Sunday, May 01, 2005


Kevin Drum makes the following observation about privacy:
There are two different senses in which people talk about "privacy" these days:
  • Privacy in the traditional Roe v. Wade or Lawrence v. Texas sense. That is, the right to be left alone to do what we want with our own bodies, as well as the right to be left alone to do what we want in our own bedrooms. Liberals are already comfortable with advocating privacy in this sense, but we do a lousy job of selling it as a general principle. Instead, we mostly approach it as a grab bag of specific issues like abortion rights, gay rights, the right to read and watch what we want, and so forth. As an overarching concept to sell to the masses, we don't do so well.

  • Then there's privacy in the sense of being free from surveillance. This is a newer concern, and revolves around corporate databases of personal information, identity theft, computer spyware, access to medical records, and government programs like Total Information Awareness and no-fly lists. This is a newer concern, and so far it's up for grabs by either party.

Liberals would be wise to start making these issues their own. The case for privacy definition #1 is obvious, since it's the cornerstone of several existing liberal hot buttons already. The case for privacy definition #2 is less obvious, but is more likely to be embraced by liberals than conservatives since it inherently embraces both corporate regulation as well as restrictions on the police power of the government.

This issue does indeed have the makings of a perfect wedge issue because there would be plenty of conservative support for individual privacy as protection from the invasions of #2. How likely any movement based on this idea would be to succeed, however, is difficult to say.

Consider something Giorgio Agamben wrote in the mid 1990s: “the spectacular-democratic world organization that is emerging actually runs the risk of being the worst tyranny that ever materialized in the history of humanity, against which resistance and dissent will be practically more and more difficult.” This claim seems less extreme in light of the reports regarding the August 2002 memo from White House counsel which “suggested that the president's commander-in-chief authorities meant that those acting at his direction would be immune from prosecution for torture. That memo drew on a January 2002 memo that suggested, over the opposition of the State Department's legal adviser, that the president could suspend the application of international protections for detainees.” Although the risk of tyranny has notable markers in recent history and is especially obvious in contemporary American politics, Agamben’s work as a whole offers a more extensive account—dare I say, a grand récit—of the pervasiveness of this nihilistic condition in which we find ourselves.

If we are indeed witnessing the crisis of the state-form, then the battle for privacy will be more than political. It will have to be revolutionary.


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