It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to trade places with Monica Lewinsky. Not only is she destined to be remembered in textbooks as the “other woman” in one of America’s most infamous sex scandals (culminating in the first presidential impeachment since Reconstruction), but she continues to be a cheap and popular punchline in the contemporary zeitgeist. A decade-and-a-half may have passed since her name was a staple in headline news and talk-show monologues, but “Lewinsky” is still synonymous with everything from soapy political melodrama in general to the specific sex act she performed on President Bill Clinton.
Viewed from this perspective, it’s hardly surprising that she eventually returned to the spotlight in an attempt to revise her public identity. More striking is the fact that her recent speech at Forbes’ “30 Under 30 Summit” not only offered valuable insights about her role in America, but by extension drew attention to how the Internet has fundamentally changed our culture. Even as political pundits speculate as to her potential effect on Hillary Clinton’s probable presidential campaign or debate whether she should be chiefly remembered as a victim or villain (all of which, it must be emphasized, are valid questions) we shouldn’t overlook the universal lesson Americans can pick up from both Lewinsky’s legacy.
As the first major scandal of the digital age—political or otherwise—the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal proved that the Internet was a game-changer in the public’s relationship with notable people, from politicians and celebrities to recipients of Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame.”
To be clear, there were plenty of presidential sex scandals before Clinton took office (see: Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Grover Cleveland and Maria Halpin, Franklin Roosevelt and Lucy Rutherford, John Kennedy and Judith Exner, et al). One of the main reasons Clinton’s illicit liaison nearly cost him the presidency, however, was that it occurred just as the Internet was beginning to come into its own.
As Lewinsky explained:
Thanks to the internet and a website that at the time was scarcely known outside of Washington D.C. (but a website most of us know today called the Drudge Report), within 24 hours [of the story being scooped and leaked online] I became a public figure, not just in the United States but around the entire globe. As far as major news stories were concerned, this was the very first time that the traditional media was usurped by the Internet.
For Clinton, the main consequence here was scandal and impeachment, both of which marred his reputation without overshadowing the public’s esteem for his impressive record as president. Lewinsky, on the other hand, became “the first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the Internet.” Her subsequent emotional ordeal was nothing short of hellish:
The experience of shame and humiliation online is different than offline. There is no way to wrap your mind around where the humiliation ends—there are no borders. It honestly feels like the whole world is laughing at you… I couldn’t imagine ever showing my face in public again. I cringed. I yelled. I sobbed. And the mantra continued: I just want to die.
As she notes, all of this happened to Lewinsky before the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. In short, before social media and society’s growing dependence on the Internet made everything exponentially worse.
To be fair, Lewinsky’s claim of having been an early victim of cyberbullying is somewhat flawed. Although she draws comparisons to the likes of Jennifer Lawrence and Tyler Clementi, the former was victimized by acts of theft and sexual exploitation, while the latter fell prey to a malicious prank that drove him to suicide. Lewinsky, on the other hand, was actually involved in harming innocent parties through her actions (i.e., Hillary and Chelsea Clinton).
What’s more, regardless of whether one believes this ought to be the case, the public has long held an interest in the sexual indiscretions of its political leaders; had the Internet never existed, Lewinsky’s actions still would have been considered newsworthy (although it’s unlikely the ramifications would have been nearly as overwhelming for her personally).
At the same time, Lewinsky has a strong point about the brutality of modern Internet culture. Our society takes for granted that a single mistake in one’s professional or personal life should have permanently destructive consequences. In the years since Lewinsky, Google has become so powerful that its name is synonymous with the act of conducting thorough research on another human being.
As a result, a person’s entire identity can now be defined by a single mistake from their past—one angry email, one embarrassing video, or one off-color joke. The notion that human beings are complex creatures has gone by the wayside; in its place is the unspoken belief that any wayward action (real or, in the case of actual bullying victims like Lawrence and Clementi, not so) can fairly be used as the sole point of identification for the rest of a person’s life.
Indeed, we relish these public humiliations. Hit television shows exist solely to mock those whose foibles somehow wound up online for the world to see, be they celebrities (TMZ) or ordinary folks on YouTube (Tosh.0). Photographs circulated online are used to shame beautiful people who have “let themselves go” (e.g. Renee Zellweger) or chronicle the downward spirals of prominent individuals experiencing financial, personal, or drug-related difficulties.
“We have created, to borrow a term from historian Nicolaus Mills, a ‘culture of humiliation,’” Lewinsky wrote in a recent Vanity Fair article, “that not only encourages and revels in Schadenfreude but also rewards those who humiliate others, from the ranks of the paparazzi to the gossip bloggers, the late-night comedians, and the Web ‘entrepreneurs’ who profit from clandestine videos.”
In this sense, Lewinsky’s chief legacy is more a cultural than a political one. While she unwittingly provided a new breed of journalist with their first taste for blood, her post-scandal life illustrates the human cost of our prevailing ethos. As Jonathan Bernstein, a crisis consultant in Los Angeles, aptly put it: “There have always been people whose aim in life was to cause pain to others. If they saw people embarrassing themselves, they got pleasure in sharing that information. Before the Internet, they had to gossip with their neighbors. Now they can gossip with the world.”
Perhaps Lewinsky’s newly minted Twitter page will provide her with an opportunity to change the conversation. Given Twitter’s notorious reputation as a breeding ground for misogyny, it will be interesting to see Lewinsky take on her detractors and (hopefully) draw attention to other victims of Internet cruelty. Should that happen, she will provide a genuine service for America. If nothing else, the misogynistic tweets she’s been receiving are proof that this voice is definitely as needed as ever.
It is here that we return to Lewinsky the laughingstock, the one trying to reclaim her identity today. Whatever errors she committed in her past, it is hard to reflect on the commentary surrounding her in the late 1990s without cringing at the slut-shaming, fat-shaming, and other cruel jokes she endured. Surveying the decades that have passed since, it appears that the Internet’s malevolent streak has only gotten worse.
If politicians were the only ones forced to be increasingly image-conscious as a result, the net effect might be positive. Considering that virtually anyone can be caught in the web, however, we may be wise to heed some of what Lewinsky is saying.