She was a millennial congresswoman who won a competitive seat in a swing district and then was derailed by revenge porn peddled by an angry ex-husband to a Republican Oppo research website in a story written by a campaign adviser to her Republican opponent. Ten days later, Katie Hill had resigned.
Was she the last victim of boomer values? Should an internet generation be held to the old-fashioned mores of their parents’ generation? Should racy photos derail members of the digital world? Or should internet culture drag Boomers into the modern age?
“A lot of these baby boomers I serve with don’t understand that millennials, by virtue of having smartphones, have shared stupid moments and regrettable moments for a substantial portion of their lives,” said 37-year-old Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz. And as much as I hate to agree with Gaetz and as much his defense of Hill makes me wonder what kind of pictures Gaetz has floating around, he’s right: Congress is one of the most boomer places on earth.
The average age of a congressperson is 57.6. The three top Democrats in leadership are either 80 or turning 80. Most of these members of Congress came of age in the time of rotary phones and party lines. Most of Congress doesn’t understand millennials’ relationship with digital culture. So perhaps that’s why leadership was so silent when the Katie Hill revenge porn photos surfaced.
“I am leaving because of a misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse—this time, with the entire country watching,” said Hill in her last floor speech.
But she was really leaving because she was a victim of boomer values, of cultural mores that no longer hold. Hill was leaving because the boomer told her to, because Nancy Pelosi said she’d made “errors in judgment.” Because the older members of Congress didn’t understand that most millennials have a raft of naughty photos somewhere up there in the cloud, just waiting to be disseminated to their political adversaries.
Pelosi did eventually stand up for the congresswoman, saying, “It’s shameful that she’s been exposed to public humiliation and to cyber exploitation,” but some of her defense seemed to show that the 80-year-old speaker didn’t totally get the nuances of online culture. Pelosi offered this weird greatest generation assessment of the case: “I do say to my own children and grandchildren, especially young children, you know, some of these—I don’t know what to call them—appearances on social media can come back to haunt you if they are taken out of context and that. But I do think that we have to be careful.” I mean, I guess, but this isn’t really about context, nor is it about social media. No, this is about an angry ex-husband peddling revenge porn to the conservative media, which happily disseminated it.
Of course, in a world where every seat matters in a district that Cook rates dead even, Pelosi wanted an untainted candidate. One could see where keeping the House might be more important to the woman famous for her vote-counting abilities.
But even so, a lot of younger members of the House felt that leadership did not support Hill in the way they should have. Thirty-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and 43-year-old Rashida Tlaib both stood up for the millennial. “We’re talking about a major crime... being committed against her,” said AOC. And Gaetz added, “We cannot adopt an ethic that some bad thing or embarrassing thing that you’ve done, released through the inflamed passions of an ex, somehow impairs your public service or fitness as a candidate.”
These younger Congress people know that revenge porn is a larger crime than naughty photos, but the older people in congress are stuck on the naughty photos. How would Pelosi have gotten this right? Perhaps by dealing with the revenge porn issue first and letting an ethics investigation run its course? There needs to some kind of congressional precedent for this, because this is not going to be the last time it happens.
What if the culture is shifting faster than the Congress? What if naked photos are just a fact of millennial life? What if Katie Hill is actually the victim of a pack of puritans? That said, this is not a cut and dried case: Hill had multiple partners, including a younger female staffer. Of course, so did another California congressman, Duncan Hunter, who had five affairs and used campaign funds to pay for them and shows no sign of resigning. Yes, there’s an obvious difference here: Hill dated a subordinate, which leads to a #metoo aspect. But the generational divide seems the most striking.
We live in a digital age now, where more and more of modern life happens on the internet. While boomers and young generation Xers (like myself) are more cautious about photos, we didn’t grow up digital the way millennials did. We were already of age when the digital world exploded; millennials were not. It seems likely that Congress will be confronted with this Katie Hill scenario again and again and again. The question is, will they eventually get it right?