Monday, 21 February 2011

Making a mess of things

Have you ever Googled yourself? It's a weird experience, seeing how many times your name pops up on an internet search. When it comes to cyberspace, you have little or no control over the way you're represented or perceived.

This is something that former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum learned the hard way, after one too many negative comments about homosexuality. In an interview with the Associated Press back in 2003, Santorum was asked whether gays simply needed to show a little more restraint when it came to indulging their base urges.

His response: "Every society in the history of man has upheld the institution of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. Why? Because society is based on one thing: that society is based on the future of the society. And that's what? Children. Monogamous relationships. In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing. And when you destroy that you have a dramatic impact on the quality."

Weirdly, not everyone was happy seeing homosexuality equated with bestiality and pedophilia. So activist and agony uncle Dan Savage had a brainwave. He wanted to show Santorum the power of negative associations, and called on his readers to submit suggestions for something that Senator Rick could (unwittingly) lend his memorable name to. The winning neologism was "The frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex." Yum.

Never one to renege on a promise, Savage built a website heralding the new term, and called on his followers to Googlebomb it. Within months, the 'Spreading Santorum' website was the number one result for anyone who Googled the crazy creationist's name.

Those who argue that the online world is transient and ever changing, probably didn't count on the 'stickiness' of Santorum (ugh...). Seven years later, and Rick is still smarting over his digital defiling, telling "The Internet allows for this type of vulgarity to circulate. It’s unfortunate that we have someone who obviously has some issues. But he has an opportunity to speak.”

With Santorum's name being mooted as a potential candidate for President in 2012, its alternative associations are proving to be more than a little problematic. However, political advisor David Urban believes that, “If you’re Rick Santorum and you’re making an argument that there’s certain people that wish you ill, there’s exhibit No. 1. You say: ‘You want to see my battle scars? Google my name. You don’t think I’ve been in the trenches for years? I’ve got the scars to prove it.’”

That's the standard right wing Christian approach - say something discriminatory or offensive, wait for retaliation, and then paint yourself as the victim. And I'm not sure about the wisdom of inviting a bunch of easily-offended potential voters to Google 'Santorum', if you want their backing for a Presidential run.

He may want to decry what he sees as "political incivility", but every time his problem gets mentioned, it gets a little worse. CNN tried to cover this story, but without explaining the 'sexual neologism' in question - no doubt driving thousands of curious viewers to hit the search engines. It's a little like a policeman shouting 'Nothing to see here' through a bullhorn, in front of an enormous pile-up. If you tell someone not to look at something, there's only one thing they're going to do.

The best thing Santorum can do, in this situation, is learn the value of dignified silence. And that's something we'd all be thankful for.

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