Article: 19930401053

Title: Alone in the Crowd

Alone in the Crowd
HMH Publishing Co., Inc.
Reader Discussion
an anthem to privacy
Geoffrey Norman

an anthem to privacy

In Vermont the room where I work is not far from the site of an old saloon--the historical-society types would call it a tavern--where Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys liked to pause for refreshment. Whipping up on the Tories was thirsty work. Righteous work, too. These men were among the first skirmishers in what would become the American Revolution.

There was a doctor who once gave Ethan tight jaws over something. In retribution, Allen and some of the boys tied the doctor into a chair and raised him up a signpost outside one of their favorit.... ah, lounges. They went inside for a beverage and left the doctor dangling there for two hours.

He was a great man, Ethan. Half crackpot--his writings have to be read to be believed--and half scoundrel, he was an American original and hero every bit as much as Thomas Jefferson or John Adams. One of the more remarkable things about him is that nobody knows for certain what he looked like. Obviously, he lived long before cameras, and no artist ever painted his portrait during his lifetime. The world never owned Ethan Allen--not even his likeness. He belonged to himself.

I like living in the hills where Ethan once lived. These woods aren't too far from Walden Pond, where Thoreau turned his back on the world, or too far from where Melville wrote Moby Dick. And these hills are close by where Robert Frost wrote his poems. New England is a place where people do good work in solitude. One of the first things a colonist did in the New World when he attained a measure of prosperity was add a room to his house--a room where he could be alone, where he could think or write or pray in private.

They had it right, those New Englanders. In solitude you come closest to what is true and eternal. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."

This might serve as a suitable definition of privacy: solitude in the midst of a crowd. Privacy isn't a matter of secrecy, it is a question of freedom. Affirming this core concept of privacy in 1928 was Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis' dissenting opinion in the wiretapping case Olmstead vs. United States. "The makers of our Constitution," wrote Brandeis, "recognized the significance of man's spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect.... They conferred, as against the government, the right to be let alone--the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men."

It would be nice to think that we all agree with Justice Brandeis, but the American soul is divided. The earliest assaults on the privacy of Americans in the name of something more important also took place in New England. Remember, Salem, Massachusetts is where the village elders hanged women who had balked at the prescribed religion.

The perennial American excuse for invading the privacy of others is not spiritual, though. It is sexual. The Puritans would not tolerate certain kinds of sexuality. Nathaniel Hawthorne was another author who worked in these hills, and his most enduring character is Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter. She was stigmatized as an adulteress by the moral gatekeepers of her town.

Nearly all the privacy cases heard by the Supreme Court have hinged on sexuality. You cannot enforce sexual taboos and also respect privacy. Just to know if a citizen is violating a law--regarding sodomy, birth control or any act that has at one time been declared illegal in America--requires a complete violation of privacy. Ronald Reagan's Supreme Court justice nominee, Robert Bork, was intellectually honest enough to concede this, and he came down against privacy.

If it is permissible to snoop into someone's bedroom, then, by comparison, checking his mailbox or tapping his phone seems tame. If you cannot expect privacy with your lover, why should you expect it in your accountant's office? And the right to privacy is obviously not going to stop an FBI agent from finding out who you talk to on the phone, or a direct marketer from knowing how much money you make.

During the recent presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton refused to respond to questions about her husband's alleged infidelity, claiming that candidates are entitled to a "zone of privacy" upon which the media should not intrude. Unfortunately, she asserted this on a special edition of 60 Minutes that was broadcast on Super Bowl Sunday. The choice of venue went a long way toward validating the media's curiosity. Later in the campaign, she even spoke on the record about George Bush's alleged infidelity, noting his Jennifer problem.

For a lot of people, privacy is merely a flag of convenience. Good for me but not for all those other people who are hiding awful things. Some who argue that people who are HIV-positive are entitled to special privacy endorse the USA Today story exposing that Arthur Ashe is infected, even though he did not want that fact made public. Some of the same gay-rights activists who insist that sexual preference is nobody's business endorse the outing of homosexuals who would rather stay in the closet. Opponents of Bork's appointment to the Supreme Court were distressed by his claim that there are no guarantees to privacy in the Constitution. But then one journalist searched the records of the video stores where Bork did business and wrote a tongue-in-cheek psychological profile based on Bork's taste in films. (Actually, Bork rented John Wayne movies.)

Those who invade the privacy of others can almost always make a good argument for what they do: The people have a right to know and to be protected. "The people" is an aggregate that somehow claims a higher virtue than personal privacy. Collectively, we think like those infuriating USA Tbday--style headlines: We want sterner measures to protect privacy. And, of course, the story below the headline is typically accompanied by bar graphs and statistics from the latest poll examining what we want. Reading one of those stories leaves me feeling like a member of some herd. Cattle and wildebeests have no privacy. Better to be a solitary lion or lone wolf. When you give up your privacy in the name of a higher good, you don't merely reduce your dignity, you make yourself vulnerable.

As I work on this essay, I look across my desk at a letter I received from a major New York publishing house whose books I occasionally review. Because I'm on their mailing list, I received a letter informing me that government regulations require the company to ask those it does business with if their businesses are woman-owned, minority-owned or a disadvantaged business concern. I told them the same thing I told the man from the census who came around and sat in my kitchen with his clipboard and wanted to know the ethnic makeup of my family: "None of your business."

Why not tell them? First, because it is the government, and they may get it wrong. If someone strokes the wrong computer key, that mistake will remain on the record approximately forever. Second, because the government does not use information benignly. During World War Two, without benefit of computers, the government rounded up members of one distinct minority of American citizens, the nisei, and threw them into concentration camps. This is only an example of a legal governmental action. Never mind the kind of illegal snooping committed by J. Edgar Hoover's minions at the FBI. Hoover kept hundreds of files on average and prominent Americans, detailing their sex lives. And one CIA anecdote tells of files on a foreign correspondent that were detailed enough to note that the journalist and Picasso once attended the same bullfight.

Bill Clinton's national health-care agenda would require more record-keeping and more scrutiny. During the campaign, however, Clinton refused to release his own medical records, and good for him. But his staff will be able to look at our records in the name of some collective good, such as holding down fraud.

We'll put up with it. Now and then somebody will kick up a fuss--about the search of Clinton's passport files, for instance--but the trend is always the same. Toward less privacy. Why?

Privacy is not measured in degrees--you either have it or you don't. The history of privacy in America is one of confusion. Having surrendered so often on sexual matters, Americans find it easy to give ground in other areas.

Obviously, we are numbed to the intrusions. Shopping requires a credit card, and a credit card requires a credit check. The government needs money, which means taxes, which means that the IRS is looking over our records. Businesses--especially the direct-marketing sorts--want to know more about us. As Oscar Wilde wrote, "Private information is practically the source of every large modern fortune."

Increasingly large parts of our lives are conducted electronically, and the trail is there for anyone interested in following the scent. Some people make a living that way.

Not many people have much practice at living and acting alone. It almost scares them. So they walk into an empty room and turn on the television and watch some shameless exhibitionist talk to Oprah about his sex life. Or they pick up a phone. To lots of people, hall is a room with no phone and no television. Noise doesn't bother them; silence is terrifying. They don't respect their neighbors' privacy because they don't value their own enough.

Robert Frost understood that good fences make good neighbors. The mythic American has always been what people like to call a loner, like the John Wayne characters the Borks enjoy watching in the privacy of their home. Or Natty Bumppo, the hero of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. Natty would not be owned. He was at home in the wilderness. Harmless if you left him alone, Bumppo was lethal if you did not.

His territory is not far from where I live, and I have walked some of the same hills trying to imagine the sense of nearly absolute liberation--the privacy that the philosopher Montaigne described as "our real liberty and our principal retreat." To surrender that for mere comfort seems like a bad trade. Yet we make such trades every day when we give up another portion of our privacy to some higher good.

Five years ago, I spent a week following Natty Bumppo's tracks. I was in the woods, and, other than my hunting companions, I did not see another human during that time. Once, when I climbed to the top of a high ridge and stood looking out over a valley pocked by sparkling beaver ponds, I was suddenly aware of the silence. No traffic sounds, no television sounds. Nothing but the steady moan of the wind and the distant honking of a flight of high, traveling Canada geese. I found out later that the stock market was crashing. But just then, nothing could touch me. I was Natty and Ethan, and nobody owned me.

I returned to my "real" life with new resolve. The next time somebody comes around my house with a clipboard and a questionnaire--even if he's an IRS agent--I will tie him into a chair and hoist him up a signpost. My flag will be the one with the coiled rattlesnake and the fundamental American war cry: "Don't tread on me."

Stephen Turk