Petri: Alec Baldwin’s undying shame, and ours

Attention, everyone! Alec Baldwin is leaving the public eye! In the Feb. 24 issue of New York magazine, Baldwin announced that he was withdrawing from public life, although not before this rambling, shambling, everything-under-the-sun interview made its way into the public eye. He had a great deal to say – about paparazzi, new media, his experience losing a TV show on MSNBC and being called out for homophobia, and whose fault all of it was (spoiler: not his!). Depending on the nature of the “it” in question, it was the paparazzi’s fault, it was Shia LaBeouf’s fault or it was because of something wise that Warren Beatty said to him one time.

“I’m aware that it’s ironic that I’m making this case in the media,” Baldwin admits, “but this is the last time I’m going to talk about my personal life in an American publication ever again.” Yes. Nothing says, “Farewell, news media! I hate and distrust you with a blinding passion! I am a recluse now!” like “Here I am on your newsstands, large as life!” “Goodbye” in print is seldom “goodbye.” I say this as someone who has written possibly a dozen pieces announcing that I Will Never Write About Sarah Palin Again (And Next Time There Will Be No Next Time). We know how this goes.

But in pointing out how all his problems were caused by mishearings, other people or the fact that he just had too much compassion and/or talent (he yelled those things at that man with a camera because, as the “mystifyingly intelligent and wise” Warren Beatty pointed out to him, it was his actor’s instinct to make it into a “moment”), Baldwin does make one interesting point. He notes: “In the New Media culture, anything good you do is tossed in a pit, and you are measured by who you are on your worst day. What’s the Boy Scout code? Trustworthy. Loyal. Helpful. Friendly. Courteous. Kind. Obedient. Cheerful. Thrifty. Brave. Clean.

Reverent. I might be all of those things, at certain moments. But people suspect that whatever good you do, you are faking. You’re that guy. You’re that guy that says this.” I’m not sure Baldwin’s own case is the best illustration of this principle (see Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic for an eloquent explanation of why), but it still has a ring of truth to it. Boy Scout values aside, is this what we’re dealing with now? What are we judged by? F. Scott Fitzgerald called personality “a series of successful gestures.” And with new media, every single gesture has to be successful. One false move, one ill-thought remark, one Weiner picture and – there you go. It’s always the worst story that floats to the top of your Google results, even if you’re a public figure like Baldwin with years of good will at your back.

I think this comes to bear most painfully on the people who aren’t Alec Baldwin. He was famous already. He will be fine. But many people want to be famous. Few people actually are, at least not the level of famous that most of us would consider to be worth the trouble. Famous is always 1,000 more Twitter followers than you’ve got, just as drunk is one more drink than you’ve had. Still, everyone’s living in public, never far from a camera or a smartphone. And all our unsuccessful gestures get caught – in print, on tape, where they can stick.

The low point always pops back up. And there are countless examples of people saying one lousy thing – be it racist, sexist, homophobic, too-soon-after-a-tragedy or just downright ugly in another way – and being shamed to the point where that will be the only thing that ever appears when you Google them, and some will even lose their jobs. Maybe some of these people are awful all the time. But you don’t need a pattern. One – as long as it sticks in the craw – is all you need. And it’s not just ugly remarks that can be your lowest point. Look at what happens with nude pictures. No matter how hard you dig yourself out, you’re that person.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog at washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost.