By FRANK BRUNI
New York Times News Service
Ask yourself: If Anthony Weiner had been sitting on a bar stool when his libido flared, would he have reached out and flashed someone? Taken off his shirt, then taken off even more? Highly doubtful. And it’s just as doubtful that if he’d been flirting with a groupie across a restaurant table, rather than on Facebook, he would have talked as dirty as he did. Too many potential eavesdroppers.
But cyberspace unleashed him, goading him to boldly go where no would-be New York City mayor should. And cyberspace undid him, creating an indelible record of where he’d traveled, and in what manner of undress. In lieu of eavesdroppers whom he could have disputed, he had digital footprints that he couldn’t deny, and they traced a path to political ruin. Weiner met up with what may go down as the greatest contradiction of contemporary life: how safe we feel at our touch pads and keyboards; how exposed and imperiled we really are.
That’s the contradiction that David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell are now coming to terms with, and the oxymoron brought to mind by the imprudent escapades of these two — along with the Tampa socialite with diplomatic “inviolability,” the other general with too much time for email and the FBI agent who made a mannequin sandwich of himself — isn’t “military intelligence.” It’s “electronic privacy.”
There’s no true, dependable privacy when we’re tapping or typing. And on one level we’re conscious of this. Major scandals, minor news stories and the plots of police procedurals remind us that the seemingly evanescent communications through our smartphones, tablets, laptops and personal computers aren’t evanescent at all. They live on, float around and can be reeled in by a lawyer with a subpoena, a hacker with an agenda or a run-of-the-mill technician just letting his curiosity get the better of him.
But this awareness is more a faint beep at the edges of our thoughts than the screeching siren it should be. It doesn’t fully sink in, because it’s so dissonant with how protected and anonymous a cocoon we seem to inhabit when we’re texting, emailing or surfing the Web. A neighbor has no eyes or ears on what we’re up to. Neither does the co-worker in the adjacent cubicle or even the significant other snoozing a few inches away. There’s a thrilling sense of isolation and permission, and the dim threat of eventual discovery is apparently no match for it. The Petraeus drama reflects the enticements and betrayals of our new, disembodied modes of discourse. The come-ons, the flirtations, the stalking, the alleged harassment: All were abetted by the deceptive cloak of cyberspace, and all were immortalized there. It’s a story of people not just behaving badly but emailing badly as well. Has that now become a distinction without a difference? Have the lines entirely blurred?
Cyberspace gives people more than an illusion of protection. It gives them nerve, freeing them to engage in a kind of explicit and assertive dialogue that two people sitting across from each other would in most cases be too shy to broach. It allows for false fronts, a false bravado and, with both, a false, reckless velocity.
Back in the day, a suitor put pen to paper, his pace slow, his pauses frequent and the reply probably weeks away. Romance had a rhythm that accommodated reconsideration. It had a built-in cooling-off period.
The sexting, cyber-assisted hookups and online affairs of today have nothing of the sort. They unfold at the speed of impulse, in part because they have such a hypothetical, provisional aspect, negotiated as they are in a cloud, no contact required. But their weightlessness is paired with their durable record. That contradiction covers more than romantic overtures and erotic play, and anyone who sees nothing of himself or herself in the digital heedlessness of Petraeus or Weiner is focusing too narrowly on the sex.
Be honest: When’s the last time you tossed off a snide aside about a colleague or a secret about a friend in an email whose retrieval would cause you not just embarrassment but actual trouble? A week ago? An hour ago? You did it despite all the instances when you or someone you knew had mistyped the address at the top of an email, and the message had landed where it wasn’t supposed to. You did it despite the knowledge that an employer with no compunction about intrusion could be spying.
And you did it because that glowing and treacherous screen in front of you is somehow the greenest light of all, persuading you that you’re alone with your malice, your mischief, your game of pretend. After all, how could a communion so faceless prompt a brutal unmasking?