When the Private Becomes Public

Entirely apart from the issue of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server (and Friday’s announcement that the FBI has apprised Congress of the discovery, in an unrelated investigation, of e-mails possibly pertinent to her case), is the matter of the publication by hackers of private communications.

WikiLeaks, the organization that specializes in ferreting out and publishing what were intended to be private communications, has been “spilling” batches of emails from the account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta; so far, 21 have been made public. The group promises to up the number of communications concerning the Clinton campaign from the current 35,594 to 50,000 by Election Day.

It is natural to feel empowered by the knowledge gained when the curtain is pulled back on public servants, and some of the information that has been made public has been enlightening and potentially of some worth to the citizenry.

But the hacked Podesta emails — some mundane, others revealing of election strategies, punctuated by cynical barbs and laden with complaints from some individuals about others — while they have provided a sometimes startling picture of the inner workings of a political campaign, are not particularly shocking, and so far, no criminal activity has been evidenced by the communications. In fact, the picture they present of the political campaign, with some of its players’ insecurities, pettiness and snark evident, puts one in mind of the famous quip about how some things, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion to our knowledge of how they are made.

And it is certainly interesting to read about Chelsea Clinton’s objections to what she felt was advantage-taking of her parents by some of her father’s aides; and that Mrs. Clinton’s campaign considered Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates or his wife Melinda as her running mate; and that Mr. Podesta organized a list of nearly 40 names for her potential vice-presidential pick into what he called “rough food groups,” which appeared to refer to demographic coalitions, like Hispanic, white and black men, high-ranking military officers, business leaders and female senators. Interesting but hardly of any great import.

The slew of no-longer-private emails has not only affected politics but individuals, too. Addresses, financial information, unlisted phone numbers and even medical information have been made public, much to the chagrin of those affected.

The Podesta emails follow a string of notable illicit caches released during the 2016 election campaign, including thousands of messages stolen from the Democratic National Committee and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. (The FBI has opened a criminal investigation into the DNC thefts, but U.S. intelligence agencies have firmly pointed to the Russian government.)

Mr. Podesta, who hasn’t spoken much about the impact of the invasion of his privacy, did respond on a flight to one reporter’s inquiry, and said that “My personal reflection is that anybody, any individual … any of the people on this plane, if you think you would like all the contents of your emails for ten years dumped out into public, think about how that feels. It doesn’t feel great.”

In a 2015 exchange with Podesta, progressive political operative Neera Tanden wrote harshly and rudely of Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig, an advocate of campaign finance reform. Later, the professor mused that “I can’t for the life of me see the public good in a leak like this — at least one that reveals no crime or violation of any important public policy. We all deserve privacy. The burdens of public service are insane enough without the perpetual threat that every thought shared with a friend becomes Twitter fodder.”

A case can certainly be made that there are elements of obtained private communications that are of public importance. The problem is that there are many more that are not; and once privacy is violated, the violation tends to be total. From a Jewish perspective, of course, no matter how interesting or even useful private communications might be, invading the privacy of people, even if they are engaged in unsavory doings, is itself, at very least, unsavory.

The more pertinent and useful takeaway from the immense scatterings of private words across the international public courtyard may be that, in the end, nothing can be imagined to be truly private, and so we should all speak and write as if others are always listening and reading. And, if not others, at least an Other – in fact is. It is a lesson that all of us familiar with Pirkei Avos know well: “There is an eye that sees and an ear that hears.”