“For who can be secure of private right,
If sovereign sway may be dissolved by might?”
—John Dryden, Absalom and Achitophel
Dryden’s question, posed more than 300 years ago, supposes a just distinction but also a connection between one kind of rights, which he calls “private,” and another, “sovereign sway,” or legitimate public order. The public is duly the respecter and guarantor of the private. This does not imply priority of the sovereign state, or public, nor of some overbearing Rousseauesque “general will,” by turns custodial and tyrannical, the tyranny introduced (in socialist states) by means of that very custodianship. Indeed, privacy—that is, the personal—is prior, yielding in matters of legitimate common concern but never a prerogative granted by the state.
If, however, public right, vulnerable to disorder, can be undone by uncontrolled ambition and abuse of power, security in the private realm is jeopardized. Whatever form one chooses to give to the notion of sovereign—unless it is seen as sheer force, which is the antithesis of order as Dryden understood it—a properly ordered public polity is the foundation for privacy, which (among other meanings) Webster’s defines as “freedom from unauthorized oversight or observation.” Albeit in a greatly limited way, such restraints on the power of the sovereign, as a protection of long-established rights and privileges held by the individuals and institutions that constitute society, were made clear in the Magna Carta; the principles were long understood in American jurisprudence.
Government both offends our privacy and defends it. Readers of Chronicles know that the current federal government, nearly omniscient and very powerful, is an abusive distortion of the original “sovereign” or authority, first that of the separate British colonies and then of the federation that they subsequently established. The weakening of the states’ constitutional authority by means of increase in federal power, which began in the 19th century and raged through the 20th, continues apace. Federal might is so overgrown that, like an autoimmune disease, it has attacked itself through rival bureaucracies and especially the courts. Governmental might, then, especially at the national level, is the enemy. There is a tremendous erosion in data privacy, defined on one website as “the ability of an individual to exercise appropriate control over their [sic] personally identifiable information”; in many places, such ability is considered a “fundamental right.”
Yet as private rights have been eroded, certain statutes, such as the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and its Buckley Amendment, have, in principle at least, protected information formerly disregarded by law, claiming our private interests. Thus, the student alone can give permission for his university record to be examined by anyone other than the proper officials and himself; you can’t get elected to Phi Beta Kappa if you don’t sign a waiver allowing the chapter members to examine your transcript. I suspect that the new student expectations of the 1960’s, during which many revolted and ran from the law, were one driving force of this measure. What parents, paying the bills usually, were to know was up to the student.
Very good. Nor can our medical facts or records be given out (we are told) without our consent. People used to be quarantined for dread and contagious diseases; nowadays you dare not inquire even whether an applicant for a position might have a communicable or debilitating illness. In some states, vital records are similarly protected. How is it then that at age 65 one gets in the mail a huge number of advertisements for life insurance for “seniors,” Medicare advantage plans, supplemental health insurance, electric scooters, free testing for deafness, and so on? To whom, exactly, was my birthdate given out, in such a way that the information was then spread and those using it reached out and touched me like jellyfish tentacles? Ah, my age is a matter of public record; the offending sales staff must have looked up my poet’s biography! Still, it doesn’t happen to me alone. As Sam Blumenfeld noted in The New American, “In this day and age of the Internet, privacy is a thing of the past.”
Though these insurance advertisements are a matter of no great importance, one should remain suspicious of such lists, which can easily be disseminated and misused. Their nuisance value, moreover, is considerable, especially when such advertising clogs the mail along with yet new notices from banks assuring me that my account and credit-card information are safe in their hands (of which I remain assured by no means). One can endure telephone solicitations from representatives of what purport to be good causes, and, despite the “Do Not Call” restriction, for commercial services such as roof repair. Still, whose business might it be whether I own my residence outright? Perhaps the bank’s, but no one else’s. Nor is it, I suppose, truly dreadful—just offensive to good manners—that I must call out my birthdate in the pharmacy line in order to get my prescription. I’ve become a date, not a name nor even a number, since Social Security numbers, having been used for criminal purposes, are now considered confidential.
Certain federal measures are taken in the name of national security, to which private right, we are told, must be sacrificed. If our foreign and domestic policies were what they should be—if we made fewer enemies and dealt suitably with those we have, within our borders, just across, and overseas—then such measures could be reduced or eliminated. Not likely, is it? Moral protection of the public is alleged meanwhile as justification for various local measures. In a New Jersey township, anyone connected peripherally to Little League, not just coaches but even concession employees, must now be fingerprinted. But try to get your local librarians or school officials to remove obviously offensive material from shelves where children can browse, and you’ll be accused of censorship. Meanwhile, register for this and that, with PIN or password or a ten-digit number, have your money transfers examined, show your ID, and get yourself X-rayed at the airport. Woe, however, to the polling-place official who challenges certain voters’ cards, or a sheriff who, when dealing with real threats, demands proper identification.
Equally unsettling is the phenomenon by which Americans have lost so much privacy of the sort that is connected to personhood. They barely know what such privacy is, and they do not know what they have lost. This is a moral matter with social aspects. The more your privacy is invaded routinely from childhood on, the less you will understand about what is “appropriate” for others and what should be reserved for yourself. What personal questions, for instance, should those in a position of influence ask? Should the bank employee, with whom I am obliged to deal, really inquire (alleging federal regulation) what I intend to do with the money I have withdrawn, or press me in a futile attempt to learn who my stockbroker is? No one would have asked that of my grandfather. (Ah, the employee wants me to invest with him—that is, seeks to take advantage of someone he views as a feeble woman of years.) Time was, within current memory, when those asking impertinent questions were sent away, sometimes with a shotgun, at least with authority that could not be challenged successfully. Nor did we trumpet on the rooftops our business. When Billie Holiday sang “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” and Hank Williams reckoned that “if you mind your business, then you won’t be mindin’ mine,” we all understood.
Picture the newly arrived freshman, not quite 17 at the time, at a prestigious college in Ohio, who had moved into her dorm room and was visited, on the pretext of “orientation,” by a resident advisor (an upper-class student acting for the administration). Among other questions, the RA asks, “Have you had your lesbian experience yet?” Now, her parents are liberal, but not so morally obtuse that they were not astounded and dismayed; the girl subsequently transferred to a Southern university. She herself had not abdicated her privacy rights, of course; that had been done for her, by college authorities and their RA minions and, behind them, American society as a whole, where such topics have become common themes for discussion in “group therapy” and college classes (sociology, psychology, and women’s studies). Dr. Freud is behind this in considerable part, but also the social engineers, who, following Antonio Gramsci and others, believe, rightly, that making over the individual human being in his core relationships with others is the most direct and thorough way to reorder society.
Worse is the voluntary exposing of oneself—what shred may remain—and the dismantling of self-respect via what is almost an exhibitionist means: “social networking.” I do wonder, by the way, how the chief perpetrator of the most successful of these networks had so much time on his hands while he was at Harvard. He is, we know, one Mark Zuckerberg, whose story has inspired a film as well as a long New Yorker profile, who was Time’s 2010 Man of the Year (sorry, no, that’s Person of the Year), and who has made billions and given some of them to the broken New Jersey schools. Shouldn’t he have been occupied instead with studying for, say, his advanced chemistry course, or ancient or modern history, botany, foreign language, mathematics, English literature, philosophy, diplomacy and government?
Having hundreds of “friends” on a social site is preposterous; what can friendship (which the ancients valued so highly) mean when it is so debased? In apartment complexes, people often do not know the names, or recognize the faces, of their neighbors, but they have innumerable connections on Facebook! That won’t help you much when you need a friend next door. Moreover, why would a sane person wish to share . . . well, I don’t quite know what people put out for the 500 million Facebook members, since I’m not one, but I believe they tell who they are (or what they think they are), what they did or intend to do, whom they are dating, what movies or music they like, whether they feel what they call suicidal, and so on. Why should anyone proclaim abroad his daily habits, political views, or feelings of depression, or (more dangerously) his or her sexual preferences? Promiscuity is always bad. In a nation of 310 million inhabitants, there are enormous numbers of cranks, and some are criminal and dangerous. By putting out photos of yourself and disseminating information—address and phone numbers, age, tastes, habits, means, family—you may meet one of those weirdos, or more than one. Anyhow, why should an adult get drawn into something designed by a Harvard student for his and his peers’ amusement? (True, most of those in their 20’s and 30’s are adults only in name.) It is possible, to be sure, to put information on these sites to valid use; someone has suggested calling them “utilities,” like power and telephone companies. That is not their main application, I fear.
The worst is that subscribers to Facebook and other sites become creatures of the network, that is, of others. I exist because I am on Facebook and have given myself over to others’ images of me. Byron could safely proclaim, “I live not in myself, but I become / Portion of that around me . . . ”; but, outlandish and perverted as he was, I cannot imagine him, if he were alive, subordinating his ego to Facebook. The noxious influence exerted through the “virtual presence” in one’s life of hundreds, mostly unknowns, is incalculable. Think of what abuses can be wrought, intentionally or not, on those with weak character by fellow networkers, who can influence which films they choose to see, which songs they download, what improper language they use, even what they do and believe, in a serial relationship by which responsibility (or authority) is passed on and ultimately dissolved in an untraceable skein. At the same time these subscribers are subject to endless advertising, which pays for the experience. Is one to become a plaything of advertisers as well as one’s “friends”?
The creature of the site and of other serial relationships is not Everyman, but No Man—belonging to all, hence belonging to none and particularly not himself. Such sites bear out ipso facto how today’s egos, apparently so delicate, so starved for attention, must find themselves by reflection in others, a human hall of mirrors. Not only are countless hours wasted on social sites; the person is dissipated, in a centrifugal movement. Human value cannot arise from technique, nor from social organization, even a good one; both are necessary but subordinate.
Georges Bernanos wrote more than once of the unspeakable crime of leading children astray. Even the doctor in Diary of a Country Priest, who has no religion, condemns those who would corrupt a child. Imagine a child of yours, 10 or 15 years old. You and others foster this child’s good moral and intellectual growth, encourage and guide the child, giving examples by speech and action. Then the child gets a Facebook account, and all you have done may be blown away like dandelion fuzz.
This is very soviétique. Privacy under the Soviet regime, especially in the early decades, was generally unavailable; it was viewed as subversive. Though some in power maintained it, the personal was looked at puritanically—something to be denounced and rooted out. It is not coincidental that families were broken up and children taken away. Widely disseminated propaganda supported the policy. The sexual interrogation alluded to above—or any sexual question posed by representatives of authority—is part of a social and political reconstruction project by which we will become “transparent” (one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s visions), with no inside, and thus, diffused like a fog, belong to the state or world community, a “global village” (when we have no decent village life here). Pride—not hubris nor the arrogance condemned by Scripture and displayed by our political figures, but self-respect with its sense of proper limits—will become obsolete.
Ultimately, privacy is connected to freedom—the freedom to be oneself, not to be transparent and the toy or product of others. The Soviet attitude toward privacy was directly related to its suppression of personal liberty, including moral and religious freedom. For the Soviets and their like, being in a society meant belonging wholly to that social environment. As Emmanuel Mounier, who founded a philosophy called personnalisme, wrote, “Man reduced to his social function is a cog-wheel.”