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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