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Sex Scandals in America: Jason Russell, John Edwards and Our Hashtag Attention Spans

Posted on Friday, March 23rd, 2012 at 11:15 am

Author: Kristin Rawls

If Jason Russell’s public masturbation meltdown means anything at all, it surely has nothing to do with Ugandans or central Africans as such. No, if anything, it illuminates the cluttered and – let’s face it – histrionic mind of the collective American public. Though many of us have been scratching our heads for years about the misinformation that Invisible Children spews in the name of “public awareness,” it wasn’t enough to trouble the public in general when the “Kony 2012” film hit the internet. In just a few days, the video amassed tens of millions of hits and quickly became the most wide-reaching viral video of all time.

Only one thing could have distracted the public from this new laser focus on Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army: a sex scandal. More specifically, a seedy and sleazy sex scandal involving people with power in these United States, just the way we like our sex scandals in America. Nuanced discussions about sex and the abuse of power do not interest us. No, we want to know if there’s a sex tape that will soon be hitting stores! We want video footage! We want schadenfreude! The worse the public humiliation, the better. Nothing is quite as unifying in the American public sphere as commiserating and gloating when the mighty are brought low. So, when evangelical Christian White Savior do-gooder instant celebrity Jason Russell was caught naked and screaming whilst masturbating in the light of day at a busy San Diego intersection, the internet predictably exploded. #HORNY2012 replaced #KONY2012 in no time at all.

As sex scandals go, #HORNY2012 was a major hit, at least until today, when the latest John Edwards sex saga came to light. An escort – he was having sex with an escort! Or, at least, so an escort now claims. There’s nothing like a new revelation to remind us how much we hate John Edwards. The man cheated on a wife who had incurable cancer. And not just any wife, but Elizabeth Edwards, who was beloved by the American public in ways that most political women never dream of. How dare that bastard cheat on our Elizabeth?

It never crosses our minds that Elizabeth isn’t ours now, and certainly she never was when she lived, no more than any other public figure belongs to us. But we feel personally slighted by the whole dreary saga, and it gives us more ammunition to fuel our disdain for John Edwards! We never liked him. What was that thumbs-in-the-air pump about anyway? Who does that? The very same sort of disingenuous human who cheats on Elizabeth Edwards, that’s who. And anyway, no one – no one – smiles all the time as Edwards does in public. It just isn’t natural. And lest there was any doubt that the American public had spoken, Fox News’ Michelle Malkin summed it all up on Twitter: “Crapweasel John Edwards unites left/right on twitter.”

In the Atlantic this week, Ford Vox condemned the public’s response to the Jason Russell video, noting that Russell may have been experiencing temporary mania and/or psychosis associated with stress at the time. He says, “[W]e can and should do better. With all the celebrity illnesses they uncover, the folks at TMZ should have known the minute they viewed the Russell video that he was not in his right mind. It should be beyond the pale in civil society to videotape and publicly ridicule people who are in the throes of an uncontrollable disease process. TMZ should take down its video.”

And, yes, probably Ford is right about this. Though, honestly, where is the public outrage when an ex- releases a female celebrity sex tape? Isn’t there something of a double standard here? I don’t remember hearing much public concern about a sexual act made available to the public without a female participant’s permission? Not to mention, where is the outrage about all the “my ex-girlfriend” sex tapes that fuel the growth of what we now call “amateur pornography”? Alas, I digress. Probably we should be disturbed by all of these things and, indeed, by the public’s love of public humiliation. But as these things go, I’m rather less concerned about the mockery Russell has endured. This is largely because I think Invisible Children is an organization that promotes a great deal of misinformation in the cause of “awareness,” and I believe – old-fashioned as it may be – that this is a dangerous game. So, if that misinformation wasn’t sufficient to diminish the organization’s credibility, well, by god, a good old-fashioned sex scandal might just do the job!

But I don’t really think the story here is public meanness. Certainly, yes, the public has been mean about Russell’s public meltdown. But I can think of many more examples of this that illustrate the point a great deal better. How about, say, Britney Spears? I mean, she was just an exploited kid before anyone snapped photos of her sans underwear or criticized her weight gain. A few years later, we all expressed disbelief – and a bit of glee – when she shaved her head and started vandalizing cars. Spears never promoted the conservative Christian worldview that Russell does. She never gave a pep talk at Liberty University, or accepted funds from far-right groups like Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group Family Research Council. She never mobilized American support for a military endeavor Americans didn’t understand. She was a naïve kid and people took advantage of her. But there was little serious critique of what this meant for “our culture.” Few people defended Spears at all, save the seemingly unhinged person on the “Leave Britney Alone!” viral video.

Which of course brings us back to the viral video and its good friend, twitter. I suspect Spears is sometimes relieved that the majority of her public meltdown predates the mass popularity of twitter. But again, the story isn’t meanness, but the public’s attention span. Or rather its lack of attention span – as well as the fact that it can be whipped into a fervor at the drop of a hat. Just a few days ago, we were ready to ramp up military aid to Uganda and other states in central Africa without a care in the world. We were not at all dissuaded by annoying little concerns like mere fact. And then a few days after that, millions of dollars in donations already given to the #KONY2012 campaign, we were over it and on to the sex scandal!

The viral video is really good at two things: manipulation and distraction. “Kony2012” was brilliant at both. It manipulated us into supporting a military cause to which we’d given very little thought, and it distracted us from the messiness of international affairs. By its very nature, it lacks nuance, detail or concern with historical understanding. It’s there. We’ve bought it, and we’re ready to go – “Stop Kony!” – until the next sex scandal pops up. Politicians and activists beware – the viral video may be your friend for a moment, but its impact dissolves once the next big scandal comes along. Wait a second… What was all that about Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army anyway? I don’t know, but doesn’t it have something to do with that guy whose actions spawned the #HORNY2012 hashtag? Because that was hilarious. And it may be shallow and fleeting, but it sure is nice to feel unified as a nation once in a while.

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