Government Snoops and Citizen Gossips

         To the consternation of civil libertarians, Congress has acceded to the demands of the Bush Administration and enacted changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that (according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation) “could radically expand the government's ability to spy on Americans without a warrant.”  Actually what’s at issue is not the government’s ability to spy on Americans without warrants but its legal authority to do so; the Bush Administration was apparently anxious to legalize the arguably illegal warrant-less surveillance program that has generated lawsuits and allegations of perjury by the Attorney General, among other embarrassments, since its partial exposure some two years ago.

        The changes to FISA are temporary (they’ll expire in six months,) but the same political considerations that resulted in their initial passage will likely ensure their renewal.  Still, even if Democrats find the courage (and integrity) to check the Administration’s authority to spy on us, even if the next president is not quite as imperial as our current incompetent-in-chief, pervasive surveillance seems an inevitable element of our future, just as privacy seems an element of the past.  You have to wonder how deeply many people will care.
        We may not all be exhibitionists, (although the Internet and reality tv demonstrate how much exhibitionism is flourishing,) but it’s hard to avoid becoming a voyeur.  Unless you confine your reading and viewing to, say, old movies and 19th century novels, you’re likely to know something about the dating and dietary habits of minor and major celebrities, at least.  It’s not just tabloids and celebrity rags that keep you abreast of what’s none of your business.  Read the New York Times, and you’ll find yourself eavesdropping on the personal musings of Wellesley College student Hillary Rodham, contained in her letters to a high school friend.

        The recent front page story describing Clinton’s letters quickly appeared on the Times’s most emailed list, not surprisingly.  Publish excerpts from the private letters of a public person, and few of us will refrain from reading them. I read them, I confess, even while criticizing their publication by the Times (nothing in the letters was newsworthy) and condemning Clinton’s pen pal, John Peavoy, for releasing them.  (The Times described him unconvincingly as living in “contented obscurity.”  Take a look at Peavoy’s picture in the paper: he appears to reside instead in contented notoriety, achieved only by betraying the confidences of a childhood friend.) 
        It’s not that we don’t value privacy – on occasion.  Even an exhibitionist has something to hide.  What we want (what I suspect exhibitionists want too) is the ability to define our own zones of privacy, by controlling our own information, by choosing what to reveal or conceal.  Many people who welcomed the publication of Clinton’s letters would wail if their private letters were published in the Times.  But when you applaud or simply countenance the violation of someone else’s privacy, you facilitate the violation of your own.  Privacy, like most liberties, either vests in all us, or, eventually, will vest in none.
    The republic will not fall or even teeter because the New York Times published Hillary Rodham’s private letters.  But (in addition to Democratic fear of being labelled soft on terrorism,) the cultural devaluation of privacy is part of the context for legal debates about surveillance.  Congress and the president may erect the legal framework for a surveillance society, but many of us have helped lay its foundation.

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