life politics Theology

The Parable of Anthony Weiner’s iPhone

A question that’s been nagging me: Would Anthony Weiner still have a political career if he hadn’t owned an iPhone?

Last week Weiner pled guilty to sending sexually explicit messages to a minor through his smartphone. His plea deal comes with probable prison time. Weiner, former Congressman and aspiring New York City mayor, told the court that his “destructive impulses brought great devastation to family and friends, and destroyed my life’s dream of public service.” Weiner’s political ambitions are shattered, almost certainly beyond repair, and his relationship with his children is imperiled. How would his story have been different if Weiner simply didn’t own a phone that could do what he used it to do?

Perhaps our first impulse is to dismiss such a question. We don’t usually think of the physical technology itself as operative in our sin. Wasn’t Weiner just a sexual deviant, and wouldn’t a sexual deviant find a way to satisfy himself regardless? But this response disregards the embodied nature of temptation. In a rush to label our technology as “neutral,” we often ignore the shaping effects it has on us. If our phones, social media, and iPads can condition us toward distraction and insecurity–and there is growing evidence they can–why would we be surprised to discover they can also make us more vulnerable to destructive desires?

Of course, infidelity and illicit sexual activity are not novel to our current generation of political leaderships. There have always been mistresses, secrets, and scandals. But we shouldn’t reason from this that every cultural moment is created equal. Digital technology eliminates barriers of geography, physicality, and evidence in genuinely unprecedented ways. One hundred years ago, if an elected official (or anyone else) wanted a sexual episode, he had to be somewhere specific, an actual physical place whose geographical character created inextricable risks of being seen or heard. Did the inherent dangers of such a risk actually prevent the moral failures of some who might have been unable to resist the individualized, delete-able world “sexting”?

I understand that some may think talking this way diminishes the importance of the “inner person.” Can we really commend ourselves for having our sinful desires hemmed in by uncooperative technology? Lust absolutely does begin in the heart, and the heart does not need Twitter or video streaming. But it’s a mistake to pit this fact against another fact: that temptation is embodied because humans are. We are tied to specific people, places, and things. When it comes to pornography and the hook up culture, digitization is weaponization, and for many of us, winning the war against sexual nihilism in our communities and our own souls might mean refusing to even pick up the weapons.

So, back to the original question. If Anthony Weiner didn’t own a smartphone, would he have pled guilty in state court last week? Would he have thought to send explicit photos and texts to a teenage stranger? Would his fear of discovery and fallout preserved his public reputation if he had not been roped in by the ephemeral blue glow of instant gratification and pocket-sized, password protected secrets?

We can’t know the answers to these questions. But we need to ask them. We need to ask them because we are not gnostics. We confess the spiritual nature of the physical world. We are bodies and souls, and we will always be both. That means that the “spiritual” realm of temptation is a physical one too. Hearts desire, but so do bodies, a fact not lost on the people who build “adult” superstores off the interstate highways, inviting tired and lonely truck drivers refueling just a block away.

Could one of the lessons of Anthony Weiner’s fall be that we should take our digital technology more seriously as a potential stumbling block? I think so. Shrugging off social media and mobile devices as neutral might sound good on paper. But for any of us, at any given moment, there are thousands of ways to wreck our lives and the lives of those around us. It could be that inventions that destroy the created limits imposed on us by space and time are inventions that push us inwardly, away from embodied means of grace and toward the illusion that we are gods of our desires and destinies.

Solomon once observed a “young man lacking sense,” who took a jaunt near the house of a forbidden woman at twilight. She seduces him in proximity and in darkness, and it costs him his life (Proverbs 7). The king of Israel summarizes the lesson for his sons: “Let not your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths.” (7:25) If Solomon had lived a few thousand years later, he probably would have added: “Don’t look her up on Facebook.”

culture politics Quotes

Quote of the Day

All people are unique individuals and we can be sure that Mr. Weiner’s problems are at least in part a matter of his personal psycho-pathologies. Yet his behavior squares with what we have observed with all too many men, especially in the U.S. or other Western countries that enjoy liberal values and material prosperity. These are men who, by any objective measure, have succeeded yet regard themselves as failures. These are men who feel marooned in lassitude because they enjoy physical security, who feel bereft and bored even if they are blessed to have the committed love of a wife or girlfriend. These are men who believe that cruising the internet for explicit footage of other women or sharing such images of themselves over the remote communication offered by smartphones are risqué but risk-free distractions from the tedium.

The march of technology is irreversible and we aren’t so naive as to believe that any kind of imposed regulation could ever reseal the Pandora’s box of pornography. What is required is an honest dialogue about what we are witnessing—the true nature and danger of porn—and an honor code to tamp it down in the collective interests of our well-being as individuals, as families and as communities.

-From this remarkable joint op-ed by rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and actress and former centerfold Pamela Anderson. Bet you didn’t expect to see those two together.

culture politics Random Thoughts Theology

There Are No Secrets Anymore

Disgraced politician Anthony Weiner has been disgraced yet again…and again, it’s all about some raunchy texts. I can’t really laugh at him, because it’s obvious that he’s dealing with some life-deforming demons that I know too well. My prayer is that he would reach to the heavens for the rescue he desperately needs.

In a brief piece at National Review, Charles C.W. Cooke makes an interesting point about technology and immorality. Years ago, this kind of infidelity was hard to keep secret, because it required physical presence. Then, with technology, it got really easy to keep secret. But now, with the way that modern smartphone technology tracks and archives everything, secrecy is impossible yet again:

By the 1950s, everybody had a car, which they could use to get to the next town — or farther. Motels popped everywhere, as did their discreet proprietors. And the analog telephone provided a means by which those who were up to no good could communicate instantly, and without leaving a substantial record. So fundamentally did this transform American life that traditionalists complained openly about the deleterious effect that modernity was having on conventional mores…

[I]s this still true? I think not, no. Now, there are cameras everywhere. Now, most people carry cell phones and drive cars that track their movement by satellite. Now, most communication is conducted via intermediate servers, and spread across multiple devices. In 1960, the average American could make a sordid phone call without there being any chance that it would be taped. Today, with a $3 app, anybody can record any conversation and send it anywhere in the world in a few seconds…Put plainly, it is now nigh on impossible for anybody to get away with infidelity, especially if one is a public figure.

Maybe we could put it like this: In the age of the iPhone, doing something lascivious while no one is watching is the easiest it’s ever been–but doing it without anyone ever knowing is virtually (pun not intended) impossible. At the very least, those naked pictures and crass text messages are being stored somewhere, on technology that someone with a name and two eyes built and maintains.

Surely, as Cooke writes of Weiner, we know this to be the case. So why is there so much explicitness on cloud servers? I can think of two answers.

First, sexual temptation is stronger, always has been stronger, and always will be stronger than logic. This is why Solomon urges his son to not even walk down the street where the adulterous woman lives.

Second, though: Is it possible that many in Western culture are actually OK with the idea of people they’ll never meet having access to their naked bodies and lewd messages? Could it be that our pornified consciousness has actually numbed us to the point where, even if we know that our texts and pictures stop belonging to us the moment we press “Send,” we don’t really care? Have we, as the prophets warned, actually become the very smut we love?