No Comment, Six Questions — August 22, 2012, 10:59 am

Privacy: Six Questions for Garret Keizer

garret-keizer_cred_kathy-keizer 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?

In some ways, what we call privacy has become a shell game, one in which a show of superficial confidentiality hides grosser violations of the same. . . . A man is fleeced of his pension, his right of collective bargaining, his chances of retirement, his likelihood of leaving a small nest egg to his kids—but look, look, here’s an article about the ever-looming dangers of identity theft! There’s a thief on your back porch, says the robber at your front door, stepping into your living room while you go to check.
—From Privacy.
Reprinted by permission of Picador, © 2012 Garret Keizer

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?

It is almost as if, in attempting to hide from our neighbors, we put ourselves more at the mercy of opportunistic strangers. Offered our own digital caves, we discovered them to be glass houses. Surely this is a question future historians will ask of our era, assuming extinction does not come sooner for human beings than it did for dinosaurs: Was privacy seized from our hands, like candy from a baby, or were we handed privacy, like candy to a baby, until we choked on it?
—From Privacy.
Reprinted by permission of Picador, © 2012 Garret Keizer

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.

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Checkpoint Nation

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Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


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Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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