Privacy is the new smoking.
Which means that transparency and accountability are the new non-smoking.
Which means that most of the media about politics fails to understand current politics, much less predict what’s going to happen in 2020. I am writing this to help them.
One can see this in recent coverage of Beto O’Rourke. Many polls have him ranked a close third behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, which is rather remarkable considering their much, much larger name recognition. 99 out of 100 TV-level journalists will tell you that’s because of O’Rourke’s white male privilege.
I want to tell you a different story. During his failed campaign for Ted Cruz’s Senate seat, O’Rourke used a sort of radical transparency that’s very familiar to young social-media-savvy oversharers, but had been mostly unknown to most politicians. And…I believe enough people are responding to make a difference in the polls. And…to make a difference in the eventual 2020 result. Transparency is the new not-smoking.
This is very hard for me to write. I’ve been advocating for more privacy for most of this decade. I’ve been showing my undergrads Citizenfour for five years now; that’s the Oscar-winning documentary about Edward Snowden revealing to America that the U.S. government systematically violates most of its citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights.
I noticed that the New York Times recently devoted a few columns to something it calls The Privacy Project. Awwwwwww, these columnists are super-adorable. I’ve made all their arguments and a lot more in a regular lecture that explains in excruciating detail 26 things under threat of transparency that we desperately need to keep private. Here’s a very very rudimentary summary (I notice my students remember information better in letter format):
A. Attorney-client privilege B. Bathrooms C. Coitus/copulation
D. Doctor-patient privilege E. Education records F. Financial records
G. Governmental secrets H. Hiring/firing criteria I. Internet browser history
J. Jokes online K. Kid nudity (e.g. at beach) L. Location-based services
M. Medical information N. Narcotic history O. Overexposure of kids
P. Porn/onanism choices Q. Questionable choices R. Romantic choices/plans
S. Salary information T. Therapist discussions U. Undisclosed hiding places
V. Votes/voting W. Witness protection X. X-punging from the record
Y. Your family/personal secrets Z. Zippers-down nudity
Let me tell you how my students have been reacting to my 26 pleas for privacy for more than five years now: yawwwwwn. Sure, that could be my fault. But consider for a moment the possibility that my students are representing the new generation when they say they really don’t care about privacy. And that they have good reasons for trust issues.
So…I’m surrendering to them, or at least trying to see it from their perspective, and I encourage the New York Times writers to do something similar. I haven’t given up on the Fourth Amendment or on fighting for those 26 things but…it’s time to acknowledge that privacy to them is like smoking sections were to us 30 years ago. I mean, it’s not that we won’t preserve some, somewhere, somehow. But…remember how we (born before 1980) grew up accepting, yet not accepting, smoking sections as a front for toxicity? They’ve grown up seeing privacy as a rather similar (af)front.
Why? Well, perhaps the most important and least partisan societal trend since 2000 is the demystification and deglamorization of elites. In the 20th century, politicians, network anchors, business leaders, A-list actors, and almost any “expert” who appeared on TV maintained a certain mystique. Who were we to question anyone who, say, appeared on Oprah? And if you did question them, before 2000, you had no instantly available community to confirm your skepticism of mainstream values. Now that you have that community, along with the fact that everyone googles their maladies and overshares on YouTube or a reality show or social media, the very notion of expertise isn’t what it was. How smart could these famous people be? They look and sound just like us. They make typos and bad jokes just like us.
Skepticism of expertise, of course, has been reinforced by this century’s record of elites and technocrats and experts. How’d they do on 9/11? How about Hurricane Katrina? What about the 2008 financial crisis? How were they at predicting the 2016 election? Ronald Reagan once famously said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” But that needs updating. The new most terrifying nine words are “I’m rich or anointed, trust me, I got this.”
Partly because of so many systemic failures through 2008, transparency-accountability is happening whether high-earning people like it or not. It’s the Yelp-ification of everything. It’s happening on Uber and Lyft, where drivers and passengers rate each other. It’s happening on Airbnb, where renters and guests rate each other. It’s happening in colleges, on ratemyprofessor.com and other places. It’s happening with the increasing ubiquity of drones and of cameras in all kinds of places, including on police officers. All this bottom-up accountability eventually exerts itself against the one percent. Eventually the question becomes: why can we hold drivers, renters, professors, plumbers, carpenters, restaurant employees, and cops accountable, but not the one-percent? Why are they worth so much more, anyway?
Again, it’s a mistake to see the push against privacy as partisan. The push toward same-sex marriage was driven by partisan energy; this isn’t that. People of all political persuasions are increasingly against privacy because elites from both major parties have failed again and again. When it seems as though anyone on youtube or reality TV could do better…sorry for this cliché, but that’s how you get Trump.
Oh, I’ve repeatedly warned my undergrads about the dangers of the big tech companies knowing everything about them. But I believe the notion of GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) mining and monetizing all their data isn’t exactly what bothers them…it’s more that they should be able to mine and monetize it too. They know perfectly well that GAFA and every other Fortune 500 company are in the process of replacing them with AI-enabled robots; is it really fair, they ask, that those robots are enabled to make intellectual connections that normal people are prevented from making?
Most elite journalists and pundits don’t think or write much about anti-elitism or privacy or transparency. Gee, I wonder why? Most don’t see how big and non-partisan this cultural shift really is. And when some of them do, as with the New York Times privacy project, well, they sound as atavistic as one of my lectures. I appreciate the support but…at this point they’re fighting for smoking sections. It’s a noble fight, in its way. It’s properly libertarian. But it also would have been crazy in 2000 (or now) to support the overtly pro-smoking candidate.
So…when my friends talk about the virtues of this or that Democratic nominee, I just think: who’s going to show his or her taxes? Who’s going to reveal all their donors? Who’s going to post online all of their grades? Who’s going to have the least to worry about when Trump again threatens to publish a “tell-all” book? I am hoping it’ll be more candidates than just Beto. The mainstream press has at least realized that Trump’s level of depravity means that this will be something like the 1976 election. But that same press has failed to remember that James Carter won that election by telling America, “I will never lie to you.”
Metaphorically speaking, in 2020 Trump will be a candidate with a cigarette in his mouth. The cigarette will be his insistence on privacy — about his taxes, frauds, side deals, non-recorded conversations with Putin, etc. The Dem on the other side of the stage can’t be someone with another metaphorical cigarette.