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We live in a world in which the private space we are afforded seems to be constantly shrinking. Travelers are subjected to ever-mounting indignities at airports, and those who turn to the seeming anonymity of cyberspace soon learn that someone is keeping careful track of their habits and preferences, and may be putting the information to commercial or other purposes. Now Harper’s Magazine contributing editor Garret Keizer has written Privacy, a close look at an essential social and moral value. I put six questions to him about his new book:
1. You tell us that, “America is a pluralistic society in nothing so much as the plurality of ways in which an American’s privacy can be breached.” Many of these encroachments have occurred through technological developments with which Americans, particularly the young, seem enamored. Is it your view that Americans genuinely accept the reduction of their spheres of privacy through commercial technology, or does this occur without their properly understanding what they’re giving up?
Both of your suggestions strike me as pertinent—and related. Partial surrender of our privacy, with full knowledge and consent, becomes a pretext for total expropriation, with neither knowledge nor consent. I make it known to a houseguest that I’m willing to wink at his stealing of my spoons, and he makes off with my dining-room table too.
We see this sort of presumption whenever the willingness of some people to surrender privacy in some areas of their lives is taken as proof of the willingness of all people to surrender their privacy in every area of their lives. A few years back, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Donald Kerr argued that Americans needed to “redefine” their right to privacy, and he cited MySpace and Facebook as indicators that younger people had already done so. However specious Kerr’s argument, it functions well as a tactical diversion. “Look at what these crazy kids are doing on Facebook!”—and forget about what Donald Kerr and his ilk are doing with the Bill of Rights.
The motivations for the surrender of privacy also interest me. Convenience is obviously one. Conformity is another. But I think we can go deeper. Consumer capitalism is driven by the notion of obsolescence and by the anxiety that the consumer herself will become obsolete. In such a context, it’s no big stretch to extend “obsolescence” from products to basic rights. Suddenly, we’re “beyond” all that habeas corpus bric-a-brac. We’ve “outgrown” our “antique” privacy. Fatalism also plays a part. Technology and the Market have become our new divinities. Both are viewed as omnipotent and implacable. It’s, like, Global, man—there’s nothing you can do about it.
2. Would you agree that there is a fundamental privacy problem when a state that claims to be democratic steadily reduces the privacy it accords its citizens while steadily cloaking more state affairs in secrecy?
Yes, I would agree, though I would see the “fundamental problem” as applying to democracy itself. The loss of privacy amounts to collateral damage. Our political system was founded on the principles of a transparent government, a vigilant press, and a citizenry entitled to a reasonable protection of its private affairs. What we have at present looks like a shifty manipulation of the three: a government that cloaks itself in secrecy, a press that confuses our “right to know” (what we require for self-government) with our itch to know (what we desire for self-abuse), and a citizenry sanctimoniously congratulating itself on its openness and transparency. The monkeys are wearing one another’s hats. And the plutocratic zookeepers are quite amused to see them do so.
3. You talk about notions of honor as a traditional basis for claims to privacy, but in more recent times, especially with the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, hasn’t privacy become more a question of human dignity?
In my book I speculate that a proper emphasis on privacy serves to liberate us from some of the strife and nonsense of “honor cultures,” in which a person’s identity consists entirely of his or her public reputation as judged by an altogether public standard of honorable behavior. I cite traditional villages, high schools, and prisons as examples of settings in which there is little or no privacy, but a highly developed code of honor that almost invariably leads to violence. Thus, I would heartily agree that the concept of human dignity provides a much better grounding for privacy than a code of honor. Indeed, honor cultures don’t appear to offer much grounding for privacy at all. Add to that deficiency the tendency of honor cultures to define the “honorable” in ways peculiar to certain groups and castes: the honor “proper to women,” or the honor “proper to a prince,” as opposed to the honor proper to us all.
Nevertheless, as I also say in my book, I’m not ready to relinquish every notional connection between privacy and honor. What the word “honor” has and the term “human dignity” doesn’t is the explicit connotation of a willingness to act. “Human dignity” is what you say at a cocktail party to impress the hottie who works for the NGO. Honor is what you’re willing to die for. I believe in the dignity of all human beings—maintained as a point of honor.
4. You write, “[I]t is not the Constitution that is being subverted by Big Brother so much as the will to resist, without which there never would have been a Constitution in the first place.” How is the will to resist the reduction of privacy being worn down?
I locate the idea of privacy—what Louis Brandeis called “the right to be let alone”—in our creaturely resistance to being interfered with, used, or penetrated against our will. For me, the roots of privacy are as much in our physical bodies as in our legal traditions, and I see those roots intertwined with the human capacity to resist. The fiercest kinds of resistance, be they personal or national, are always in response to forced occupation. It is no surprise that all imperial projects, be they totalitarian regimes, abusive households, or authoritarian institutions, strive to reduce the privacy of their subordinate members. Hand me that diary right now, missy! Bend from the waist and spread your cheeks, prisoner! Such demands are not made solely to discover an intention to resist; they are also made to destroy the will to resist. Strip someone of all his privacy and you have as good as stripped him of his sense of agency.
As for your question of “how” our willingness to resist the invasion of our privacy is being worn down, I would say first of all that the erosion encompasses more than our loss of privacy. The erosion of private life (your boss requires you to have your cell phone on at all times), the erosion of the legacy of organized labor—these are parts of the same whole. The “how” is perhaps best understood by contemplating how one tames an animal: through a mixture of fear and irresistible convenience. Here is the whip, and here is all this nice grain in the trough. For fear, we have the threat of terrorism, the shaky economy—all real enough. For convenience, we have an array of gadgets that offer a fussy kind of privacy (no need to ask directions of lowly gas-station attendants if you have a GPS) even as they make surveillance of us easier. For absurdity, we have the notion that the best way to combat “terrorist threats from within and without” is to turn citizens into sheep.
5. What do private property and private enterprise have to do with a meaningful conception of privacy?
Perhaps less than we think. Admittedly, our “right to privacy” came of age with our current constructions of private property and private enterprise. The three have often slept in the same conceptual bed and in the same bourgeois bedchamber. For this reason many on the left tend to distrust privacy, which in turn causes me to distrust many on the left. They need to consult their elders. Marx saw socialism as evolving out of capitalist production, presumably while incorporating some of its humanistic values—including, perhaps, the sort of privacy that Marx himself seems to have cherished. Among Trotsky’s last words was a cry to his wife not to let anyone else undress him—a plea for some privacy if ever I heard one. Presumably he’d have been “less bourgeois” had he blog-posted a picture of himself in his undies.
Well, enough fun for now. No serious person would deny the historical connection, which may be a profound connection, between privacy and those other kinds of “private” you mention. Still, I think the connection invites testing. Why is it, for example, that the increasing privatization of hitherto public institutions—the military, the schools, the postal service—has been accompanied by a decrease in personal privacy? Wouldn’t we expect the opposite? Similarly, is the corporate ownership of news media more likely to protect our privacy or to foster its exploitation? And finally, what does a right to privacy mean in the absence of one’s economically based ability to enjoy a private life? The Fourth Amendment protects you from warrantless searches of your house, but what if your house has just been offered at a foreclosure sale—or if you’re sleeping under a bridge? Does capitalism preserve privacy or abstract it?
6. You say that the central question is “whether we hold our privacy sacred enough to endure the inconveniences necessary to protect it.” Explain what you mean by this.
As I say in my book, any sense of “the sacred,” be it religious, political, or purely individual, is usually expressed by a voluntary embrace of some inconvenience. If I designate a plot of ground as “sacred,” then I embrace the inconvenience of removing my shoes when I’m on it. Or I go out of my way to avoid trespassing on that sanctified territory, even though it would be so much more convenient to plough straight through. Similarly, if I designate the human person as sacred, then I will forgo certain actions that would render her more useful to my immediate aims. I will probably not waterboard her.
Late-stage capitalism and technological fundamentalism are both predicated on the idea that nothing trumps the value of getting what we want, when we want it, in as quick and cheap a way as possible. In short, they have no patience for the sacred. If the natural gas is slow in coming, frack; if the information is slow in coming, torture. If you have a problem with any of this, “get over it.”
When I say that the central question around privacy may come down to our willingness to endure inconvenience, I’m suggesting that there can be no effective resistance to the violation of our privacy without a willingness to do without the amenities that allow our privacy to be violated. Barring that willingness, any attempt to negotiate a respect for our privacy rights is like trying to negotiate better treatment from your heroin dealer. As long as he knows that you need the junk and are willing to make any sacrifice necessary to get the junk, he gets to dictate what the junk costs and the hoops you need to jump through to get it. No legislation around “online privacy” would be as effective as the willingness of a sizeable portion of the population to go offline until their demands were met. Ditto for just about every other right. If a bus boycott is too much trouble, get used to sitting at the back of the bus.
What I say about privacy and convenience also holds true for environmental sustainability and convenience. It certainly holds true for building a more viable democracy. Sharing is inconvenient. Recycling is inconvenient. Civil disobedience is grossly inconvenient, especially if you’re arrested. The cops take your phone! Simply being a free human being with some semblance of dignity is inconvenient almost beyond the level of endurance. It can hurt something awful. But it can also be beautiful, and I believe the beauty is worth the fight.
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm
Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln
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Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
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"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."