Click with Compassion

That’s what Monica Lewinsky tells us in her moving TED talk that has just come out, a talk that is a call for action against our “culture of humiliation”, magnified by the Internet, where, alas, cyber-bullying is too often the order of the day.

You can see her talk here:
It got a standing ovation, a rare event on TED and (in my view) well deserved.

Before that talk, she had written an essay on Vanity Fair (published in June 2014, you can see it here). Titled “Shame and Survival”, it is brilliantly written and was even nominated for a National Magazine Award for best Essay Writing. In a way, more than the TED talk itself, it constituted for Monica a real comeback, after over a decade of silence as she tried to rebuild her life. Much of what she says in the TED talk is already there, in the essay.

Two things stand out in that essay: one, the headline picture which shows us a sophisticated woman, eons away from the beret-wearing girl with the blue dress that we all remember:

The other thing is something she quotes towards the end of her essay, a snippet from a “New York Supergals” cocktail party conversation held at a chic New York City restaurant, Le Bernardin, in January 1998, to discuss, a week after the scandal had exploded in the media, what it really meant from a female/feminist point of view. That conversation was recorded by writer Francine Prose and published in The New York Observer under the telling title “Supergals Love that Naughty Prez”.

Yes, the feminists took President Clinton’s side – and what a coterie they were: writers Erica Jong, Nancy Friday, Katie Roiphe, and Elizabeth Benedict; Saturday Night Live writer Patricia Marx; Marisa Bowe, the editor of Word, an online magazine; fashion designer Nicole Miller; former dominatrix Susan Shellogg; and their host, Le Bernardin co-owner Maguy Le Coze. 

Monica imagines herself participating in that meeting, inserting in their conversation her own remarks in italics – it’s an interesting exercise in trying to reshape the past, and I quote it here from the VF article:

Marisa Bowe: His whole life is about having to be in control and really intelligent all the time. And his wife is really intelligent and in control all the time. And the idea of just having stupid sex with some not-brilliant woman in the Oval Office, I can see the appeal in that.

Imaginary Me: I’m not saying I’m brilliant, but how do you know I’m not? My first job out of college was at the White House.

Susan Shellogg: And do you think it’s tremendously selfish? Selfish and demanding, having oral sex and not reciprocating? I mean … she didn’t say, “Well, you know he satisfied me.”

Me: And where exactly “didn’t” I say this? In which public statement that I didn’t make? In which testimony that’s not been released?

Katie Roiphe: I think what people are outraged about is the way that [Monica Lewinsky] looks, which is interesting. Because we like to think of our presidents as sort of godlike, and so if J.F.K. has an affair with Marilyn Monroe, it’s all in the realm of the demigods…. I mean, the thing I kept hearing over and over again was Monica Lewinsky’s not that pretty.

Me: Well, thanks. The first picture that surfaced was a passport photo. Would you like to have a passport photo splattered across publications around the world as the picture that defines you?

What you are also saying here is that the primary quality that would qualify a woman to have an intimate relationship with a powerful man is physical attractiveness. If that’s not setting the movement back, I don’t know what is.

Erica Jong: My dental hygienist pointed out that she had third-stage gum disease.

Shellogg: What do you think will happen to [her]? I mean, she’ll just fade out quietly or write a book? Or people will forget about her six months from now?

Nancy Friday: She can rent out her mouth.

Me: (Speechless.)

Jong: But, you know, men do like to get close to the mouth that has been close to power. Think of the fantasy in the man’s mind as she’s going down on him and he’s thinking, “Oh my God.”

Elizabeth Benedict: Do for me what you did to the President. Do that.

Me: (Still speechless.)

Jong: I think it’s a tribute to how far we’ve come that we’re not trashing Monica Lewinsky.

Mmm, yes, of course they were the feminists of 1998. Times have changed (I hope). What strikes me in all this is Monica Lewinsky’s basic contention that “the price of shame” exacted by the Internet is much higher than it would ever have been possible without it.

Hugh Merle’s painting – Scarlet Letter

And perhaps that explains why over here, in Europe and particularly in France, as we watched the scandal unfold in the USA, we wondered why American society was reacting so violently to what seemed like a minor case of “sex at work” – hardly something to write home about. I remember we all figured that Americans were over-reacting to their President’s philandering out of puritanism; after all, those were the roots of American culture, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous Scarlet Letter etc.  etc.

But we tended to overlook the fact that in 1998, the Internet was not present in Europe the way it already was in the US. And now that the Internet has invaded Europe (and the world for that matter), the philandering of powerful political figures is no longer taken so lightly. The French have notably changed their mind in how they view President Hollande’s whizzing about on a motorbike to see his latest paramour or Dominique Strauss Kahn‘s sexual pranks.

The Internet does change how people view other people’s lives. As Monica Lewinsky says, “how do we cope with the shame game as it’s played in the Internet Age?”

In closing her essay, she tells us that her current goal is to “get involved with efforts on behalf of victims of online humiliation and harassment and to start speaking on this topic in public forums”. She has certainly started doing that with a bang and should be congratulated for the courage she is showing in coming out. 

So please, let’s follow her advice, let’s call on everyone to click with compassion!

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