The great e-mail-leak crisis of the Democratic National Convention may soon become yesterday’s news, but the story offers a useful window into what’s likely to be an increasingly common scenario.
To review: shortly before the Democratic Convention opened in Philadelphia this week, Wikileaks released a collection of almost twenty thousand e-mails by and to staff members of the Democratic National Committee. In the resulting brouhaha, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman, was forced to step down as the chair of the committee. (No one mourned her departure, apparently, because she was universally unpopular.)
Why did D.W.S., as she is known, have to leave the D.N.C.? Well, the gist is that Bernie Sanders and his supporters took offense at what appeared in several e-mails to be bias in favor of Hillary Clinton at Democratic Party headquarters, which is supposed to be neutral territory in a nomination fight. (The Washington Post has helpfully laid out “the most damaging things” contained in the e-mails.)
Sanders and his campaign had long publicly maintained that D.W.S. and the D.N.C. had worked to help Clinton during the primaries—by, for example, scheduling only a handful of debates, often in the viewing ghetto of Saturday night. In other words, there was already bad blood between the Sanders team and the D.N.C., which made this week’s unpleasantness deeply unsurprising. What was so terrible about the e-mails? In one, a D.N.C. staffer raised the possibility of Sanders being asked about his religious views, though it appears nothing came of the suggestion. In another, D.W.S. referred to a Sanders campaign official who had criticized her as a “damn liar.” A third showed her explicitly criticizing Sanders himself, saying he had “no understanding” of the Democratic Party. (This might be because Sanders has never been elected as a Democrat but, rather, always as an independent who caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate.)
Do these e-mails strike anyone as appalling and outrageous? Not me. They strike me as . . . e-mails. The idea that people might speak casually or caustically via e-mail has been portrayed as a shocking breach of civilized discourse. Imagine! People bullshitting on e-mail!
But that is what people do on e-mail. They spout off, sound off, write first, and think later. Of course, people should do none of these things. They should weigh carefully the costs and benefits of each e-mail that they write, and consider the possibility that someone might make the e-mails public someday. (They should also change their passwords regularly and get lots of exercise.) Last year, unfiltered talk on e-mail also got several people in trouble in the notorious Sony hack. But the real question is whether any of these e-mails really matter. Do they reveal deep-seated political or philosophical flaws? Do they betray horrible character defects? In the case of the Democrats, it seems clear that the answer to these questions is no. The vast majority of the e-mails contain normal office chatter, inflated into a genuine controversy by people who already had axes to grind.
These sorts of issues are likely to recur, in the political world, the business world, and elsewhere. Hacks are virtually certain to become more common. Russian operatives are suspected of orchestrating the D.N.C. hack in an attempt to disrupt the Democratic Convention and help Vladimir Putin’s favored Presidential candidate, Donald Trump. But, beyond this single case, the sophistication of hackers, Russian or otherwise, is likely to outpace the rigor of e-mail-security measures for the foreseeable future. That means we’ll again be asked to parse the meaning of barely thought-through e-mails that were never meant to be public. We’ll all be better off if we evaluate e-mails in the spirit in which they’re written—or, better yet, write them off accordingly.