Throughout Privacy, Garret Keizer’s extended essay on the topic in an increasingly public world, the author confuses and conflates voluntary sharing with forced governmental action. “Does anything say so much about the times we live in as the fact that the word sharing has almost everything to do with personal information and almost nothing to do with personal wealth?” he wonders.
Of course, the two have nothing to do with each other. Choosing to share intimate details of your life with what amount to strangers—on Facebook or Twitter or message boards; with Amazon and Google and other online collators of data—bears no relation to redistributing wealth via taxation. One is done voluntarily; the other at the point of a gun.
Elsewhere, Keizer complains, “By law I am not permitted to know which of the foods at the supermarket have been genetically engineered.” Another, more accurate, way of writing that sentence would be the following: “The law does not require corporations to prominently display which of the foods at the supermarket have been genetically engineered.”
It is telling that Keizer finds forced redistribution pleasing and voluntary sharing appalling—that he finds the lack of a regulation on a corporation to be some massive violation of his own personal, private life.
Telling, but perhaps not surprising. As Keizer admits in his book, “my political beliefs . . . could be described as approximately socialistic, vacillating between social democracy and something in a deeper shade of red.” He later laments, “It is a sign of the times when a centrist like Obama is accused of fomenting class war!”
Like a good Marxist, Keizer argues that privacy is best understood through the prism of economics: It is something that the wealthy have access to and the poor strive for. As he puts it, “Were it not a good thing, the wealthier among us would not enjoy more of it than the less wealthy do.”
Is this even true? In the age of TMZ, Page Six, PerezHilton.com, and the president of the United States’ campaign listing wealthy enemies for the masses to rise up and attack, do the wealthy actually enjoy any more privacy than the rest of us? It is true they can purchase gates to live behind; but their Twitter feeds and Facebook notices are far more scrutinized than the rest of ours. Entertainers are hounded by paparazzi when they leave their homes; businessmen are hounded by journalists who demand to know why they’re spending their money to influence political races. Short of Salingerian reclusiveness, the wealthy live far more public lives.
Keizer’s myopia damages his arguments. In denouncing the press for publishing scandalous photos of private people in public situations—in one particular case, the nude photo of a woman who had escaped an attacker and was running to safety—Keizer fails to grapple with the real quandary at the heart of the matter: privacy versus freedom of the press.
Keizer is happy to read all sorts of meanings into the Constitution regarding privacy and the penumbras from whence it came. But when time comes to examining an actual right spelled out in the Constitution—such as the First Amendment’s admonition that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”—Keizer waffles. He refuses to wrestle with the tension between the freedom of the press and the freedom to remain out of the press, instead feeling comfortable to insist simply that the latter right must exist and that we’re all insane for failing to realize it.
Keizer returns to the cautionary tale of Tyler Clementi several times. A freshman at Rutgers, Clementi leapt to his death from the George Washington Bridge after learning that his roommate had spied on him having intimate relations with another man. The roommate was recently sentenced to serve jail time for his invasion of privacy.
The presumption running throughout Keizer’s invocations of Clementi is that he was “outed”: that no one could have known he was gay, that his roommate was in the dark, and that his parents could be scandalized by the revelation. But as Ian Parker convincingly demonstrated in the New Yorker, Clementi was not only “out” to his parents, but knew, by way of social media, that his roommate knew he was gay. He spent time chatting with strangers about his sexuality. He wondered online about what would happen if his roommate walked in on him, and declared, “I would just be like ‘screw it.’ ” Pace Keizer, Clementi wasn’t a victim of the age of public living so much as a creature of it.
Keizer seems less worried about government than corporate intrusion into our personal lives—1.3 million requests by the government for cell phone records of citizens is less a concern than Google targeting ads to keywords found in our Gmail accounts. Indeed, he links distrust of government to the overall decline in privacy: “What is far more significant is the way in which e-mail represents a simultaneous rejection of both privacy and public institutions, no big surprise to anyone conscious of their interdependence.”
Those who lived under the Stasi might have something to say about the “interdependence” of privacy and massive public institutions, but no matter. Suffice it to say that there are far worse things in the world than the proliferation of microtargeted advertisements.
Sonny Bunch is managing editor of the Washington Free Beacon.