Thursday, June 09, 2011

No Privacy, Only Privilege

cross-posted from Dagblog

The media can't resist talking about Congressman Weiner's penis. That's no surprise. The American entertainment industry exists to talk about penises and the things various penises like. And our news media is only a minor subsidiary of that entertainment empire.

On the other hand, the news media has no interest, zero, in the fact that Clarence Thomas leaves his wife's income off his financial disclosure forms, despite the, ahem, plain reading and original intent of those forms. Bor-ing! So technical! No one wants to hear a story about financial technicalities and legal loopholes. Blah, blah, blah, some loophole exists somewhere that allows people to funnel large sums of money to a Supreme Court Justice when they have a case in front of the Court. Who cares about loopholes?

Of course, Weiner's misadventures are tied to an overwhelming public interest: voyeurism. He's an exhibitionist, we're voyeurs, there's no point interfering in the course of nature. But no other "public interest" is involved. No crime. No public policy, no public funds, no harassment of employees and no harm done to anyone over whom Weiner had power. (Dave Letterman really isn't allowed to scold.) Weiner didn't even flirt with his own constituents. And any annoyance he was causing unwilling recipients could have been stopped easily. Creeps are easy to block.

So what's the crucial news angle here? Nothing. Weiner's behavior is creepy and compulsive and sad, but it has nothing to do with the public welfare. We just want to talk more about penises, and he's obliging us.

The important thing is that no one has any privacy anymore. Privacy is so 20th century. It's boring, like talking about checks and balances or public integrity or the right to a fair hearing before the Supreme Court. Privacy is for old farts. And so is observing other people's privacy.

You can argue that Weiner violated his own privacy by texting and tweeting his private business. But he texted and tweeted to private citizens, in private. And various third parties published them, with no justification whatsoever.

If a politician were writing racy letters, longhand, to women he met on bars along the campaign trail, and enclosing a naughty Polaroid or two, that would be creepy and bizarre. But if one of those women went to a newspaper or television station with those letters and photos, the appropriate question would be, "What public interest is served by publishing these?" The only rational answer is "None." That the illicit blathering took place through digital technology doesn't change that. The press has no right to publish people's letters or transcripts of their phone calls, unless there's a reason. If the FBI is a wiretapping a criminal and he begins to indulge in phone sex, they're legally obliged to stop taping and come back later.

But we now live in a society where major news organizations will publish embarrassing sexual material on no pretext at all. We have a British tabloid, and perhaps other newspapers, wiretapping private citizen's phones in order to publish details of their private lives. We have creeps like Andrew Breitbart and James O'Keefe hacking and snooping and secretly taping, answerable to nothing but their own slender consciences.

Back in the Iron Curtain days, Communist secret police would wiretap dissidents and then publish whatever dirty laundry they overheard. (Milan Kundera writes about the Czech secret police taping the dissident Jan Prochazka kvetching about his friends over a few drinks, and then playing his back-biting gossip on the radio.) That's what a police state aspires to: a world without privacy.

Now we're approaching that secret policeman's dream world, except we've outsourced the secret policing into private hands. Everyone is allowed to wiretap everyone else. Everyone can publish each other's e-mails, pass along each other's pictures. We've chosen a world where the freedom to humiliate each other, and to stare at others' humiliation, is treated as the bedrock right, and freedom from humiliation is a privilege that can be revoked on a whim. Anybody's whim.

Sure, you can say that Weiner had it coming, that he got himself into trouble. But that's what they'll say about you, too. You should have known better than to send that e-mail or that text message. You should have known better than to pay for that with a card. You should have known better than to go to that website. You should have known better than to write that down. And you can say that Weiner is a public figure, and so has no private life at all. But when it's your turn to be humiliated, there will be some colorable excuse: you're a schoolteacher. You have a blog. You commented on the internet, or a gave a quote to your local paper. There will always be a convenient excuse. But the real reason is this: the rest of us want to dig through your business, and we've decided that it's our business, too.

Clarence Thomas, on the other hand, has decided that his wife's income is no one's business, the letter of the law notwithstanding. Justice Thomas doesn't want to tell us who his wife's clients are, or how much she's paid. And if he doesn't have to, anyone who wants to pay off Justice Thomas simply has to hire Ginny Thomas and pay her more than she knows it's worth. Sure, they won't be paying the Justice. He'll just have access to the money and the things it buys.

I'm not accusing Justice Thomas of being on the take. He has revealed enough of his joint finances to support any such accusation. But what he is doing is creating a precedent (which any Supreme Court Justice should surely understand), by which a federal justice can be bribed with impunity. In fact, his behavior creates a clear road map to bribing a Supreme Court Justice and getting away with it. And that is a shameful precedent to set.

There's no privacy for private citizens in 21st century America. There's just privilege, and secrecy, for the privileged few.

When Clarence Thomas was the guy who allegedly chatted about porn movies in the office, we were utterly fascinated with him. Now that he's subverting the basic integrity of the highest court in the land, no one's interested. And this scandal, unlike the salacious twittering, is very literally our business. Clarence Thomas is sworn to do the people's business. He is not allowed to contract himself out while he does it. But evidently, these are the new rules. Big Money is going to be allowed to funnel all the money it likes to Supreme Court Justices. As long as the Justice taking the cash doesn't spend it on hookers, he'll be fine. And the rest of us won't notice how our world has changed. We'll all be looking at someone's crotch, twittering about what a scandal it is.

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