No More Privacy–And We Don’t Care

Barchester Towers

illus. from Antony Trollope, “Barchester Towers”

I like the way that the always lively Frank Rich of New York Magazine recently cited 19th century American classics while figuring out why people haven’t been more upset that the National Security Agency is tracking American phone calls. While the story has upset a number of people on the left and right, including me, Rich notes that most of the country has been underwhelmed by the story:

Only 36 percent of the country felt that government snooping had “gone too far,” according to CBS News. A Pew–Washington Post survey found that 62 percent (including 69 percent of Democrats) deemed fighting terrorism a higher priority than protecting privacy. Most telling was a National Journal survey conducted days before the NSA stories broke: Some 85 percent of Americans assumed that their “communications history, like phone calls, e-mails, and Internet use,” was “available for businesses, government, individuals, and other groups to access” without their consent. No wonder the bombshell landed with a thud, rather than as a shock. What was the news except that a 29-year-old high-school dropout was making monkeys of the authorities with a bravado to rival Clyde Barrow?

Rich believes that the reaction is proof that America has a far different view of privacy now that it did a hundred and fifty years ago:

R.I.P. the contemplative America of Thoreau and of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, who “would prefer not to”; this is the America that prefers to be out there, prizing networking, exhibitionism, and fame more than privacy, introspection, and solitude. And while it would be uplifting to believe that Americans are willing to sacrifice privacy for the sole good of foiling Al Qaeda, that’s hardly the case. Other motives include such quotidian imperatives as ­shopping, hooking up, seeking instant entertainment and information, and finding the fastest car route—not to mention being liked (or at least “liked”) and followed by as many friends (or “friends”) and strangers as possible, whether online or on basic cable. In a society where economic advancement is stagnant for all but those at the top, a public profile is the one democratic currency most everyone can still afford and aspire to—an indicator of status, not something to be embarrassed about. According to the Pew-Post poll, a majority of Americans under 50 paid little attention to the NSA story at all, perhaps because they found the very notion of fearing a privacy breach anachronistic.

In his article, Rich tracks a trajectory from early 1960s, when cracks began to open (Candid Camera is an example) to today’s reality television.

I think he’s right and our different notions certainly change the way we regard novels from earlier eras. I wonder if Jane Austen hasn’t become wildly popular in part because we, who live in a chaotic postmodern world, find ourselves nostalgic for her society’s sense of privacy. Darcy and Elizabeth have to discover almost by accident what the other is thinking.

To be sure, there are advantages to our more open society. I’m currently reading Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers and am in the midst of a misunderstanding that would be cleared up in an instant if people were as revelatory about their private feelings as they are today. The father, sister and brother-in-law of a young widow think that she’s about to make a catastrophic marriage and are trying, in their elliptical way, to get her to desist. She, meanwhile, has no intention of entering such a marriage—she dislikes the man almost as much as they do—but because it is a society where people cannot be direct, a huge row ensues. I don’t yet know how the affair will be settled and will report back. I fear there will be consequences that cannot be undone.

Of course, our more open society doesn’t mean that we ourselves avoid unpleasant relationships, and seemingly open communication can be deceptive. If anything, language has become even more slippery. There’s something attractive about having clear rules about what can and cannot be talked about, even if they feel suffocating at times.

Incidentally, I have to say that Trollope, who I am reading for the first time in my life, is a joy. He’s positively Jane Austesque at times and several times I have found myself laughing out loud.

On a related note, while at my parents I read a fascinating account of James Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson (Adam Sisman’s Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Johnson). The world’s most famous biography revolutionized the genre in the way it revealed the private aspects of a man’s life.

All readers were riveted and many were appalled at how Boswell recounted confidential conversations and the warts of a great man. If he wanted, Frank Rich could take his trajectory all the way back to Boswell’s biography.

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