How the Mighty Have Fallen
I have decidedly mixed feelings about the announcement in the New York Times from a few minutes ago that Congressman Mark Foley will be stepping down after allegations that he wrote inappropriate e-mail to a male page still enrolled in high school. His once elaborate campaign website is now totally stripped bare and displays nothing more than his three-sentence apology and resignation. The Republican Foley had been outed years ago by activists, but it took an electronic smoking gun that exposed his hypocrisy about online predators to drive him from office. The incriminating e-mails to the teenager are supposed to be posted at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. (As of this writing, the server is currently overloaded.)
On one hand, I will admit to feeling a certain amount of Schadenfreude that so many digital rights opponents, who have used "child safety" as an excuse for obtrusive regulation of the Internet and electronic media, have found themselves in trouble in the midterm elections. For example, now struggling Child-Safe Senators Lieberman and Santorum were listed as trusted advisors on the MPAA-recommended parenting with media site Pause Parent Play, which claims to encourage intergenerational dialogue and play, but really advocates the same old ratings and blocking technology formula.
There is some poetic justice in the fact that Foley made minority user behaviors of marginal populations who consume online pornography his chief campaign and legislative issue to justify a broader tendency to criminalize other kinds of digital community. He also had a poor record on network neutrality and Internet privacy. But it's such an unsavory case with so many possible victims that it's difficult to crow about his downfall.
Furthermore, I worry that such scandals involving e-mail divert attention from how electronic genres can function productively in both everyday communication and public rhetoric. I would argue that e-mail should serve as a powerful proactive agent for political change on behalf of constituents and revive the function of petition, but instead it largely works as evidence of the private foibles of policy makers. Mass e-mail campaigns from grassroots groups get remarkably little media attention. As a rhetorician, I'd like to see e-mail do more in the public sphere than act out its "gotcha" role.Update: It turns out that it is IM rather than conventional e-mail at issue in this case. ABC News has posted an instant message session in which Representative Foley inquires about masturbation with a teen. Foley is famed for saying, ''We track library books better than we do sexual predators." Don't you love what he says should be equated?
Labels: institutional rhetoric