New York – It is impossible to hear about sexual or sex-crime scandals nowadays – whether that involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn or those of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, or the half-dozen United States congressmen whose careers have ended in the past couple of years – without considering how they were exposed. What does it mean to live in a society in which surveillance is omnipresent?
Like the heat beneath the proverbial boiling frogs, the level of surveillance in Western democracies has been ratcheted up slowly – but far faster than citizens can respond. In the US, for example, President George W. Bush’s Patriot Act is being extended, following a series of backroom deals. Americans do not want it, and they were not consulted when it was enacted by their representatives under the pressure of a government that demanded more power in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. That does not seem to matter.
A concerted effort is underway in the US – and in the United Kingdom – to “brand” surveillance as positive. New York City subway passengers are now advised that they might experience random searches of their bags. Activists in America are now accustomed to assuming that their emails are being read and their phone calls monitored. Indeed, the telecom companies Verizon and AT&T have established areas on their premises for eavesdropping activity by the National Security Agency.
The spate of sex scandals is a sign of more serious corruption and degradation than most commentators seem to realize. Yes, sex criminals must be punished; but political career after political career, especially in America, is ending because of consensual affairs.
Consensual sex between adults is no one else’s business. But now that public figures – especially those deemed to be “of interest” to intelligence agencies – are susceptible to being watched three-dimensionally, the chances of being compromised are far higher than they were in the days of the UK’s Profumo affair, which brought down a British defense secretary in the early 1960’s. And there is no end to this crash-and-burn surveillance strategy, owing to the nature of the information that is caught in the net.
After all, the human sex drive, especially if it compels risky or self-destructive behavior, has held appeal for dramatists since the ancient Greeks, who originated the story of Achilles and his vulnerability. And, because sex scandals are always interesting to read about – certainly compared to yet another undeclared war, or a bailout that created jobs costing an estimated $850,000 each – they will always be useful diversions. Citizens’ attention can be channeled away from, say, major corporate theft and government malfeasance toward narratives involving two hapless individuals (and their wives and children, who are usually suffering quite enough without the media’s heavy breathing).
Another reason to mourn the normalization of a surveillance society lies in the link between sexual privacy and other kinds of psychological liberation. That is why closed societies monitor their citizens’ sexual lives. The combination of sexuality and privacy has an anarchic, subversive effect on citizens. Connecting with another person in an unscrutinized, uncivilized, unmediated, unobserved way inevitably reminds people that there are aspects of the human soul that cannot and must not be subjected to official control.
For this reason, closed and closing societies have always feared sexual liberationists, and have sought to link political dissidence with sexual anarchy. In the 1950’s, communism and the homosexual “threat” became wedded in the American public imagination. In Britain’s decadent 1890’s, feminists, socialists, and Utopians were portrayed as free-love menaces to family life – even if they had no sexually transformational agenda at all.
Everyone has secrets – that is what people realize too late when a surveillance society falls softly into place. Think about your own privacy and secrets. If you or your spouse strayed, would you want to discuss it in private, or have the world discuss it with you – or have a government official tell you that he will discuss it with your spouse, unless you do as requested?
You might even choose not to address it at all. Most people take for granted that they would have that choice, because they do not realize that living in a surveillance society means that eventually everyone must face the same anxieties about exposure as public figures do.
Of course, the issue is broader: If you are a recovering alcoholic, make a pass at someone of the same gender, have a gambling problem, suffer from bipolar illness, or have had a conversation with your accountant about your taxes that skirted what was proper, are you ready to be “outed”?
Official surveillance has been marketed as a national-security imperative. In fact, it gives the state the power to blackmail anyone it wishes. Consider the official US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks that revealed that State Department employees were asked to obtain “biometrics” on public officials at the United Nations. Are we entering an era of geopolitics by blackmail?
Perhaps we should defuse the threats posed by a surveillance society by having an annual day of amnesty. On Amnesty Day – not a state holiday, to be sure – we would reveal to our loved ones, constituents, or employers the secrets that we think put us at risk.
Or we could work to eliminate the threat of exposure of private behavior. For example, as consumers of media, we have power: the next time you are peddled a sex scandal, refuse to buy it. Sexual impropriety – of whatever flavor – is not among the most important things in the world; the loss of freedom is.
Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.