As I drove home one recent evening, coasting in mild traffic on a major New York highway, I saw a man standing on one of the many overpasses. He had draped a banner over the side of the bridge, asking us commuters to “honk if you love freedom.” He stood behind this homemade display, his erect posture showing pride and confidence, and waved a large American flag.
I honked. This being 2015, I don’t expect the word “freedom” to bring out much more than quiet disdain from most people. But pride overtook my heart when, as I passed under this admirable if eccentric patriot, I heard a small chorus of car horns behind me.
Oh, how I needed to hear that! It’s been a rough year for the United States. I’ve noticed, on social media and elsewhere, that desperation is now the standard response to the news cycle. Perhaps it’s always been like that, but has it always been like that to this degree? Every one at every given time in history has thought their civilization was collapsing. But there is something about the Internet that makes it all seem more imminent.
I thought of the Internet’s toxicity recently as I watched Emma Sulkowicz’s latest experiment with her own vanity: a crude sex tape depicting a dramatized rape, posted on a website that assures us that what we see is not, in fact, a rape. Does this troubled young woman not realize that what you put on the Internet stays on the Internet, in one form or another, for the whole of existence?
Sulkowicz, as you know, is the defamation artist who ruined a fellow Columbia University student’s life by accusing him of raping her in 2012. Every dispassionate judge of the case, from the police to the university itself, decided it had no merit. This was no deterrent for Sulkowicz. As part of some bogus “visual arts” degree project, she lugged her mattress around campus to signify the emotional “weight” of the experience she was forced to carry with her.
Over at Breitbart.com, Milo Yiannopoulos has already given the film a thorough spanking. I can’t help but offer my own take. If you haven’t yet seen it, there’s no reason to do so. Allow me, your humble correspondent, to set the scene. With several cameras mounted in an unromantically lit Columbia dorm room, the sex tape begins with Sulkowicz stumbling over the threshold, accompanied by a rather porcine young gentleman whose face remains blurred throughout the encounter. They begin kissing and stripping.
Before taking to the bed — one notices the same standard-issue blue mattress our auteur used in her “performance art” — Sulkowicz very briefly and very awkwardly fellates her companion. From there it’s just a few minutes of mechanical thrusting. Sulkowicz moans and cries. The hirsute suitor pins her arms down and slaps her a few times; she asks for more. The Ivy League scholar finishes his business and promptly leaves. Our performance artist curls into a ball on her bed. Fin.
What exactly does this young woman intend to do with her life? If you owned a business, and Ms. Sulkowicz sent her C.V. across the transom in search of work, would you hire her? If entering her name in a search engine yields false accusations of sexual assault, rape-fetish sex tapes, and reams of law suits and depositions, can you imagine the sorts of risk calculations you’d make in your own mind? And by the way, what young man would agree to do a sex tape — and one that simulates a rape, to boot — with a young woman known nationally for lodging questionable accusations of rape?
The Internet has ceased to be a source of information, if it ever was one; it has become, or perhaps always was, a repository of human frailty. All the idiotic, venal, petty, bigoted, and base impulses we have are most easily coaxed out of us, recorded, and archived by electronic media. The worst of these impulses is the dopamine rush one gets from joining a braying mob and going after a social outlier…but don’t get me started on that one. This is where we are.