Mitt's Lesson on Discretion
(See also: "Demonizing Romney")
Mitt Romney has impressed on two intimately related issues recently: his willingness to compare Jews and Palestinians in order to admit the role of culture in determining economic and success, and his reiterated determination (may it last) to withhold his tax returns from public scrutiny.
The former is, of course, a conclusion everybody admits to in private but which politicians avoid addressing in public, while the latter, inadvertently or not, raises the banner of privacy.
And this is not a private age. For some twisted reason, public figures are expected to answer every inane question put to them, allow every e-mail to be parsed for hidden meanings, explain college clubs, talk about their medical issues or marriage, justify their father renting a piece of land where a bad word might have once been written on a rock, apologize for a high school prank. Bill Clinton, if you remember, even felt compelled to discuss what type of underwear he wore. Only one of a number of comedic interludes during the Clinton presidency which was distinguished, if I remember correctly, by inspiring a Seinfeld episode.
Display, not discretion, is the new normal, especially for young people. The Daily Mail (6 August 2012) reports that three major publications are running stories which suggest that not profiling yourself on social media sites is now abnormal. Der Taggspiegel pointing out that neither James Holmes nor Anders Behring Breivik had Facebook pages, Forbes is reporting that personnel departments are now "wary" of job applicants who avoid Facebook, and Slate has an advice column suggesting that you shouldn't date anyone who does the same.
Then there is the casual abandon, often reported on in the press, in which young people seem to be encouraged to toss nude pictures of themselves out onto the web -- texts, sex-texts, and trillions of e-mails, all of which are subject to archiving, and not just by the National Security Agency. Indeed, the mindset of most people today, especially the young, reminds one of nothing as much as that of the Unabomber eternally adding to his manifesto in Supermax.
Years ago, I remember a British commentator expressing his amazement how "Americans will tell you anything." Now they'll not only write it down for you, but supplement their exposition with photographs and video. Or, for that matter, a flash mob.
All of which sets a terrible example for children, because they're being raised to assume that this is what people should do and don't see how dangerous it is to their future -- or to any hope at all of becoming the people they might want to be in the future.
We already complain about good people not coming forward into public service because of the personal scrutiny they face. But what happens when, without any choice in the matter, we all might face the same ordeal in every walk of life? Employers are already rummaging through your postings on networking sites, your school records, credit reports, and letters to the editor. It won't be any time at all before WikiLeaks wannabes hack AOL or Gmail and dump all your so-you-think private e-mail correspondence out onto the sidewalk. Just to have a good laugh. Or for a couple of bucks.
Indeed, it looks like the struggling name-change industry is about to get a big boost, because until we develop an e-mail or a posting which can't be copied, retained, or forwarded, adults will never be allowed to put their childhood behind them, never be allowed to grow up in the fashion of those marvelous characters who preceded them did. Or at least they won't be able to grow up with privacy. In fact, it can be said that privacy encourages personal growth. Even is necessary to it.
Take your grandmother, for example.
If the woman seemed, and indeed was, a tower of strength and stability to you as a child, invariably attentive, helpful, and loving, what better way for her to ensure that her wonderful example carries forward into your future then to spare you the details of how she got that way? Her private letters and diaries, embarrassing photographs, commentary?
Perhaps at one point in her life she was bitter, angry soul without time for anybody else. Maybe she resented the idea of becoming a grandmother but warmed to the idea after she held you in her arms. Maybe she thought your father was a dolt. If so, how, then, would it serve her value to you for you to know any of that? How does it serve her value to you not to be able to put that behind her?
Another example might be air travel. I don't know about you, but the only reason I get on an airplane is because I have great faith in the skill of the pilot. However, I once heard that on the typical coast-to-coast flight, the average pilot makes three mistakes which will crash the plane. Goes to push the throttle one way instead of the other, punches the wrong code into the computer, and so on. But he corrects. Which is the whole point of privacy: being able to correct. Alone with the crew in your cockpit. And then presenting the world with a finished product. A loving grandmother, a safely arrived-at destination.
Many writers feel this issue keenly. In an extremely individual and creative process, they throw a concept down on paper and then wrestle with it, draft after draft, in order to arrive at a finished product which will inspire, educate, or amuse the reader. So how is that end purpose furthered by allowing the general public -- or anyone, for that matter -- to paw through his or her beginning missteps, the incidences of wrong words and awkward phrases, their misspellings and dead-end subplots? Just like a detailed record of her earlier missteps may erode your ideal of a grandmother or your confidence in a pilot, such a process can't help but diminish the inspiration or education the writer intends for his completed work. Not to mention his reputation.
Indeed, so well was this point once understood that there were a lot of people burning letters and diaries.
Cassandra Austen burned most of the letters of her sister Jane. Willa Cather burned whatever letters of hers she had on hand, asked her friends to search for all the letters from her they may have retained, and then, before she died, burned those, too. Isabel the wife of Richard Francis Burton burned his letters at his direction several times in his life and again at his death. A published author with her own interesting legacy, Isabel then burned her own. Dr. Samuel Johnson, maybe the punchiest wordsmith who ever existed, burned most of his biographical sketches a few days before he died. And while it is true that Robert Todd Lincoln burned only some of the letters of Abraham's Judah Benjamin, the Jewish Confederate secretary of war burned everything he could reach of his own after the war and, moving to England ten years later, burned all his correspondence again, just in case he had inadvertently referred to that earlier body of work. One of the many mysteries of Shakespeare is this: where are his letters? Didn't he ever write one? Or did the bard "teach the torches to burn bright!" and take care of business before he passed on, just like Franz Kafka, wAho wanted everything of his burnt -- letters, diaries unpublished manuscripts? And as far back as 19 B.C., Virgil lay dying and ordered his unfinished Aeneid torched. In both of these two latter cases, their wishes weren't respected, but you get the point.
People need to control their own private papers and thoughts in order to arrive at the end point they aspire to. The American Constitution even makes specific provision for this.
Because it wasn't only the prominent or extremely talented who once felt required to kindle their prose. It was a well-understood compulsion, to the point where a partially burnt letter in a fireplace became a literary cliché. Central to tales like the The Hound of the Baskervilles and any number of plots in made-for-TV movies. Pushkin even wrote a poem about the consolation a burnt letter offers (none, of course, because he's Russian and can't ever be consoled. Still, he tried.)
Indeed, the selection of material to be consigned to the flame and its timing were considered an art -- above all, in the final and exquisite satisfaction that comes from watching what you don't like about your past go up the chimney as smoke. And so, from that point forward, nobody can prove that you were once consumed with salacious thoughts about your brother-in-law, spent a week experimenting with drugs, or couldn't spell "Mississippi."
Even in the case of Winslow Homer burning many of his paintings, it is the only way in which you can pass on clear and certain valuable lessons about life.
But not today. And it has to change because, lacking it in their own lives, people always insist upon consistency in leaders or innovators. Or never having grown up, they always insist that everyone else appear to have been hatched out of an egg, mature and never having made a mistake. Who for example would value Cicero if we had his e-mails and Facebook posts and found that he, like a lot of his contemporaries, entered the slave market and bought a boy for lust? Isn't Bill Gates' authority somewhat diminished by reports and mug shots of his youthful arrest circulating on the internet? Perhaps we'd no longer value Thomas Edison as much -- or, for some, strive to emulate his brilliance -- if we were privy to all his gloomy prognostications on the path to the light bulb. What if the very young Ronald Regan posted the details of life-saving exploits on Facebook? Can't you just hear the ankle-biters today? "He's not telling the truth, he saved only seventy-six people, not seventy-seven, because he counted saving Jones twice. Liar, liar, liar."
So even if that wasn't his purpose, my hat's off to Mitt Romney for bucking the trend.
Richard F. Miniter is the author of The Things I Want Most (BDD, Random House) and the coming e-book Conversations With My Granddaughter. He writes in Stone Ridge, New York and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.