With noteworthy self-awareness, one up-and-coming German politician, Robert Habeck of the Greens, this week bowed out of Facebook and Twitter. They bring out the worst in people, he said: aggression, hysteria and hyperbole. And “I’m not immune.” Henceforth he’ll be offline.
Far from prescribing himself the same abstinence, another German pol, Christian Lindner of the Free Democrats, took to Twitter via video message to double down. “I’m staying,” he declared in a tone of heroic defiance. “As a democratically elected representative, I view it as a duty.”
Habeck, Lindner: so earnest, so deep, so German. Meanwhile, in the land of my birth, a different spectacle has been confirming every Germanic suspicion that America is, and always has been, dangerously superficial. None other than POTUS himself, previously apprenticed on reality television, has made Twitter his medium of choice. Oh, those pre-dawn tweets! His base is delighted; the rest is embarrassed. The global superpower has devolved into a ... troll.
But wait. This week, as POTUS took to an old medium (television) to pontificate to the nation on his border wall and the ongoing government shutdown, another American did an end run around him. "If you're looking for anything even remotely worth watching tonight at 9pm EST, I will be folding laundry in my underwear for 8 minutes on Instagram live," tweeted Stormy Daniels, just before the president's address. She sure did. In a bra. On her bed.
POTUS and Ms. Daniels, as you know, are entangled. Their lawyers are fighting over whether or not they once had sex, and more. This has led to a new career for Ms. Daniels as zeitgeist icon. In another time – 19th-century France, say subversive expression was limited to ink on paper or acid on stone, which produced titans of satire such as Honoré Daumier, whose caricatures punctured the vanities of the great and good. Ms. Daniels, with her sardonic wit, is a Daumier of the social-media era.
But, you object, she is a porn star, not a politician. True. So let’s stick to politicians. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez springs to mind. She's 29, Hispanic, radical, hip and new in Congress. A video came to light of her in college, dancing with abandon on a Boston rooftop. Republicans tried to troll her with it, to bring her down. But she reverse-trolled them with a new video, in which she – gasp – joyfully dances into her new Congressional office – and into millions of hearts. This woman will go far.
The final verdict on social (as on all other) media will be both prosaic and profound. Joseph de Maistre, an intellectual who lived through the French Revolution, once said that every nation gets the government it deserves. Today he would add: Every culture gets the media it deserves. It’s not about the social networks. It’s about us.