Private Government, Public Citizens 

The bottom-to-top transfer of secrecy

NEW YORK--Bob woke up so hung over from last night's orgy that the only way he could get right was to snort a little coke. Next he downloaded some senior sex porn, caught the latest jihadi agitprop at his favorite al-Qaeda Web sites and zipped through a school zone doing 100 in his unregistered, uninsured car. Bob leads a lifestyle that you'd assume would make him a fierce advocate of privacy rights. But it's possible to imagine a society in which Bob wouldn't need to keep anything secret.

Privacy advocates point to gays and political dissidents when asked to justify the importance of anonymity on the Internet. Civil libertarians say that freedom from unreasonable searches prevents America from becoming a police state. Yet these examples demonstrate an unintended and rarely discussed consequence of the privacy rights movement: Privacy enables oppression by promoting social stigmas.

What if Bob's neighbors, friends and colleagues were sexually nonjudgmental? He could hook up with anyone he wanted to without fear of reprisal. Bob needn't worry about the police searching his car, if drugs were legal. If Bob lived in a nondysfunctional political environment whose popular and self-confident government and citizens chose not to fear but to embrace dissent as an essential part of constructive discourse, no one would consider the books he borrowed from the library "subversive." He would have no more reason to care about the USA Patriot Act than his government would have to use it to examine his library records.

Draconian drug laws, neo-Puritan views of sex and political intolerance are forms of social and legal disapproval that create scapegoats, hermits and fugitives. Consider, for example, the closeted gay man. Fearing the opprobrium of family and coworkers and (in some states) the police, his sole consolation is his belief that his "M4M" Web posts will stay between him and his Internet service provider. In communities where large numbers of gays refuse to limit their public appearances to leather bars on the bad side of town, and increasingly step forward, other people are forced to recognize their behavior as not aberrant, and for a significant portion of the population (between 3 and 6 percent for American men, somewhat lower among women), is not uncommon and even quite normal. Their gayness becomes more widely accepted. Were the violators of other social and legal norms to refuse to hide their activities, their nonconformity would similarly be normalized.

Naturally, these musings on the perverse relationship between privacy rights and oppression ignore some harsh realities. First, tribalism is a hard-wired human survival mechanism that is difficult to re-route. We are reflexively drawn to the similar and repulsed by the anomalous and the other. Second, before discriminated-upon social segments like homosexuals can summon the courage to make their presence public, they must first find comfort in the anonymity of life underground. Finally, history shows that even relatively egalitarian and nonjudgmental societies can regress into willful intolerance. In those places privacy rights must be preserved precisely because one never knows what viciousness the future will bring.

After a few brief decades of social progress, the United States has lurched back into the dark ages of torture, concentration camps and police harassment of its scapegoats and undesirables--current members: Muslims, blacks, gays, leftists. The result has been to remind us why the right to be left alone in our homes, cars and e-mail is still necessary.

A grand irony is that individuals, who need more protection than ever thanks to the ease of information access and transfer in the electronic era, are losing what few privacy rights they have to government officials who, despite drawing salaries from us taxpayers, are acting increasingly secretive. Even as Congress approved the once unthinkable renewal of the Patriot Act's "library provision," which grants government spooks access to your business records, medical files, purchase records and library borrowings, an Associated Press survey found that "states have steadily limited the public's access to government information since the 9/11 terrorist attacks."

They even used that excuse to "disappear" prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp. "Personal information on detainees was withheld solely to protect detainee privacy and for their own security," claimed Lieutenant Commander Chito Peppler of the Department of Defense, saying that disclosure "could result in retribution or harm to the detainees or their families." The real "harm" from disclosure would come to the United States, when their families learned that their loved ones were being brutalized.

With government officials like that, it's easy to see why some of us still have to sneak around.

POSTSCRIPT: Last week's column should have referenced a call supposedly placed by Mark Bingham, a passenger on United Flight 93, the hijacked 9/11 flight that crashed in Pennsylvania, to his mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. "Hi, Mom," government officials claimed that he said, "This is Mark Bingham. I want to let you know that I love you, and I'm--I'm flying and--I'm in the air." Who identifies himself by their surname to their mother? Hi, Mom, it's me. Hi, Mom, it's Mark. Mainstream media speculated that his odd formality revealed the stress he was under. Others doubt that the call was placed by Bingham or, for that matter, a passenger on Flight 93.

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