I Have Nothing to Hide
Dispatches from the Panopticon
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“Sir, you got me at a bar in a social situation. This is me talking shit at a bar. If you think that's news, it is what it is.”
-Matthew Rosenberg to James O’Keefe, released March 9th, 2022
When I signed my enlistment paperwork in 2005, my recruiter told me there was a very good chance they’d make me an interrogator after I finished language school. This was a lie. The fact that I could not tell it was a lie was, in retrospect, a pretty good screener for the job.
This is how, for the next few years, I found myself in basements both foreign and domestic, operating machinery that cost millions of dollars and did things I’m not supposed to talk about. I’ve taken that last part a lot less seriously since Edward Snowden stepped forward in 2013 and revealed every secret the Army taught me.
At the time, it was genuinely shocking to discover that three-letter agencies keep records of all our Internet activity and metadata from all our phone calls (who we called, when we called them, how long we spoke, and exactly where we were when we did), no warrant required. If they decide you are of interest later, they can go back through their massive databases and learn everything about you.
I knew America was capable of these things. I did not know that we did them indiscriminately to American citizens. Alongside other outraged activists, I helped launch the Chicago chapter of Restore the Fourth. The Reddit movement held rallies across the country on July 4th: a couple hundred Chicagoans showed up to ours. By the time we held our second rally, we could barely muster 50. Over and over, as we tried to recruit, we heard the same thing: “Why should I care? I have nothing to hide.”
"Why not have your actions in public match your actions in private?
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the twelve minutes and thirty-five seconds of uncut hell that are the twin Project Veritas videos of Matthew Rosenberg talking to an undercover journalist. I pointed out that these videos are the distilled end product of many hours of footage, so everything included in the final cut ended up there because someone thought it was important.
Here's one of those things:
Rosenberg: That's the problem that like, they're not the clearest thinkers, some of them
Project Veritas: How are they working for the New York Times?
R: You'd be amazed
PV: What do you mean?
R: There's some people who just can't write very well
PV: Like who?
R: Like a lot of my colleagues
PV: Like who, so I know who not to read
R: Goldman. Goldman’s a terrible writer. No, he's a really good reporter and editors do a lot of the writing for him--he's a terrible writer. But he more than makes up for it with his reporting skills, which are amazing.
PV: Right, but he sucks at writing?
R: He's a terrible writer.
R: He's just not good at conceptualizing things. He's not good with words. It's a skill. It's a hard one. It's a craft.
As discussed two weeks ago, Project Veritas gauged–correctly, in my opinion–that pressure from a news organization to change a story matters. Apparently they think this piece of newsroom gossip matters as well. Why? “Office politics exist” hardly feels like breaking news. It doesn’t even feel like propaganda. It feels like petty vengeance against an outlet they are currently battling in the courts.
“People sitting at bars should observe the common-sense notion that what they say could easily be retold to countless others by any number of means. Whether at a bar or elsewhere, members of any given organization should be urged towards discretion.”
-James O’Keefe, American Muckraker, p174
O’Keefe is right. A bar is a public place. And yet, where else are people supposed to get to know each other at this point? DMs to a friend can be made public. Social media posts can be screenshotted. Electronic communication is forever, it can surface again any time. A conversation at a bar, at least in theory, remains at the bar.
Nine years after the Snowden revelations, we have accepted online surveillance as part of everyday life. Google knows what kind of porn you watch. Alexa has an audio recording of that fight you just had. The cookies on your computer likely know more about you than your blood relatives do: advertisers can determine you’re pregnant before you breathe a word to anyone.
Everything the corporations know, the government can too.
Project Veritas recently found themselves on the receiving end of this reality when they discovered that the Department of Justice secretly issued several warrants that forced Microsoft to turn over every single email sent from various Project Veritas accounts, including that of O’Keefe himself, over a period of months. Based on what we currently know, these warrants pertained to the group’s purchase of a possibly-stolen copy of Ashley Biden’s diary. This diary did not, so far as I know, contain nuclear codes or classified information, but merely the potentially embarrassing diary entries of a woman in recovery for addiction.
Based on the information I have, Project Veritas is right to be incensed. The vast majority of emails these warrants obtained had nothing to do with Ashley Biden or her diary. If these warrants were illegal, then laws exert no restraint on the power of three-letter agencies and we live in a society of secret police. If the warrants are legal, the fourth amendment exerts no restraint on the law.
This is the world we live in. It is the world we’ve knowingly lived in for nearly a decade. Would our conception of the private have eroded so completely without that knowledge? If we were not aware, subconsciously, that everything we type into a computer or say within earshot of a phone can be (and probably is) recorded by someone, would we so cavalierly deny the importance of having a secret inner life? Something only a friend or a journal can see?
“Few of the arguments made against the use of a recording device seem to involve privacy, but rather some mysterious notion about dignity.”
-James O’Keefe, American Muckraker, p173
Everyone has complained to a stranger about life's petty annoyances at some point and listened to a stranger do it back. It is one of my favorite forms of interaction: temporary and without commitment.
Matthew Rosenberg, by all indications, was not talking to a random stranger at a bar. Videos show Rosenberg at a table for two in two different locations. Based on the sound and inflection of his companion’s voice, the unseen Project Veritas employee is a young woman. No wedding ring on Mr. Rosenberg's finger, though he's married. Now why might that be?
“When an undercover reporter goes on a “date,” it is impossible to evaluate the means in the abstract. Much is left to the undercover. She will allure the date, but not touch him. She will allow him to think there’s a romantic spark, and take up several of his evenings, but will stop well short of a flame. The process is uncomfortable for her and will prove embarrassing for him, but she judges the results will most certainly be worth the pain”
-O'Keefe, American Muckraker, p88
In 1986, sociologist Erving Goffman published Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. In it, he explored how we make sense of the things we see in the world. According to Goffman, all societies have a collection of basic stories we assign to situations that we see: for example, “they are fighting.” These are called primary frameworks.
But not all situations are created equal, and we modify primary frameworks with secondary interpretations. “They are fighting” becomes “the kids are play-fighting in the playground” or “these men are having a barroom brawl” or “these actors are pretending to have a barroom brawl on screen in a movie.” Same idea, different context, very different reaction.
Someone physically present at a movie shoot sees a very different scene from the one audience members enjoy in the final product. Editors perform what Goffman calls a “key change” by recontextualizing the fight. They edit out the scene breaks and gaffes to create a seamless representation of a real fight. The audience suspends disbelief during the film, but no one sane believes the actors in the latest marvel movie actually engaged in mortal combat.
You can also perform this trick with footage of someone in real life.
The best example of key change I’ve seen in recent memory is a Project Veritas video back in September of 2021. In this video, FDA employee Taylor Lee chats with an unseen male companion at a table for two at two separate locations. Over the course of this video, Lee talks about creative ways to vaccinate the unvaccinated. One method he mentions several times involves the use of blow darts on the vaccine-averse. At one point he mentions this strategy specifically in the context of lower vaccination rates for Black people, which conjures up images of the way zoologists treat wild animals. Yikes.
But when Lee mentions blow darts in that context, he does not explain – he simply says, “blow dart.” Later in the video, we hear him explain the joke and then watch him reference it several times in several different contexts. His tone is light. He’s smiling. Is he sadistic? Or is he joking with someone he thought was a potential partner? Is he racist? Or simply applying the same joke to several different groups of people?
I tell jokes to friends you would hardly believe, jokes so dark they absorb all light. These jokes would be horrifically inappropriate in public but are necessary for my sanity. I spend all day researching and writing about American politics generally and far right politics specifically and if I cannot find a way to laugh at the encroaching horror of fascism and neofeudalism and increasing income inequality and the life-destroying effects of inflation and the banning of books about trans people and police brutality and the prospect of World War III, I will quite literally lose my mind.
Taylor Lee is, to my eye at least, doing something similar in this video. He engaged in what he thought was a private conversation with a person he thought might become a partner of some sort. In an effort to forge a bond he made a joke that he found funny, and when the man across the table seemed to enjoy it he kept telling it.
Rosenberg engaged in something similar when he vented his petty frustrations to his own date months later. Gripes that would be disastrous at work become a way to show one’s true self to a stranger. "I am not just my polished persona," they say. "I am not just my public face. I’m a real person with real frustrations that you, the person across the table, can perhaps relate to." Can you? Only one way to find out.
“At the heart of this issue is something deeper than recording human interaction. That something predates modern technology and is as old as human interaction–social trust issues…The risk of betrayal and exposure, a trust risk, has not choked off all social exchange. Rather, from time immemorial, individuals gauged relationship strength before deciding whether and how much information to disclose to another.”
-James O’Keefe, American Muckraker, p199
How long did Rosenberg and Lee gauge relationship strength before deciding to vent about coworkers or tell a dark joke? We cannot know. This information is missing.
As discussed in Part 1, I cannot know whether Project Veritas deceptively edits conversations to make it sound like someone said something other than what they said. I see no indication that this happened and several indications it did not. What we are actually missing in these videos is, most likely, the context required to understand the interactions we are seeing.
The thing that haunts me about these videos – the thing I can’t stop thinking about – is the active destruction of the private self. I feel cold horror as I take in the full implications of a world in which every word spoken must be intended for public consumption, not just on social media but in the real world as well. Any private statement becomes a sin that could end your relationships and your career. To be truly virtuous and truly safe one must become a person without an inner life: eyes like marbles and a mind like freshly-Lysoled tile.
Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Cassilda: Indeed it’s time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!
-- H.P Lovecraft, The King in Yellow, Act I, Scene 2.
The Lysol man cannot experience true friendship because friendship requires an inner life. Permission to take risks and be ugly and twisted the way we all are in some sense. To be seen naked, as we are, and to have that be OK.
The process of friendship is that of unfolding yourself bit by bit to discover whether the other person looks the same inside as you. As trust grows, you allow the other to see yourself unfiltered and experience the joy of finding acceptance in someone else’s eyes. Until, after many secrets and many years and a solid foundation of trust, you can do things that in any other context would get you committed. It becomes OK for your friend to do something like call you at 3AM high out of his mind and scream that we must forget, for the sake of America’s soul, about 9/11, then have a frenetic hours-long exchange that verges on psychosis and ends in him convincing you to drop acid and watch a recording of 9/11 live news coverage from start to finish, write an article about it, and pitch it to the Rolling Stone. And then you do. And it changes your life.
Friendship is permission to be dangerous.
Project Veritas did not break down the public/private barrier, though they are certainly doing their part to break it down further. We already live in a world where privacy is a sin. Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear, and so it follows logically that anyone who hides someone must be hiding something shameful.
Every few days on the Internet we excoriate and ostracize someone for real or imagined crimes. Sometimes the target is someone famous. Sometimes it’s some ordinary person who posted a very bad take or did a very bad thing or maybe just pissed the wrong person off. Sometimes that person has done something terrible and genuinely deserves punishment, sometimes they do not. Either way, the target becomes the Main Character on social media for days. Their reputation plummets. Those with power rarely suffer lasting consequences, but those without it may lose their job or their community or ability to exist in public.
The crimes that lead to Main Character status are varied (though there are certain patterns), but at their core they are often the same: the sin of hiding their true and wretched nature from the world and thus deceiving us. Bad takes are more than ideological deficiencies but a window into the corroded soul of the person who made them. An indication of deeper sin. Their secrets remind us of our own secrets and so we scream louder than ever for their removal. Our identities depend on us convincing ourselves the accused are worse than we are. That we are safe.
No mask, no mask: to truly be safe you must find a way to have nothing to hide, either through self-mutilation or grotesque oversharing. When I published an article about my time in an inpatient psych ward earlier this year, some people told me they found that disclosure brave. Was it? Or was it me ensuring no one could use my insanity against me in the future by portraying it as some dark secret I concealed from the world?
Every time I watch the Matthew Rosenberg videos I know, with absolute certainty, that this sort of thing will someday happen to me.
It already happened once. The successful attempt came from the leftist community I thought I belonged to and it is why I rarely answer friendly DMs on Twitter anymore. My failure to thoroughly vet a stranger before dashing off a response resulted in friendliness towards them, resulted in allegations of abuse apologism, resulted in my physical removal from left-wing events in Portland, resulted in me leaving Portland forever, resulted in loss of community and the knowledge that intimacy is dangerous.
Sometimes I think it would be healthy for me to get out more, make friends, maybe try dating. My therapist certainly thinks so. Then I see something like the Matthew Rosenberg video and remember why I don’t. Project Veritas knows who I am. All I do is talk about them. I've pissed off certain zealots on the left as well, as previously mentioned, and I fully intend to anger a great many powerful people before my time on earth is over. I cannot have anything to hide because I cannot afford to hide anything. Isolation is the best career move I can possibly make.
But I am human, and desperately lonely, and I will make this mistake again. Maybe I'll be manic, or maybe drunk, or maybe just angry, and I will pop off about something to someone I don't know as well as I thought I did and they will release a tape and ruin my life and it will all be over. I will end up like that friend who called at 3AM and changed my life, who cannot publish under his own name and cannot do the things I do because a game of Twitter telephone transformed out-of-context accusations of being a creep in DMs into allegations of rape no one ever made. Our friendship did not survive my success. How could it?
How can I ever let someone in like that again, in a world where I exist in public and privacy is dead?
Once, in a bookstore in Washington DC, I picked up a collection of short stories and flipped to one of them at random. It was about a girl who works at one of those porn store booths where you're behind glass doing sex stuff. She wears a gorgeous blonde wig while she does it. It’s a bit uncomfortable but it's just for work hours, no big deal.
One day, walking out of the shop, she meets this beautiful girl and they hit it off and start dating. But one of the things the sex worker's girlfriend is attracted to is her gorgeous blonde hair. So she pretends it's real. She goes to work, goes home, takes off the wig, showers, puts the wig back on, spends the night with her girlfriend, goes home again, takes off the wig, gets ready to work, and so on. She can do it, but she needs those two hours to let her scalp breathe.
Eventually, though, things get more serious. Her girlfriend starts picking her up from work. And then, later, starts dropping her off too. It's unbearable. The protagonist starts to sweat, overheat, her makeup is running…
…and I, idiot that I am, got a phone call and had to go and did not buy the book and do not remember the author. I never read the end of the story. I do not know what happened next.
More and more, though, I think I might find out.