WASHINGTON—MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell says he'd own up if it were his. Jon Stewart says he doesn't remember his old friend being quite all that!
And Anthony Weiner, the in-your-face New York congressman whose alleged waist-down photograph has become the talk of the political parlor, shrank from questions about how said photo happened to be sent from his Twitter account to a 21-year-old college student in Seattle.
To think, the long hot summer has just begun.
For those who have missed the tawdry travails of poor Weiner, whose name will never be quite the same, welcome to the planet. If you're an adult, you may be wondering how we arrived at this point in our civic discourse, not that men's underwear is new to Washington's conversation. But tweeting is new-ish—and dangerous as a loaded pistol at a brawl. Our ability to snap a picture and flash it to the world in a nanosecond has taken instant gratification to new, unimagined levels and enabled the twin temptations of exhibitionism and voyeurism, first cousins to narcissism.
Familiarity hasn't created only contempt; it has created a monster. And Narcissus was a punk.
As tempting as it is to not "go there," the fact of a congressman's involvement in a possible hacking incident (never mind the inappropriateness of sending lewd photos to a young woman, as suggested) makes it unavoidable. The trick is to keep a straight face and dodge the obvious puns. As Weiner himself said, "The jokes kind of write themselves."
Perhaps one remedy is to create a new word to replace, among other things, Weinergate, as the event has been dubbed. Must we "gate" every political scandal? The free-associative mind produces many unattractive alternatives, but one that seems both decent and broadly applicable is "schnitzel." A fine word that can be used to substitute for any other that one wishes to avoid.
As in: "I don't give a schnitzel." Or, "What the schnitzel!" Or, "Weiner has twisted himself into a schnitzel" by deflecting probing questions such as this one from CNN's Wolf Blitzer: "You would know if this is your underpants?"
Apparently not. Weiner said there are photos "out there." He can't say "with certitude" whether this one is of him.
In fairness, let's stipulate that the photograph in question could be of someone else and that a person other than the congressman could have sent the photo from his account as a prank. Any judgment at this point is speculation, aka gossip, though the congressman's evasiveness isn't helping his case.
Leaving his problems aside, we might take the opportunity to consider our own. How many such photos, or worse, are in cell phones at this moment? Thousands? Millions? "Sexting" apparently is still popular among the young and firm, whereby one sends a sexually explicit message or photo by mobile phone. (And by the way, kids, no one cares about your tongue. Please put it back in your mouth.)
Like everyone else, I have no idea what happened with Weiner's Twitter account or whose schnitzel is causing O'Donnell to ponder envy and Stewart to wax nostalgic about those halcyon days he shared with Weiner in the Atlantic surf. I do know that this is not a random problem. Such embarrassing public exposures could happen to anyone who snaps, tweets or texts, especially to young people who have grown up in this share-all world of Facebook, for whom "friend" is a verb and relationships are often anonymous and virtual.
Weiner will have to sort out his problems, but the more compelling issue of how to balance our animal urgency with the human decency required by civilization remains. The technology that enables our animal appetites has far outpaced our human capacity or willingness to control those appetites. It is simply too easy to do in private that which feeds our natural exhibitionist/voyeuristic curiosity—and far too easy for that private moment to go public.
If I may be preachy for a moment, addressing the young and foolish—a redundancy we've all enjoyed—don't touch that send button. Instead, consider hitting "minimize" until morning.
None of this is to excuse the congressman's behavior, should the gossip prove to be true. For everyone's sake, I hope it isn't. But we'd do well to hit the pause button on schadenfreude and consider the larger message of this media frenzy: Delete, delete, delete.
Editor's note: Rep. Weiner confessed in a press conference on Monday to sending the controversial photo on Twitter and to other inappropriate communications with women on social media. He said he will not resign.
Kathleen Parker's email address is email@example.com. (c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group.