Imagine a politician’s relative who is a very private person. Could be his wife, could be his grandmother. Someone not in the public eye.
Say I decide to gather insights into that little-known relative’s personal life gained by kicking in a basement window at the family home, creeping into their bedroom and rifling through her diary. It says here, on the entry for May 17, that she worries her children are . . . .
What? Intrusive? Some of you are wondering if I had any right to break into her house and snoop around? How about if I don’t actually break into the house — which for the record, I did not actually do. How about if I just stole some letters to friends after the relative put them out for the postman?
Still bad? How about if I hacked her emails and found some cutting observations about various politicians? You want those?
You see where I’m going with this. The 2016 campaign is so fractious, the standards of civility so degraded, we’ve all overlooked a very bad precedent that’s being set.
These WikiLeaks revelations, which were worrisome enough when they dealt with the Afghanistan war and State Department machinations, have now devolved to basic Democratic Party functionaries doing what functionaries do: form strategy, float ideas, comment cattily. It’s all so personal and delicious, the click-hungry media just can’t help smearing it around, like a bunch of toddlers finger-painting.
The latest hack, of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, contains nothing as significant as the fact that American intelligence is certain that the Russians were behind it in an attempt to push the election toward their catspaw, Donald Trump.
You would think that this alone would make the responsible media draw away from them in horror. But it hasn’t. Last week, remarks from top Clinton aide Neera Tanden regarding Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig were pinballing everywhere. Lessig, she writes, is “smug” and “pompous,” someone she would like to “kick the sh-t out of” on Twitter.
Which she did, in a way, with a shove from WikiLeaks. News reached Lessig immediately; no warm milk is rushed to a hungry baby’s mouth with the speed that insults reach their targets online. But Lessig did not do the usual thing. He did not fire back at Tanden. Instead, he posted this on his blog:
I’m a big believer in leaks for the public interest. That’s why I support Snowden, and why I believe the President should pardon him. But I can’t for the life of me see the public good in a leak like this — at least one that reveals no crime or violation of any important public policy.
We all deserve privacy. The burdens of public service are insane enough without the perpetual threat that every thought shared with a friend becomes Twitter fodder.
Neera has only ever served in the public (and public interest) sector. Her work has always and only been devoted to advancing her vision of the public good. It is not right that she should bear the burden of this sort of breach.
That is what my people call “being a mensch.”
“Leak” is the wrong word. These emails aren’t “leaked.” They’re stolen, as much as the letters I notionally yanked from the mayor’s mailbox would be stolen.
Sometimes that’s important for the public good. The Pentagon Papers were worth publishing, no matter how the New York Times got them. But not every catty remark is the Pentagon Papers.
Squinting into the post-election world, we’re all wondering how we are going to move forward, and I will tell you how I plan to: by treating people decently, treating them the way I would want to be treated. I would not want my private emails hacked and tossed around in public like beachballs. We all speak differently in private than in public. We all deserve that private sphere in which to discuss, to suggest, to vent steam and assemble our public faces. Even politicians deserve that.Tweets by @neilsteinberg