Sanford's Email Outrage

As America snickers at the governor’s steamy emails to his lover, Lee Siegel wonders why no one—in a country so sensitive to individual freedom—is protesting the invasion of Sanford’s privacy.

William Thomas Cain / Getty Images

The brouhaha over Gov. Mark Sanford’s indiscretion brings several words to mind: outrageous, disgusting, unsettling, terrifying.

Not the fact that he committed adultery (sleep-inducing) or that he took off for Argentina without telling even his most trusted aides (fascinating) or that he spoke intimately and weepily during his interminable mea culpa (poignant). No, what should have us all in some kind of uproar is the fact that Sanford’s private emails are being broadcast all over the world. And incredibly, in this society so ultra-sensitive to individual freedom, not a single voice has been raised in protest.

The biggest riddle of all is why sophisticated adults can make merry over the exposure of two people’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, under the pretext of condemning a public man’s private folly.

Instead of worrying about how that South Carolina newspaper got hold of Sanford’s emails in the first place, our high-minded pundits wring their hands over the governor’s hypocrisy, over his possible misuse of public money, over the effect his actions will have on Republican fortunes. Then they excitedly return to discussing the emails. These are some of the same people who thought the Patriot Act’s legitimization of invasion of privacy was the opening phase of a “police state.”

There was a time, seemingly in a different geological era, when the very symbol of governmental infringement on private life was the illegal wiretap. Think J. Edgar Hoover’s electronic eavesdropping on Martin Luther King Jr. and the perverse pleasure Hoover took in listening to King’s bedroom conversations. Think the concept of “Big Brother,” which more than anything else summons to mind wanton surveillance of a citizen’s innermost thoughts. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film, The Conversation, with its story about a professional eavesdropper finally losing his mind when his adversaries turn his invasive techniques against him, captured a generation’s outcry against governmental use of privacy-shattering technology.

There is something eerie about watching Rachel Maddow, everybody’s progressive hero, snickering over the emails of Sanford and his girlfriend on the same evening that Obama was making his pitch for health care on one of the dreaded networks.

So much for the cable revolution. Once upon a time, Maddow built a fan base by sallying forth against Bush & Co.’s evil domestic empire. Now she is holding up to public derision the most intimate sentiments of an Argentinean woman, with two teenage sons, who speaks from her heart about falling in love with a married man and wanting to change her life:

“I have to find my new place in this new stage of my life. Life has been very generous with me and I want to return at least a little bit of what I have been given. I have time and think helping others who haven’t been as lucky as me will do me fine.”

Maddow was having fun with the errant governor’s words, not his companion’s, but she fanned the flames of general contempt, so that anyone who read these tender sentences in one of the dozens of venues where they now appear could think of Maddow’s mockery and smile.

Then, too, the press has taken to calling Sandford’s lover his “mistress,” though that term implies unflattering economic dependency, opportunism, and soullessness, and no one has proved that this woman was anything other than a romantic partner. Feminism seems to lose its indignant bite when it’s a question of protecting conservative rather than liberal dignity.

Why the total silence with regard to the violation of Sanford’s privacy? Surely it has to do with our new Twitter and Facebook culture. Private life has been turned into public performance; people retail their privacy to win popularity, acclaim, and perhaps commercial profit. The media’s uncritical euphoria over social networks—look how Twitter is liberating Iran and China!—is turning the invasion of privacy into a cultural style. Yet this contemporary dream of freedom looks a lot like a previous generation’s nightmare of surveillance.

But the biggest riddle of all is why sophisticated adults can make merry over the exposure of two people’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, under the pretext of condemning a public man’s private folly. There but for the grace of a click of the mouse go we. Once the plundering of email accounts becomes as accepted a social practice as spreading a rumor on Twitter, slandering an enemy on Wikipedia, or shaming someone on Facebook, no one will be safe. Unless of course by then private life itself has become obsolete—like books and newspapers—and we are all “transparent.”

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Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.