A Newsweek contributor is shocked to discover today that “After the General Petraeus Scandal, our Privacy is History:”
It’s no good arguing that the famous or powerful have signed on to such risks, that they are crucially different from us. With the advent of the Internet, anybody can shame anybody, and the stain can endure through generations across continents. Nor is there real comfort in the notion that digital media promotes the exposure of genuinely egregious offenders such as the Jerry Sanduskys and Jimmy Saviles. A precisely appropriate forum exists for such cases: the criminal justice system. And there are reasons why it has checks and balances—to protect the innocent while calibrating punishment for degrees of guilt. Today’s scandals do no such thing. Instead, they unleash ancient mythological furies with the power of modern technology.
Suddenly, we are back in the archaic time of fear, where anyone who rises too high can get arbitrarily destroyed by the Gods, where there’s no distinction between guilty and innocent, merely between the lucky and unlucky. In the current pedophilia scandal gripping the U.K., retired Tory party treasurer Lord McAlpine had his reputation quickly destroyed by allegations of child abuse that got retracted only after a Twitter tsunami took hold. “I was living in the South of Italy gardening, and I find suddenly the whole world has collapsed on me,” McAlpine said. He is looking to sue 10,000 Twitter users for defamation. Either way, he is one of the unlucky.
The truth is we have created a police state in which we are both the persecutors and the victims. The most modern of technologies has ushered in the end of the modern era by destroying privacy and returning us to a primitive age of odium. Urban mobility and immigrant aspirations depended on a high degree of anonymity that allowed people to restart and self-invent, to leave behind the burdens of class, sect, and inherited identity. Now, even family sins are back in vogue. The media routinely hounds relatives of scandal subjects. This is what police states do.
Indeed. Which Newsweek seemed to think was a pretty cool thing back in early 2009: