Three Things to be Thinking About When it Comes to Petraeus et al.
When I heard the story break last week I burst into ironic chuckles (yea, cause that’s the kind of person I am). Imagine if Anakin Skywalker had fallen not because of fear and deep pre-adolescent psychological trauma, but simply because he was cheating on the Jedi Council with Padme?
No burnt-to-a-crisp Hayden Christensen spewing vitriolic non sequiturs on the side of a lava river: just a great military leader forced to leave his cult and take up much more financially lucrative opportunities in the civilian world. How lame.
So there is something absurdly, even tragically pleasing about seeing the People’s General, the savior of Iraq and the wet nurse of Obama’s Afghanistan, brought down by something as banal as an extra-marital affair, AKA betraying your wife and fornicating with another woman.
In Twitter years the scandal is ancient. And even the 24/7 cable news networks would have started to move on by now—except that so many juicy new details keep coming to the surface. Someone suggested an infographic to help people sort everything out. If I knew how to make one I would certainly create just that. I don’t though, so in the following paragraphs I’ll simply point out what I think the take-aways are so far.
1. Pics or it didn’t happen
Also: if it did happen then there are probably pics. Welcome to digital communication. Did you really think Brett Favre was an anomaly? Or Anthony Weiner for that matter? Whether sex habits have really changed all that much over the past few decades, or there are just new ways for them to be explored and to manifest, I have no idea. But no one should be surprised when it turns out that people, in the government or outside of it, junior level or senior level, are sending explicit materials, including body shots, to the fatal attraction of their choice.
People are kinky. We text and tweet naked pics (public examples abound, but this is not Gawker, and I will not link to them). The neighbors down the street may nor may not be into some really weird stuff in the bedroom. And that really weird stuff may or may not make it onto the Internet, whether unintentionally or on purpose.
I have no judgment to render on any of this. And I have nothing insightful to say about what it all means. All I have is the common remark oft rebuffed by the more traditional (read: naïve) segments of American society: sexual activity between consenting adults happens—and should not come as a surprise. Which leads us into point number two.
2. Neat and tidy profiles
They are always a lie. Conor Friedersdorf notes that the so-called Petraeus “scandal” has at least one important thing to teach us (though I’m not optimistic it will be learned, so perhaps I should say “remind us” instead). And the lesson is that no matter how great you think someone is, they are as (or almost as) fallible as anyone else. Odysseus was a “Great” man, and look at how badly he screwed up?
The most pressing and most obvious example though comes from the hero-worship that accompanies Obama by the left. There’s a narrative going around that the Democratic party is more organized than at any other time in recent history. It is now the Republicans who are in disarray. Certain liberal ideas are ascendant; certain conservative ones are on the decline. And at the center of this apparent inflexion point sits the uber-charismatic, extremely intelligent, exceptional family man, wise statesman, and stalwart defender of the nation: President Obama.
If we take Friedersdorf’s advice then, it should be abundantly clear that no matter how much we on the left “feel” like Obama thinks what we think, that his heart is always in the right place, and it is only the imperfect politics of our nation that drives him to accept (never proactively initiate) policies we find lacking, or even abhorrent, we are fools if we give into those dubious instincts. He is a person like any other, with vices and flaws, prone to mistakes and errors of judgment, which is why neither he nor any other single individual should have the executive power he currently enjoys.
To the degree that Petraeus’ transgressions had negative consequences beyond the immediate and personal, we should know better than to vest in any individual those powers or responsibilities which could so easily be undermined by the weaknesses that we know for a fact all humans are saddled with. Idolatry is unwise and has nasty consequences, and we would do well to let go of such childish practices.
3. No one owns their secrets
Which is to say: there are so many ways to uncover secrets, many of which are apparently legal, that no one should expect any ultimate right over the distribution of them as a result of their digital property getting hacked.
Kevin Drum has been posting about what the FBI’s investigation into Jill Kelley’s “cyber stalker” actually consisted of, and the details are not at all reassuring. There is no shortage of jealousy, lust, and political conspiracy surrounding the events, especially as more people become embroiled in it.
I am not a lawyer, or even moderately versed in the law as it relates to cyber criminality, but I do wonder what exactly is required to obtain a “warrant” for digital search and seizures. As we’ve seen from recent cases I may not be the only one who’s unclear.
What I do know is that what you tweet doesn’t belong to you, even if no one else has access to it. And your computers can be stolen by the FBI, damaged or destroyed or never returned, and there’s not even anything you can really do about it. So I’m glad that voices ranging from Kevin Drum to Tucker Carlson have joined the ever vigilant cadre of libertarians and techno-anarchists in being concerned about the apparent ease with which the FBI was allowed to spy on American citizens and reveal their findings even if none of them had actually committed any crimes.
One last note
Because of my political economic leanings, I’m usually extremely skeptical of business, big and small. I support “big government” in many ways, because I see it as a democratic tool for curbing the centralized power of other undemocratic entities.
But of course business interests can be just as important a tool for curbing unaccountable government entities. And especially when it comes to the uniquely intimate relationship between digital users and digital providers, I’m hopeful that a stronger partnership between those two groups will be one way of challenging the flagrant abuses perpetuated by governmental organizations like the FBI and CIA, as well as others.