I’ve been trying to figure out something interesting to say about the two weird scandals of the moment. I will admit, as a blogger, the second story – one man pretending online to be a lesbian and running a lesbian news site outs another man pretending online to be a lesbian and to have been arrested by the Syrian regime – has proved a lot more fascinating than Antony Weiner’s twitpix. But I feel like there’s a connection between the two stories.
Both are stories about fantasy, and about how the tools of the online world facilitate the decision to fully embrace and enter into a compelling fantasy – and temporarily forestall the consequences of the embrace.
Weiner always struck me before the recent revelations as an exceptionally annoying Congressman. That’s not a comment on where he stood on the issues – sometimes I agreed with him, sometimes not – nor about his performance in his duties – he was, by all reports, somebody who took his job seriously, and is highly regarded by his constituents. I just mean his personality: his voice, his speaking style, his body habitus. The news that he obsessively sent a variety of women photos of himself in the nude or seminude makes me feel pity toward him for the first time. Not pity that he had such a pitiful hobby, but pity that this was the fantasy that he desperately wanted to enter into. He was the guy with the pecs, the guy women would get all hot and bothered by pictures of, the guy who didn’t just follow porn stars – but who counted porn stars among his followers. Because you don’t fantasize about being someone you already think you are.
(That’s one explanation for why Weiner didn’t take such elementary precautions as, I dunno, not including his head in the pictures. Maybe that’s just arrogance; maybe that’s a subterranean desire to get caught. But I suspect it’s really because, if this is a fantasy about “being known as the guy who” – well, you can’t really enter into that fantasy while keeping yourself anonymous.)
Andrew Sullivan has been calling the Weiner situation a case of “texting while male” which suggests that most men would do – or do do – pretty much what Weiner did. But there’s a difference between having a fantasy and taking the plunge to enter into the fantasy. And most guys wouldn’t do the latter. Is that because they don’t have the guts? Because they have cooler heads? Because they aren’t intoxicated by power into believing they were immune to social consequences? Or because the fantasy just isn’t as important to them as it was to Representative Weiner?
The two pseudo-lesbian bloggers were also entering into a fantasy. I don’t know whether that fantasy was particularly sexual in nature – I don’t know whether an important part of the thrill had anything to do with typical heterosexual male fantasies about lesbians. It’s entirely plausible to me that the fantasy had more to do with voice, with being heard. In any event, what these two men did was an extreme version of what, to one degree or another, everybody who presents themselves to the world in a mediated format, from bloggers to news anchors, does. They created personae that were not really them, and that represented who they wanted other people to see them as when they spoke.
I remember what that felt like when I started blogging. The sense that I was creating a self without the baggage of my actual self, a self that could actually be who I wanted people to think I was. I blogged under my real name, but I’d have to say, in all honesty, I wasn’t blogging as me but as some notion of myself – as a persona.
What’s most interesting to me is the way in which I changed as a result of blogging. Far from walling off my fantasy blogger persona from my actual self, I was confronted almost immediately by ways in which the two were in conflict, faced with the need to reconcile that conflict. When you don’t put yourself on the record, in front of other people, you can finesse in your own mind what you think, what you’ve said, how you felt about x or y or z. When you do, the record is there to confront you. To pick a silly example, I can’t deny that for about 15 minutes (okay, maybe as much as a day and a half), I thought Sarah Palin was a great idea. I can’t revise the narrative of my life so that that judgment is expunged – whereas if I hadn’t blogged, doing so would be trivial.
We all walk around with fantasies in our heads, and many of them probably don’t matter, but some of them do. We spend, when you add it up, thousands of hours living inside our heads in those fantasies. When they stay there, we don’t have to confront them – and neither does anybody else. We can say that that’s a success: we don’t want anybody to know what’s hiding in there, whether it’s banal fantasies of cheating on our wives and husbands, or something with a higher “smirk” factor like standing naked in Times Square and being adored by throngs, or something really terrible and dark like drowning our children. But I think these things, if they really do matter and aren’t something fleeting, gnaw at you when you don’t confront them. They only grow more powerful in the dark.
I started blogging at the high-point of my doctrinaire right-wingery. Before the real world began to push back in the form of the fiasco of Iraq and other catastrophes, the simple fact of having to put words on (virtual) paper pushed back. I’m too good a reader not to be able to tell when I’ve written something that isn’t grounded in truth – or, let’s say, in a justified belief. Putting it down in words – and, much more important, putting it out there for other people to see – forced me to ask myself: what do I really know? What do I really believe? And I learned some things about myself in the process.
Anthony Weiner probably did, too. There’s an “oh brave new world that has such people in it” quality to some of his language that’s almost touching. Clearly he was having too much fun indulging in the fantasy to ask himself what he was learning. But learn something he did.
That’s why I’m very resistant to both the moral and medical responses to these kinds of stories. The moral response (“you mustn’t do that!”) amounts to a call for repression the medical (“he must be sick to want to do that!”) feels almost like a pathologization of the inner life itself. There are a lot of pieces to the impulse involved in these cases, but a big piece is the simple desire to know oneself, to find out who we really are.
That impulse is an admirable one. Obviously, the idea is to find out who you are without humiliating your wife or enraging the lesbians who you clearly want to treat you as a fellow sister. But the key to avoiding winding up in the paper, it seems to me, isn’t repressing the fantasy, but acknowledging it – before you actually take the plunge of trying to live it out.
If I were Anthony Weiner’s wife, I’d feel betrayed by his behavior. If I loved him, I’d want him to understand that – and feel it. But I’d also want to understand why he did it. Because he did it for a reason, and that reason, I don’t think, should be reduced to a condition. And if I loved him, I’d want to understand the reason and figure out whether there might not be a better way to satisfy it.
If I were any of the women who thought Amina Arraf was real, I’d feel betrayed. I’d also feel betrayed when I discovered that the editor of “Lez Get Real” was just as fake. I’d want Tom MacMaster and Bill Graber to understand that. But I would like to think that someone who really connected with one of them through their personae, if I believed that they believed in what they were saying and doing, if I believed that their personae, while false representations to the world, were also true representations of something about them – I would like to think recognition of that fact would also shape the way I felt about them, that my response wouldn’t be limited to rage and condemnation.
The online world has made it easier than ever before to fully commit to one’s fantasy life. That’s a fact that has consequences both good and bad. Because our fantasies can be important, having a space to explore them can be a very good thing – an opening to greater self-understanding. But because we can pretend our online selves are separate from our real selves, we can, instead of pursuing self-understanding, simply build a shadow fantasy life and live there in secret. And, whether or not we realize it when we first start playing this game, these days it’s harder than ever to keep people on the internet from finding out you’re a dog.