Posts Tagged ‘Open Secrets’

Much ado over nothing was made this past week regarding a technical glitch (or control room error) during the first of two televised Democratic presidential debates where one pair of moderators’ mics was accidentally left on and extraneous, unintended speech leaked into the broadcast. It distracted the other pair of moderators enough to cause a modest procedural disruption. Big deal. This was not the modal case of a hot mic where someone, e.g., a politician, swears (a big no-no despite the shock value being almost completely erased in today’s media landscape) or accidentally reveals callous attitudes (or worse) thinking that no one important was listening or recording. Hot mics in the past have led to public outrage and criminal investigations. One recent example that still sticks in everyone’s craw was a novice political candidate who revealed he could use his fame and impudent nerve to “grab ’em by the pussy.” Turned out not to be the career killer everyone thought it would be.

The latest minor furor over a hot mic got me thinking, however, about inadvertent revelation of matters of genuine public interest. Three genres spring to mind: documentary films, whistle-blowing, and investigative journalism, that last including category outliers such as Wikileaks. Whereas a gaffe on a hot mic usually means the leaker/speaker exposes him- or herself and thus has no one else to blame, disclosures occurring in the other three categories are often against the will of those exposed. It’s obviously in the public interest to know about corruption, misbehavior, and malfeasance in corporate and political life, but the manner in which such information is made public is controversial. Those who expose others suffer harassment and persecution. Documentarians probably fare the best with respect to being left alone following release of information. Michael Moore, for all his absurd though entertaining theatrics, is free (so far as I know) to go about his business and do as he pleases. However, gestures to protect whistle-blowers are just that: gestures. Those who have leaked classified government information in particular, because they gained access to such information through security clearances and signed nondisclosure agreements (before knowing what secrets they were obliged to keep, which is frankly the way such obligations work), are especially prone to reprisal and prosecution. Such information is literally not theirs to disclose, but when keeping others’ secrets is heinous enough, some people feel their conscience and more duty is superior to job security and other risks involved. Opinions vary, sometimes passionately. And now even journalists who uncover or merely come into possession of evidence of wrongdoing and later publish it — again, decidedly in the public interest — are subject to (malicious?) prosecution. Julian Assange is the current test case.

The free speech aspect of revealing someone else’s amoral and criminal acts is a fraught argument. However, it’s clear that as soon as damaging information comes to light, focus shifts away from the acts and their perpetrators to those who publish the information. Shifting the focus is a miserable yet well-established precedent by now, the result being that most folks who might consider coming forward to speak up now keep things to themselves rather than suffer entirely foreseeable consequences. In that light, when someone comes forward anyway, knowing that they will be hounded, vilified, arrested, and worse, he or she deserved more respect for courage and self-sacrifice than generally occurs in the aftermath of disclosure. The flip side — condemnation, prosecution, and death threats — are already abundant in the public sphere.

Some time after reports of torture at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram went public, a handful of low-level servicemen (“bad apples” used to deflect attention down the command hierarchy) were prosecuted, but high-level officials (e.g., former U.S. presidents Bush and Obama, anyone in their respective administrations, and commanding officers on site) were essentially immunized from prosecution. That example is not quite the same as going after truth-tellers, but it’s a rather egregious instance of bad actors going unprosecuted. I’m still incensed by it. And that’s why I’m blogging about the hot mic. Lots of awful things go on behind the scenes without public knowledge or sanction. Those who commit high crimes (including war crimes) clearly know what they’re doing is wrong. Claims of national security are often invoked and gag laws are legislated into existence on behalf of private industry. When leaks do inevitably occur, those accused immediately attack the accuser, often with the aid of others in the media. Denials may also be issued (sometimes not — why bother?), but most bad actors hide successfully behind the deflecting shift of focus. When will those acting in the shadows against the public interest and in defiance of domestic and international law ever be brought to justice? I daresay the soul of the nation is at stake, and as long as officialdom escapes all but temporary public relations problems to be spun, the pride everyone wants to take as Americans eludes us. In the meantime, there’s a lot to answer for, and it keeps piling up.

The witch hunt aimed at sexual predators continues to amaze as it crashes the lives of more and more people. I knew once the floodgates were opened that many of the high and mighty would be brought low. It was probably overdue, but no one can be truly surprised by the goings on giving rise to this purge. Interestingly, the media have gone into the archives and found ample evidence of jokes, hush money, accusations, and lawsuits to demonstrate that this particular open secret was a well-known pattern. Some have offered the simplest of explanations: power corrupts (another open secret). No one really wants to hear that time-honored truth or admit that they, too, are entirely corruptible.

One of the accused has openly admitted that the accusations against him are true, which is almost a breath of fresh air amid all the denials and obfuscations but for the subject matter of the admission. And because it’s a witch hunt, those accused are vulnerable to the mob demanding immediate public shaming and then piling on. No investigation or legal proceeding is necessary (though that may be coming, too). The court of public opinion effects immediate destruction of life and livelihood. Frankly, it’s hard to be sympathetic toward the accused, but I cling to noble sentiment when it comes to application of the law. We should tread lightly to avoid the smears of false accusation and not be swept into moral panic.

Ran Prieur weighed in with this paragraph (no link to his blog, sorry; it’s quite searchable until it gets pushed down and off the page):

I like Louis CK’s apology because he understands that the core issue is power … We imagine these people are bad because they crossed the line between consent and coercion. But when almost the entire world is under authoritarian culture, where it’s normal for some people to tell other people what to do, where it’s normal for us to do what we’re told even if we don’t feel like it, then the line between consent and coercion is crossed so often that it basically doesn’t exist.

Once a culture has crossed the line into normalization of hierarchy, it’s a constant temptation to cross the next line, between using a position of power for the good of the whole, and using it selfishly. And once that line has been crossed, it’s tempting for selfish use of power to veer into sex acts.

I like to think, in a few thousand years, human culture will be so much improved that one person having any power over another will be a scandal.

It’s a slightly fuller explanation of the power dynamic, just as Louis CK offered his own explanation. The big difference is that no one wants to hear it from an admitted sexual predator. Thus, Louis CK is over. Similarly, no one can watch The Cosby Show in innocence anymore. Remains to be seen if any of the fallen will ever rise to career prominence again. Yet Prieur’s final statement confounds me completely. He gets the power dynamic but then plainly doesn’t get it at all. Power and authority are not optional in human society. Except for a few rare, isolated instances of radical egalitarianism, they are entirely consistent with human nature. While we might struggle to diminish the more awful manifestations, so long as there are societies, there will be power imbalances and the exploitation and predation (sexual and otherwise) that have been with us since our prehistory.

Remember: we’re mammals, meaning we compete with each other for sexual access. Moreover, we can be triggered easily enough, not unlike dogs responding when a bitch goes into heat. Sure, humans have executive mental function that allows us to overcome animal impulses some of the time, but that’s not a reliable antidote to sexual misconduct ranging from clumsy come-ons to forcible rape. This is not to excuse anyone who acts up. Rather, it’s a reminder that we all have to figure out how to maneuver in the world effectively, which frankly includes protecting ourselves from predators. The young, sexually naïve, and powerless will always be prime targets. Maybe we’re not quite barbarians anymore, raping and pillaging with wanton disregard for our victims, but neither are we far removed from that characterization, as recent accounts demonstrate.

I’m a little gobsmacked that, in the aftermath of someone finally calling out the open secret of the Hollywood casting couch (don’t know, don’t care how this news cycle started) and netting Harvey Weinstein in the process, so many well-known actors have added their “Me, too!” to the growing scandal. Where were all these sheep before now? As with Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton, what good does it do to allow a serial abuser to continue unchallenged until years, decades later a critical mass finally boils over? I have no special knowledge or expertise in this area, so what follows is the equivalent of a thought experiment.

Though the outlines of the power imbalance between a Hollywood executive and an actor seeking a role (or other industry worker seeking employment) are pretty clear, creating a rich opportunity for the possessor of such power to act like a creep or a criminal, the specific details are still a little shrouded — at least in my limited consumption of the scandal press. How much of Weinstein’s behavior veers over the line from poor taste to criminality is a difficult question precisely because lots of pictorial evidence exists showing relatively powerless people playing along. It’s a very old dynamic, and its quasi-transactional nature should be obvious.

In my idealized, principled view, if one has been transgressed, the proper response is not to slink away or hold one’s tongue until enough others are similarly transgressed to spring into action. The powerless are duty bound to assert their own power — the truth — much like a whistleblower feels compelled to disclose corruptions of government and corporate sectors. Admittedly, that’s likely to compound the initial transgression and come at some personal cost, great or small. But for some of us (a small percentage, I reckon), living with ourselves in silent assent presents an even worse option. By way of analogy, if one were molested by a sketchy uncle and said nothing, I can understand just wanting to move on. But if one said nothing yet knew the sketchy uncle had more kids lined up in the extended family to transgress, then stepping up to protect the younger and weaker would be an absolute must.

In the past few decades, clergy of the Catholic Church sexually abused many young people and deployed an institutional conspiracy to hide the behaviors and protect the transgressors. Exposure should have broken trust bonds between the church and the faithful and invalidated the institution as an abject failure. Didn’t quite work out that way. Similar scandals and corruption across a huge swath of institutions (e.g., corporate, governmental, military, educational, entertainment, and sports entities) have been appearing in public view regularly, yet as a culture, we tolerate more creeps and criminals than we shame or prosecute. (TomDispatch.com is one of the sites that regularly reports these corruptions with respect to American empire; I can scarcely bear to read it sometimes.) I suspect part of that is a legitimate desire for continuity, to avoid burning down the house with everyone in it. That places just about everyone squarely within the “Me, too!” collective. Maybe I shouldn’t be so gobsmacked after all.

Caveat: This thought experiment definitely comes from a male perspective. I recognize that females view these issues quite differently, typically in consideration of far greater vulnerability than males experience (excepting the young boys in the Catholic Church example).

A couple of posts ago, I used the phrase “pay to play” in reference to our bought-and-paid-for system of political patronage. This is one of those open secrets we all recognize but gloss over because, frankly, in a capitalist economy, anything that can be monetized and corrupted will be. Those who are thus paid to play enjoy fairly handsome rewards for doing not very much, really. Yet the paradigm is self-reinforcing, much like the voting system, with promises of increased efficiency and effectiveness with greater levels of participation. Nothing of the sort has proven to be true; it’s simply a goad we continue to hear, some believing in the carrot quite earnestly, others holding their noses and ponying up their dollars and votes, and still others so demoralized and disgusted with the entire pointless constellation of lies and obfuscations that refusing to participate feels like the only honest response. (Periodic arguments levied my way that voting is quite important have failed to convince me that my vote matters a whit. Rather, it takes a bizarre sort of doublethink to conclude that casting my ballot is meaningful. Of late, I’ve succumbed to sustained harangues and shown up to vote, but my heart’s not in it.) I can’t distinguish so well anymore between true believers and mere manipulators except to observe that the former are more likely to be what few civic-minded voters remain and the latter are obviously candidates and their PR hacks. Journalists? Don’t get me started.

The phrase put me in mind of two other endeavors (beyond politics) where a few professionals enjoy being paid to play: sports and performing arts. Both enjoy heavy subscription among the masses early in life, as student sports and performing groups offer training and experience. The way most of us start out, in fact, we actually pay to play through classes, lessons, training, dues, and memberships that provide access to experts and put us in position to reap rewards later in life. Maybe you attended tennis camp or music camp as a kid, or you paid for a college education (defrayed perhaps by activity scholarships) majoring in athletics or theater. Lots of variations exist, and they’re not limited to youth. As an endurance athlete, I continue to pay entrance fees to race organizers for the opportunity to race on courses with support that would otherwise be unavailable without the budget provided by participants, sponsorship notwithstanding. Chicago’s popular 16-inch softball leagues are pay-to-play sports.

A second phase might be giving it away for free. As with paying to play, pure enjoyment of the endeavor works as a strong motivation and justification. This is probably more common in the community-level performing arts, where participation is just plain fun. And who knows? Exposure might lead to a big break or discovery. It’s also what motivates quite a lot of amateur athletes, especially for sports that have not gone mainstream. Olympic athletes (tertiary events) might fall roughly into this category, especially when their primary incomes are derived elsewhere. A third phase is being paid to play. If the audience or fan base is big enough, the financial rewards and fame can be considerable. However, those who enter the professional ranks don’t always demonstrate such great prowess, especially early on. More than a few blow up and flame out quickly, unable to sustain the spark that launched their careers. There’s also being paid to play but earning well short of a livable wage, which borders on giving it away for free or at least for too little. A final phase is being paid not to play. A mean interpretation of that would be that one is screwing up or blocking others’ opportunities to the point where it becomes worthwhile to pay someone to not show up or to go away. A more charitable interpretation would be that one’s employment contract includes time-off benefits that require continuous payments even when not playing.

As with my post about the differences between the Participation, Achievement, and Championship Models, I’m now content with numerous endeavors to be either pay to play, play for free, or play for too little. Participation makes it worthwhile under any payment regime, the alternative typically being sitting at home on my couch wasting my time in front of the TV. I never made it to the enviable position of being paid to play (full-time, anyway) or paid not to play. Still, as an individual of some attainment and multiple areas of expertise, I admit finding it irksome to observe some truly awful people out there pulling in attention and wealth despite rather feeble efforts or abilities. The meritocracy may not be dead, but it often looks comatose.