Doctor Cleveland's picture

    No Privacy. Just Privilege

    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.


    Forgive me for taking away from the serious nature of your diary for a moment, Doc.  But the juxtaposition of this sentence at the top:

    "The American entertainment industry exists to talk about penises and the things various penises like" right beside Terminal Tower which is...pretty phallic...was too much for me desist commenting on.  ;o)  So maybe male-dominated architecture is partly to blame.

    And Clarence definitely won't recuse himself from any cases wife Ginny's Heritage Foundation ever had anything to do with.  But at least he is a disgusting pervert; Anita Hill got that right.


    Good essay.

    You make many thought-provoking points on the privacy topic.

    I think I might disagree with the penis rant at the start, though.I sense the popularity of the Weiner story is not just that. As I said in this comment elsewhere, Weiner's story strikes me as a story that resounds like and is similar to the fictional Portnoy's story, and it is also the story of a lot of sex in current society among lots of average people.And that society might be using Weiner's story to adjust to those mores. Like with Portnoy's Complaint and similar.  And that's part of the reason it has legs.

    Likewise the Monica Lewinsky, Anita Hill and Christine Keeler stories "had legs," because they spoke to changed mores that society had not dealt in the open with. The Anita Hill story most strikingly so, where husbands allover the US found out about sexual harassment happening to their wives and girlfriends and sisters.  (Whereas Spitzer or Vitter or Gingrich or Larry Craig etc. were in the end were just the same old same old nothing new political sex scandals, i.e., cf. "ma ma where's my pa, gone to the White House ha ha ha.") It is interesting too that the Strauss-Kahn story brought up a "dejas vus allover again" moment where, like with the Lewinsky story, Europeans were going "what's the big deal, why are Americans going so crazy, why are so interested in this?" but this time it is they who are ending up questioning their own related mores. As if some business on that front had been left unfinished, especially in European society.

    Enough of that. Back to the topic of changing mores as regards privacy, which is the far more interesting part of your essay in my opinion. I would just like to add to your laundry list of examples. This which I read yesterday is particularly apropos, I think:

    Facebook to Be Probed in EU for Facial Recognition in Photos - Businessweek

    At first it doesn't seem such a big deal except when you start thinking about all the kinds of crap that could happen with that function.

    Then there was this which almost serves an example of how many kinds of things could go wrong with the facial recognition thingie and also suggests the ubiquitous personal photos on the net could be used in the future to get innocent people into Kafka-like fixes:

    Londoner says missing Syrian blogger stole her identity
    Skepticism surfaces about photos purported to be 'Gay Girl in Damascus' blogger who disappeared this week

    more here: Does she even exist? The mystery of the Gay Girl in Damascus

    P.S. For those who are are also having the kind of thoughts I am on the Weiner story, I would like to add that it also strongly reminds me of Todd Field's very thought-provoking movie of 2006, Little Children, where one of the themes eloquently addressed is how in modern life sex and lust is being further and further separated from love and passion.

    But I still like the incident in the Screwtape Letters. One of the apprentice devils, all pleased with himself , reports to Satan that he has successfully arranged for his target to succumb to a liason.

    "You fool "comments the boss." Don't you realize  lust often turns into love". .

    Fair enough, aa. But even if the Weiner scandal is interesting us because it has something to do with what's changing in our culture, and with how we're grappling with sexting and what-not, it's still about our own sex lives, and we're still volunteering him as the symbolic kulturbarer for the rest of us.

    Doc, your point is valid, but there there are two additional edges to this sword.

    One is the hazy line between privacy and deference. Had Weiner been a French politician, the French media would surely have ignored his salacious tweets, and that's probably for the best. But the same respectful media may well have ignored his behavior even if it constituted sexual harassment, as seems to have happened with Strauss-Kahn. That's not for the best.

    The third edge recently manifested in the reporting on British soccer star Ryan Giggs' affair with Big Brother celebrity Imogen. The British media was constrained from discussing the rumor by court injunction, even as the story raged on Twitter and Facebook. At some point, almost everyone in the UK who wasn't "living in an igloo" knew the details, but the papers couldn't mention it until PM David Cameron finally alluded to it in Parliament, thereby concluding the farce.

    The fact is that major media outlets no longer have the power to determine what people do not hear about. In the age of social media, castigating journalists for commenting on what everyone is reading anyway is pointless. We are, as you wrote, voyeurs, and we will ogle Weiner's privates regardless of propriety or media restraint.

    Ginny Thomas' finances are another story, however. While the media cannot suppress Twitter trends, it still has the power to promote news, and it should use that power to keep us informed of the news that might not make it into our Twitter feeds.

    Yes, I thought of DSK and the excessive deference (read: enabling) the French press gives to sexual harassers. But the fact the French draw the line too far in one direction doesn't mean where we draw the line is okay.

    And yes, I picked on the bigh media, because they're bigger than I am. But as you say, our fragmented new media culture is driving this. But I think that's part of the problem. A grass-roots, bottom-up system that denies basic privacy rights isn't better than a top-down media system. It's just harder to fight.

    When Clarence Thomas talking about "high-tech lynchings" he was blustering in self-pity, and he was premature. We've gotten to the high-tech lynching phase now, when people can start a "smart mob," just as vicious as a face-to-face one, to drag someone through the mud. And the traditional authorities either can't stop it, or choose to be carried along. (So maybe, yes, I blame the sheriffs when they join the lynching.)

    Good essay.

    You just remind me that I hate and detest Mrs. Thomas as much as Clarence!

    Do you know what Clarence Thomas is probably doing with all that extra money he's getting through corrupt bribe-taking and such??


    And then, having special professional staff take special professional pictures of it.

    And THEN, tweeting it, to other persons!

    [See? So easy to draw the pieces of this story together, and make people sit up and pay attention to the issue of Justice John Clarence Thomas and his Huge New Penis Corrupt Finances.]

    Mr. Weiner, at his news conference on Monday, said he had sent Ms. Cordova the underwear photo “as part of a joke.” But Ms. Cordova said the image was not in keeping with the tenor of their previous interactions.

    “I still didn’t get the joke part of it,” she said.

    It would seem that people are brushing over the fact that in the particular case of Ms. Cordova, this was not virtual flirting (or whatever one wants to call) between two consenting adults.  This was one person send a sexually explicit photo to a person who never asked for it.  His response reminds me of the employer who is tries to wave off giving unwanted shoulder rubs to a co-worker.  It doesn't matter that he wasn't in some direct position of power over her, like a boss or professor.  If Weiner had mailed such photographed the old fashion way, my guess the police would have gotten involved.  But since it was "tweeted," it somehow seems less an act of a sexual predator and more of an act of sexually dysfunctional idiot.  Maybe because tweeting and emailing occur so much more quickly, and everyone has sent this or that to the wrong person, that we see it more as impulsive than the more intentional developing of a photograph, putting it in a envelope, writing the address on the envelope, putting a stamp on it, and then mailing it.

    So I disagree that, if Cordova's assertion is accurate, that Weiner's act was of no concern to the citizen.  Any politician who steps over the bounds into sexual harassment of even single woman needs to step down. 

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