseball writer and statistician, but his observations often range beyond the ballparks. In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, he makes the following observation:

What Watergate was about was not the corruption of government, as most people thought, but rather, the establishment of new and higher standards of ethical conduct. Almost all scandals, I think, result not from the invention of new evils, but from the imposition of new ethical standards.

I think James is on to something here. In the matter of Anthony Weiner, there’s nothing really new about what he was doing, except for the technology involved. Coming on to women who are not your wife is just normal, garden variety caddishness. The advantage that Weiner gained from leveraging his Twitter account is that it broadened his potential audience. If Twitter didn’t exist, Weiner likely would have found a way to get his jollies in a more low-tech way.

As is the case with Weiner, or John Edwards, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, or any of the other members of the rogue’s gallery of cads who have made the papers in recent months, the real issue isn’t sexual. The issue is that these men have chosen to abuse their power. There’s nothing new in that, either — hubris is everywhere in the halls of government. It’s pretty much a job requirement, really. While there might be a few genuinely humble public servants here and there, anyone who seeks or holds high office has to believe that they are somehow special.

Technology is changing the relationship, however. Social media make it easier to get close to a person without ever meeting him. And because it is spectacularly easy to capture words and images and send them hurtling throughout the world, it means that private knowledge (and private parts) can reach anyone’s web browser.

And that is where the new ethical standard comes in. The trend in government, especially in Washington, was to aggregate as much power as possible in a central location, a location that happened to be physically quite far away from where most people live. That physical distance was a distinct advantage for a politician who would prefer to avoid scrutiny, because it is difficult to observe behavior from long distances. Technology has changed that.

It’s especially telling that one of the women that Weiner pursued electronically lived in the Seattle area, far from Weiner’s home district and place of employment. Weiner may have thought that because this woman was far away physically, she could be a source of amusement without any chance of her going all Alex Forrest on his butt. But the electronic trail Weiner left in pursuing her attentions turned out to be plenty problematic.

We’ve always been weary of politicians abusing power in all its guises, whether it’s via the quid pro quo or the droit de seigneur, but we haven’t always known about the abuse because there’s always been a bit of a gentlemen’s agreement (ahem) about shielding such matters from public view, as long as matters were kept discreet.

Wilbur Mills was brought low in the 1970s not because he was cheating with an Argentine stripper, but because he made a spectacle of himself in pursuing his dalliance. It’s possible that we’re now in the midst of holding politicians to a higher standard, mostly because technology makes discretion well-nigh impossible and it is easier to hold politicians to account. Weiner counted on a system that had protected politicians with the proper worldview before, but in a world of Twitter and Andrew Breitbart, he was already standing naked in the public square long before he thought about dropping trou for coeds on the Left Coast.

The ethical standard involved — don’t abuse power — isn’t new, per se. But the enforcement mechanism is now much stronger. And that makes it a new standard.

This post was written byMark Huering and originally published on Mr. Dilettante’s Neighborhood.