Keizer: Requiem for the private word (2008)

Ever one for debates about the private/public distinction, I read Garret Keizer’s “Requiem for the Private World” (Harper’s August 2008) with intrigue. Keizer notes infringes upon our privacy by the government (wiretapping and airport security, for example), and then asks, “How much further will it go? How much will the American people tolerate?”:

The answer, to use the language of the Bible, is not far off but near at hand; it is in your heart and on your lips—or at least on the lips of the fellow shouting into his cell phone next to you. He is telling his girlfriend that she spends too much money. She is “always buying shit.” His time away from home is no excuse. She knew when she moved in with him that his job involved travel. She should have known—as indeed every person within a radius of fifty feet now knows—the details of his life.

Ultimately, he ponders, “Where do we stand if the people most willing to oppose the encroachment on our privacy are also unable to grasp what privacy is?”

Rather than make the all-too-tired argument that the Internet is to blame, Keizer looks back to Candid Camera, but even more so to the Weather Underground, “when the callow revolutionaries were instructed to strip and have a go at each other on the floor of a van in order to purify their souls of the dross of bourgeois inhibition.” To Keizer, these trust-building measures, these moves that break down the walls of privacy, are also building subservience, which is an interesting idea.

Perhaps most interesting to me, though, is his connection of the decay of the understanding of privacy to a matter of access: that people believe that access to information equates a right to access that information. This seems to me to be a topic worth pursuing. Not much to say about it right now, but I wanted to note this column for future reference.

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