‘If we accept that privacy is at the core of freedom, then it’s clear we are rapidly moving away from, not toward freedom’
If the Bill of Rights had never been tacked onto the US Constitution back in September 1789, Americans would have been ruled by a landed gentry, presided over by a titular monarchist, and governance would have principally consisted of protecting business interests, copyrights and trademarks.
There’d be no link between taxation and federal policy; popular representation in Congress would be meaningless, since simple secretive Executive orders could over-ride the most exhaustive processes of lawmakers. Trade agreements would be reached head-to-head, with no input from anybody’s noisy peoples.
By declaring a universal existential threat the president could keep the country in a state of war, soft martial law in play, the commander-in-chief in charge; there’d be no protected liberties — no privacy, no press probes, no dissent — beyond lip-service jingo-ism (and lip-service would be banned throughout the Winn Dixie South).
But, oh, what a difference 225 years makes, right? Let them eat iPhones.
Of all the “inalienable” rights to be conferred (of course), the right to privacy has existential primacy. Without it we cannot be at all, in the ordinary sense of processing the ever-shifting phenomena of consciousness and its gyro-orienting relations to all that molecular stuff out there.
In other words, you should be free to ponder why that honeybee dances with wings in the sun that way, or ask yourself how it is Mrs. McGillicutty has learned to hyper-hiccup in hip-hop syncopation, or wonder why every decent economic system gets ruined by a few Alien-like predators who’ve peed in the pudding they shorted an hour before.
In short, you should be able to pursue, even if only in your own mind, scientific scrutiny, artistic design, and political pudding proofs. Descartes might never have had his cogito moment, if the audacity of being consciously were regarded as an act of terrorism.
Nearly 100 years after the adoption of the Bill of Rights, lawyers Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis penned “The Right to Privacy” (1890) for the Harvard Law Review, one of the most eloquent legal explications yet written of this essential need.
Noting the advancement of civilization, as evidenced in its structures and technologies, Warren and Brandeis describe what happens when we objectify an Other, stripping them of authenticity and mining their subjective being in order to have fun with the narrative structure of their life, we corrode and set into motion the destruction of our own hard-earned civility. As the pair cogently put it,
“The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury.”
Though these sentiments initially reflect growing resistance to the slander, libeling and gossip-pushing of the early American press, they are certainly words that still ring true today in our speed-of-light globalized world, where a person’s character and their privacy can be destroyed by some keystroking sadist who fancies himself some drone pilot armed with loaded words as weapons.
Recall that Edward Snowden’s primary motivation for collecting and disseminating the NSA’s how-to manuals on State omniscience and omnipresence was, as he said, “I don’t want to live in a society that does these kinds of things,” which echoes and reiterates what Julian Assange, and many other hacktivists, activists and any number of switched-on citizens, have been raising the alarm about.
But so far there has been no critical mass movement toward a tipping point for change, even though it is clear that such global surveillance and democracy are not compatible. It is as if Paul Revere hollered from the North Church, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” and fat patriots with apnea just rolled over and went on snoring.
However, we are beginning to see attempts to change the status quo. A couple of months ago, New Zealand’s Nationalist party leader John Key was up for re-election as Prime Minister. Just days before the election, a group of superstar activists — Kim Dotcom, Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange — converged on Auckland, physically and digitally, and tried to raise Kiwi consciousness about the prime minister’s deception and dishonesty.
Key had sworn to the Almighty that he wasn’t spying on his own people, that Kiwis had nothing to fear, that New Zealand was just a listening post for Uncle Sam.
But, in a Moment of Truth, Snowden and Greenwald proved, live, that Key was lying, by revealing NSA documentation that said otherwise. Snowden, as he does so well, succinctly summed up what should come as the result of such a revelation:
“Maybe people want to say, ‘I’m okay with surveillance. I’m concerned about terrorism. I’m concerned about foreign threats.’ We can have people in every country make that decision because that’s self-government — that’s what democracy’s about, but that decision doesn’t belong to … officials, making decisions behind closed doors, without public debate, without public consent. That decision belongs exclusively to the people.”
But in a move reminiscent of the New York Times’ quashing, just before the 2004 presidential election, of a crucial story about the NSA’s illegal wiretapping on Americans, New Zealand newspapers refused to follow up on Key’s likely treasonous lies, and supposedly he won re-election in a landslide (although, any national elections anywhere that involve key US interests will be suspect after the fraudulent US election of 2000 that handed Bush the throne).
A few weeks ago, in his TED Talk, Glenn Greenwald argued that one result of such pervasive global surveillance is that people will become hyper self-conscious about their behavior and suppress their real feelings and thoughts to avoid any risk of criminalization. Which, of course, is another way of saying that the act of such personalized surveillance in itself makes privacy a criminal act.
However, I would add that just as critically (or, at least, another way of seeing it) is that artists, dissidents, and fearless individualists will, by this system, be more easily identified as the natural threats to such systems of suppression, because they will always be refuseniks and, consequently, easier for the state to destroy.
Indeed, in their fear of the digital deus in machina, most people will become foot soldiers and spies for the Man, just as they always do in totalitarian situations. (Word is, the US Department of Homeland Security actually recruited ex-Stasi agents to help set up the system architecture.)
Creativity and imagination can seem treasonous to societies of the repressed and conservative, who always lean on the black-and-white of moral authority to make up for their lack of imagination, fear of alterity, and general attraction to the fetish and the fascistic.
If we accept that privacy is at the core of freedom, then it’s clear we are rapidly moving away from, not toward freedom. As Erich Fromm wrote with such amazing prescience back in 1942 in Fear of Freedom, when our grounding is traumatically shaken, our certainty set adrift, humans have a tendency to enter into a sado-masochistic relationship with power, leading us to enjoy, or, at best, ignore the suffering of others. He writes,
“We find three kinds of sadistic tendencies, more or less closely knit together. One is to make others dependent on oneself and to have absolute and unrestricted power over them, so as to make of them nothing but instruments, ‘clay in the potter’s hand’. Another consists of the impulse not only to rule over others in this absolute fashion, but to exploit them, to use them, to steal from them, to disembowel them, and, so to speak, to incorporate anything eatable in them. This desire can refer to material things as well as to immaterial ones, such as the emotional or intellectual qualities a person has to offer. A third kind of sadistic tendency is the wish to make others suffer or to see them suffer. This suffering can be physical, but more often it is mental suffering. Its aim is to hurt actively, to humiliate, embarrass others, or to see them in embarrassing and humiliating situations.”
There is still time to change things (and I say that as a committed cynic), although more catastrophe may be necessary first, as it always seems to be in human affairs. Way too many people still cling to the tragic delusion that we can save the democratic republican experiment around the globe with mere reform (and, hmph, this time we really mean it!). That was an iceberg that plunked the Titanic, not an ice cube.
Back in 1789, the very first amendment to the US constitution that the anti-Federalist James Madison proposed was: “That the people have an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform or change their government, whenever it be found adverse or inadequate to the purposes of its institution.”
With an Executive that deems itself above common law, a corrupt and intransigent Congress, and a Judiciary willing to help throw a national election, as well as the clear and apparent descent into the maelstrom and maws of psychopathic capitalism at work to keep its head above the quicksand, even if it means pulling down with it the very framework of civilization, it’s time to chase the PNACkers and assorted Deep State wolves back into the howling wilderness of clashing symbols. Expecting the sinking ship of state to right itself is a tragic flaw. And we know how tragedies end.