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Is This Mark Foley Thing Really Happening?

By Daniel Henninger

Is this Mark Foley thing really happening?

I woke up early the other morning after a bad dream about Muslims routinely blowing up and torturing other innocent Muslims. You know the world has turned upside down when your dreams spill over with real problems and your working hours are filled with the most fantastic stories.

It's hard to believe that the Foley/instant message/congressional-page/GOP meltdown story has run for a week. Other than the slaughter in Amish country, is anyone aware of anything else of note in the world that happened the past seven days? Dive deep enough beneath the Foley flotsam and you discover reports that North Korea may be preparing to conduct an underground nuclear test. China and South Korea are at this hour trying to forestall the Hermit Kingdom's nuke test and no doubt could use an expression of support and outrage from the American political establishment. Sorry, they're busy reading Congressman Foley's 1995 email traffic.

We see also where Europe's envoy to Iran, Javier Solana, threw in the towel after "endless hours" of talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who on Wednesday told a crowd screaming "Death to America" that sanctions wouldn't stop Iran from enriching uranium. Whatever. The big news in Washington yesterday morning was that the House Ethics Committee sat down "behind closed doors" to think about Mark Foley.

We know when we're beaten. Bowing to the gods of the news cycle, let us undertake the great questions of the moment. Where does post-modern American ethics place Mark Foley's homosexuality on a scale of 1 to 10--a 1 being just another gay guy and a 10 being a compulsive, predatory sex offender? What might fall in between seems to have confused Denny Hastert, two newspapers, one TV network and the FBI. In the event, Mr. Hastert, as the point man, is being driven from office for having failed, in hindsight, to recognize the obvious.

On this score, Mr. Hastert has our sympathy. There is much in American life that doesn't seem "obvious" anymore. Call it the transgendering of reality.

This compulsion to ambiguity is the reason that both the politicians and the reporters writing about the Foley affair have been describing what the congressman did as "inappropriate." Inappropriate is the word you use when describing behavior that falls on the scale between 3 to 7. Mark Foley seems to be the kind of guy who runs up a high phone bill calling 1-800-SEX-GUYS. That might have qualified as a 10 some 50 years, but not anymore. Former Congressman Gerry Studds had sex in 1973 with a House page. He said it was consensual. Even now, this is a 10. In Florida, doing a 10 probably earns you a johnboat trip to the swamps. But in Mr. Studds's Massachusetts district, it earned him five more trips to Congress.

Mark Foley is on his way to oblivion after his 15 minutes of infamy. As luck would have it, the originator of the increasingly true prediction that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, Andy Warhol, was the subject of an excellent American Masters documentary a few weeks ago. It was impossible to watch this unsparingly honest account of Warhol's career and the era spawned from the 1960s onward without thinking about the culture we inhabit today.

Andy Warhol didn't create the culture we have today. He was merely among the first to recognize that the magic carpets were arriving, and always a fast learner, he knew how to ride them. Whatever older, earthly restraints on personal behavior existed, they were falling away fast back then. You could get away with things. So you did. And did. And did.

As a result, we live now in an era awash in cultural confusions. The tides bring in weird phenomena, like the Mark Foley story, leave them on the beach overnight, then drag them back out to sea before there's time to make much sense of what we saw. As often as not, we don't even try. The Web and digital technology have ramped up the cultural velocity to warp speed. MySpace, YouTube--the once-bright line between the private and public spheres has evaporated.

This has had an effect on the way we think, or don't. Clarity--thinking clearly--is harder than ever to achieve, because clarity assumes a degree of general social agreement about things. For instance, time was that most people would agree that putting a crucifix in urine and calling it art doesn't qualify as anything but bad thinking. But no, we had to have a big argument over that. At the end of her current stage act, Madonna makes herself the central figure in a crucifixion scene. No problem. Most reviewers simply describe it, and move on.

Challenge over the past 40 years became a more powerful social value than clarity. One of the byproducts of challenge is that you don't have to think very much--about the point or the consequences. Just do it. The act of challenge is its own justification. And one of the byproducts of constant challenge is aggressive confusion. Another seer of the Sixties, Bob Dylan, saw what was happening by 1967: "There's too much confusion here, I can't get no relief." Denny Hastert, meet the joker.

Looking back again at Ric Burns's Warhol documentary, it is hard not to see in retrospect the inexorable dominance over time of the cultural frivolousness that emerged in those years. Politics is especially vulnerable. A political culture--the politicians and their attendant media--that would allow itself to set aside everything else to spend a week with the Mark Foley "scandal" is frivolous. They look like dupes.

So the Foley comet hurtles forward, no doubt into the weekend, like some black star sucking all of Washington's loose debris into its vortex. Within hours of convening yesterday, the Ethics Committee issued nearly four dozen subpoenas. An 866-number "tipline" has been opened to solicit--if one may use that word--more page complaints about Mr. Foley or . . .

By midafternoon yesterday, a rumor emerged that in fact Mark Foley had been pranked by the House pages. It is the first plausible thing I've heard in seven days. Four weeks from the election, I have an idea: Let's fire the Members and replace them with the pages. We could do worse. We are.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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