Keizer takes on the ever-changing subject of privacy

Privacy, by Garret Keizer.  183 pages. Published by Picador, New York, New York.  $15.

copyright the Chronicle June 13, 2012

Reviewed by Tena Starr

In his latest book, Garrett Keizer of Sutton has taken on the complex and ever-changing subject of privacy.  Well, perhaps the fundamental nature of the subject hasn’t changed much, but the potential for its violation certainly has and likely will continue at an accelerating rate.  In the world of Facebook, Google, and, of course, the Patriot Act, privacy is increasingly rare — both by choice and by force.

“Government agencies and private corporations vie with each other to know the most about us — and sometimes join hands out of mutual interest, as Yahoo and Google have done in both the United States and China,” Mr. Keizer writes.  “Verizon alone receives 90,000 demands from law enforcement agencies every year.”

We all know about airport security, strip searches, racial profiling, and the increasingly sophisticated ways that corporate America uses to track our every interest for marketing purposes.  Mr. Keizer digs much deeper than that well plowed ground.

He asserts that privacy is both necessary to human dignity and to democracy.  And he says that, in a society where there is a widening gap between the wealthy and the have-littles, in a society where there’s also a shrinking amount of privacy, he sees a connection between the two.

“We tend to think of our right to privacy as a value that came about with the historical growth of the middle class,” he writes.  “If, as current indices of income suggest, the middle class is vanishing, then it should come as no surprise if the privacy of all but a few people is vanishing with it.”

He goes on to say that privacy is important because people are important — obvious statements, he admits.  “….though if they were that obvious, or universally believed, we would not be so easily resigned to losing our privacy and to watching so many of our fellow human beings falling further and further behind in health, in education, in political power, and in privacy.”

This is a dense, thoughtful, and deeply researched (the bibliography is 11 pages) little book that covers a lot of ground, makes one think, and explores a variety of aspects of the general theme, some more easily substantiated than others.

For instance, I’m not so sure the wealthy are subject to less privacy than the poor.  Surely, no one is so intent on crashing Jane Doe’s wedding as Angela Jolie’s.  But Mr. Keizer does give a nod to the reality of living rich and famous.  The camera, as it’s advanced, has contributed to a decline in privacy even for celebrities.  Once, a person had to stand still, implying some consent, to have a photo taken.  That’s no longer true, and celebrities, while presumably enjoying their celebrity and wanting to promote it, no longer have the control of their images that they might like.  Of course, nor do the rest of us — and without the benefits that come with fame and wealth.

“….giving a thorough introduction to privacy is not the same thing as giving it an airtight definition, a project I regard as both impossible and unwise,” Mr. Keizer writes.  “That’s not to say I won’t try for a tentative definition later in the book, or that I agree with a scholar who says, ‘Perhaps the most striking thing about privacy is that nobody seems to have any very clear idea of what it is.’”

The author believes that most of us do have a clear idea — “If not clear enough to define the word, then clear enough to express the need behind it.”

Mr. Keizer himself is a private man.  Here’s his own comment:  “‘You and your men friends should form a club,’ my daughter once said to me when she was still a child.  ‘You’d have only one meeting a year and all of you would refuse to attend it.’”

In this book he says a friendship was jeopardized because a longtime friend shared some of his (Mr. Keizer’s) letters with other friends without asking permission.  He scanned the paper letters and e-mailed them.  The friend seemed more baffled by, than defensive about, Mr. Keizer’s reaction, perhaps not surprising in this age of Facebook when some people share the tedious to the most intimate with hundreds of so-called “friends,” sometimes people they do not even know.

But Mr. Keizer spends relatively little time on today’s technology and social media.  Instead, he examines privacy as a political and personal right — what it is, how various cultures (some that live in far more communal societies than America’s) assert it, and what role it plays in both society and government.

He notes that the word “privacy” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution.  In fact, we were well into the twentieth century before it was articulated as a right, notably in the Fourth Amendment, which is aimed at protecting Americans from unreasonable search and seizure.

It’s not the Constitution that’s being subverted by Big Brother so much as the will to resist, without which there would not have been a constitution in the first place, Mr. Keizer says.  “Privacy can be viewed as resistance in its most primal form,” he writes.  Where pacifism is the goal of power, privacy is reduced as much as possible.

This is an important idea.  A people with no privacy are a more easily subjugated people, and stripping away privacy diminishes democracy.   “Americans speak of their system of government as one of checks and balances, but the ultimate check on government as a whole is its inability to know everything about those it governs,” Mr. Keizer says.

“We have a tendency to think of privacy too much in terms of solitude, although solitude is a part of it.  In the darkness of solitude the seeds of genius are able to germinate; we need only think of the number of religious and political movements that began with their founders in retreat, in the wilderness.”

Privacy is about freedom from interference, Mr. Keizer says.  But it’s also about the freedom to form a “collective individuality,” a political or social movement.

“Small social units and solitude continue to be important even when a body politic is fully formed, especially if its body type is democratic.  Privacy provides a zone of reflection and discussion in which gentler, less forward personalities can have some hope of making a contribution.  It gives temporary asylum to those who know themselves to be impressionable, a space to regroup and get their bearings.”

One need only think for a moment of the tone of so much of today’s media with all its frenzy, people shouting over one another, its intrusiveness, and hyper-partisanship to yearn for that zone of reflection and discussion Mr. Keizer mentions.

This is a book to be read slowly, thoughtfully, and probably more than once.  Mr. Keizer offers much to digest, although no clear remedy, except perhaps, the very concern and reflection that would lead one to read this book in the first place.

contact Tena Starr at tena@bartonchronicle.com

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Stand Against the Wind tells wind protesters’ stories

Stand Against the Wind:  Civil Disobedience in the Green Mountain State by Chris Braithwaite, Chronicle Inc., Barton, Vermont.  2012, 110 pages, softcover, $19.95.

Reviewed by Julia Shipley

copyright the chronicle May 23, 2012

No matter where you stand on the issue of installing 21 commercial wind turbines atop the Lowell mountains in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, whether you bristle and grieve or feel triumphant or resigned, whether you live here, in Orleans County, or in Atlanta, Georgia, whether you have been doggedly following news of the mountain occupancy or whether you feel exhausted at the very mention of the word “issue,”— whomever you are, you might find an endangered pleasure in this new book, Stand Against the Wind by the Chronicle’s co-founder and publisher, Chris Braithwaite. Those pleasures include both a textbook example of old school, shoe leather journalism built of substantiated assertions and meticulous reporting and the smithing of that information into about 2,000 utterly gorgeous sentences. One right after the other, his narrative travels in boxcars of strong, clear prose driving each of the book’s 27 chapters, and making a collective portrait of civil disobedience committed by six individuals.

The book begins with a symbolic and actual dividing line on top of Lowell Mountain.  As Braithwaite analyzes what the actual plastic tape-line divides, his litany of things divided, and the disparities presented, culminate in this lovely sentence:  The bright orange tape is a line “between a place that is so high, so cussedly strewn with deadfalls and moose shit that nobody goes there except to hunt and hike, each winter for many years to enjoy the near-wilderness experience of camping in the snow; and a mountain so convenient that a guy can drive his pickup to the top just to check the oil on a multimillion dollar machine.”

This first editorial chapter (originally published in the Chronicle) invites us to “risk feeling that you are being torn in two…up where the blasting will soon begin.”

For those of us who did not accept that invitation, the Chronicle has consistently covered the issue for months, and even years.

Although the book encompasses some key events leading up to the commencement of Green Mountain Power’s project to install industrial wind towers on one of Vermont’s northernmost ridgelines, what Braithwaite calls “a wonderful sort of nowhere, ” the book takes for its subject the actions of some concerned citizens to stop it from happening. Like a club sandwich, the book is not just lettuce and cheese, the names and the dates, the he said, and she said. There are other layers interspersed, and the meat of this feast is really found in the in-depth profiles of a half dozen protestors, whom we meet one at a time, the six people most consistently involved with using “direct action.”

“Who cares?” and “Why do they care?” But more importantly: “How do they care?” — this exploration of what care-in-action looks like, of how to gracefully express distress is certainly pertinent to everyone. For even industrial wind tower proponents surely have, at one time in their life, experienced a feeling of powerlessness against a larger force usurping and/or annihilating, something they love.

Stand Against the Wind introduces us to these complicated, intelligent, thoughtful, people, who resist the paralysis of despair and flex that constitutional right we’ve all been guaranteed: the right to express our dissent.

As we learn in the fourth chapter, this expression is first modeled by Anne Morse, who explains to Braithwaite, “The point isn’t getting arrested. The point is the direct action that leads to the arrest. I think that it highlights the problem… people coming together collectively to highlight something that’s happening that’s wrong.”

Subsequent chapters feature profiles on Dr. Ron Holland, Eric Wallace-Senft, David Rodgers, Suzanna Jones, and Ryan Gillard. These interviews feel intimate, as Braithwaite allows each person to articulate the life circumstances and experiences that informed their actions on the Lowell Mountains. Their testimony is so unadulterated, it’s as if we’ve been given access to the inner thoughts, to their minds shifting, reorganizing, each building to his or her own truth. Whereas David Rodgers comes to his decision to protest thorough an increasing urgency realized in an intuitive way, confessing “It’s not something I did methodically, it was more a sense that I need to take a stand,” for Dr. Ron Holland the route to civil disobedience was incredibly logical. His focus was the policy debate. “It’s my sense if this could be put out in a quantitative kind of way — which it can, and it hasn’t been — it would be fully obvious. ”
Although a full disclosure of the links and liaisons I have to the people within this book would supplant the space needed for this review, one disclosure seems too relevant to omit:  On November 2, 2009, almost three full years before the first dynamite charges were detonated, I sent an e-mail to Mr. Braithwaite (who, by dint of having published the Chronicle for the past 38 years is the dean of my de facto journalism school — meaning: I study his work intensely).  In the e-mail I asked, “How do you train in objectivity? You must have an opinion on some of the things you report because: these things will affect you. The Wind Towers? If you’re feeling strongly do you suppress your opinion when writing the article but blurt it out in a once in a blue moon editorial?

Mr. Braithwaite replied tersely (but gamely) the next day with, “Proposed experiment: Read the page 1 story about Lowell wind [Wind friends, foes focus on Lowell Mt. by Chris Braithwaite November 4, 2009], then decide whether the Chronicle favors or opposes wind power in general. Then read the editorial. Did you get it right?”

I deduced, by analyzing every word, examining ratios of which perspectives got more column inches and observing that wind tower proponents got to have the last word, that probably: “Braithwaite wants big wind.” (Obviously, I won’t be graduating from my self- invented J-school at the top of my class.)

Braithwaite further explained, “the reporter’s job is to understand the interests involved and lay them out coherently, like a good sports writer advancing a world series game. You can’t do that well if you let your misguided affection for the Yankees color your assessment… so you learn not to.”

This occupational hazard is tackled again in his book. Much as the footing up to the mountaintops is moose-shit slick and tricky, so Braithwaite also admits to coming “dangerously close” to slipping over the thin partition and being a protestor. Though he accepts the cup of coffee brewed by some of the mountain occupiers, a steaming cup which he describes as a “shocking luxury” on that chilly morning, he refrains from civil disobedience, realizing he cannot report on the protest if he joins them by bending over to make a cairn of the blasted rubble or carry a handful of soil to a freshly planted sapling. And though he jokes in another chapter about the sacrifices his job demands (in particular, how a bout of extended reporting kept him from fully participating in a deer camp getaway), I feel it necessary to point out that for the readers, having a newspaper like the Chronicle at all is a shocking luxury. And that Braithwaite’s actual sacrifice to forgo his expression of civil disobedience has yielded us his newspaper’s ongoing coverage of the commercial wind project, a true boon being as we live too far beyond the radar to merit extensive coverage from other media outlets.

In the book’s introduction, Braithwaite acknowledges that he is damn glad he has postponed retirement to cover what he calls “one of the best” stories in his nearly 50-year career. However, lest we take something seemingly rock solid, enduring and readily available week after week, year after year, like the familiar silhouette of the Lowells themselves for granted, I [editorial comment approaching] believe this book, along with the coverage the Chronicle has provided, are as welcome and revitalizing as a strong cup of coffee on a cold morning in the newly blasted landscape.

Stand Against the Wind will be available soon at the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Green Mountain Books and Prints in Lyndonville, Woodknot Bookshop in Newport, and at the Chronicle office in Barton. The book can be ordered now at: www.createspace.com/3869681.  Julia Shipley is the author of a poetry column about Vermont poems called “It could be Verse,” and she was the 2006 winner of the Ralph Nading Hill Award sponsored by Green Mountain Power, for which she received a cash prize of $1,500. She can be reached at her website:  Writingonthefarm.com.

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An intimate drink with a literate coyote: Perimeter Check II

Perimeter Check II, Tales from Vermont’s Upper Kingdom, by Paul Lefebvre.  Published by Beck Pond Books.  187 pages.  $14.95.
Reviewed by Julia Shipley
copyright the Chronicle February 23, 2011
Fans of Paul Lefebvre’s know how his weekly column for this newspaper, Perimeter Check, is delivered like an intimate mutter, as if you’d dared yourself to climb on the barstool next him as he was ten minutes into his second whisky, and he had deigned to pretend you were a pretty good friend.
First conceived in 1999, Perimeter Check has appeared on a weekly basis in the Chronicle for almost 12 years.  As co-editor of the Chronicle, Bethany Dunbar acknowledged, “He’s always pretty easy to find on Mondays — he’s home writing his column.”
Mr. Lefebvre’s first book of columns, aptly titled, Perimeter Check, debuted in 2008.  This second collection, Perimeter Check II:  Tales from Vermont’s Upper Kingdom, gathers together more of these prize-winning episodes, as his column has won four first-place awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association since 2004.
In offering an explanation for the title and content of these 1,200-word dispatches, Mr. Lefebvre states in the introduction, “No one is sure what he will find by picking at the edges.  But it is at the edges where I have found a life. Small truths sometimes grow into a larger one, and I would like to believe the columns in this collection are keepers of little truths.”
Edges, as ecologists know, are places rich in biological activity; one of my favorite poets, a psychologist by training, asserts that, “Truth appears only at the borders,” and once, seated with a group around a campfire in a wilderness area in Arizona, I watched a coyote skirt our circle, trotting the perimeter where the flickering light of our campfire met the deep blue shadows.  In this manner, Mr. Lefebvre is like a literate coyote, whose beat is the place where two zones converge.
His column of November 21, 2007, takes for its beginning the phenomenon of in-between seasons, “when one season is not quite over and another flirts with beginning.”  His sentences are so unpretentiously smart and beautiful: “Dwellers of the Upper and Lower Kingdom alike will undoubtedly agree that when it comes to the space between winter and fall, all of us are living between a hope and a fantasy — etched indelibly in those lines where the snug hat meets the creases in the brow:  Maybe I’ve got enough wood to last the winter; maybe it’s my year to get that ten-pointer.”
His columns relate stories that are scrounged, befitting of a coyote’s luck and cunning, from his rambles around the state’s least populated counties.  As in his column from October 17, 2007, which describes his willingness to “make do with whatever is at hand.  From wearing a dead man’s clothes to picking up discarded wooden guardrails and splitting them lengthwise to use as bridge planks….” He calls it “back road conservation,” this act of browsing and selecting from the discards and blow-aways of the byways.
It seems this same kind of beachcombing ethic directs the way his column accrues: It can begin with a letter from the State Police about his reported stolen guns.  Or it might start out as a note to self:  “Never trust a car that has sat for two months in the winter without being driven.”  Sometimes a simple change in the length of daylight kicks off a riff that leads to a review of Chief’s horseradish and closes down with a roofing job finished in the chilly rain.
In My Antonia, a classic novel by Willa Cather, the narrator, speaking from the early twentieth century, tells us of his college studies, learning, ‘Primus ego in patriam mecum…deducam Musas means “for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.”  He goes on to explain how his professor clarifies that the word “patria” didn’t mean nation, “but the little rural neighborhood on the Mincio where the poet was born.”
This was not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains), not to the capital, the palatia Romana, but to his own little “country,” to his father’s fields, “sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.”
When Mr. Lefebvre writes from his little rural neighborhood, telling us of the Great Piano Shootout at Mad Brook, recounting past basketball games as he waits for a truck loaded with firewood to find his driveway, or making another escape to camp, it seems there is a carefully meted out, lonely-proud howl rising out of these pages.
Masters of narrative say there are only two fundamental stories:  A man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. Somehow, each week, Paul Lefebvre finds a fusion of those archetypes, sending his readers a letter from a place where the dirt road meets the main road, “between church and religion; between marriage and love; and even between hill and town,” as he says in a column titled, “A People of In-Between.”
In this manner, simultaneously bold and devoutly humble, bent over his computer in Newark, Vermont, on most every Monday, Mr. Lefebvre escorts the Muse as he stands with one paw inside, one paw outside, straddling the perimeter, the rogue poet-King of the Upper Kingdom.
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