Privacy

Of the myriad people, things, and ideas that have come under assault during the last eight years we should not forget about privacy, which took a consistently harsh beating at the hands of the Bush administration. Remember finding out that back in 2002—in secret, ironically enough—the President authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on communication originating within the United States. With cooperation from giants of the industry, the NSA monitored the phone calls of hundreds and probably thousands of citizens, without ever having had to show due cause for doing so.

More recently, it came to light that the NSA has been eavesdropping on phone calls coming into the United States from points beyond its border. This practice, apparently, has even been applied to phone calls placed by members of the US military serving overseas to friends and family back home—and therein some particularly salacious stories about so-called “operators” at the NSA circulating snippets of phone sex, gathering out back to smoke cigarettes and hash over the pornographic details. News of this hornball eavesdropping was spread by a couple of former NSA operators who, in a deliciously Freudian twist, felt so guilty about the pleasure they’d taken in others’ pleasure that they ended up blowing the whistle on the whole operation.

The attacks on privacy were not, of course, exclusively confined to the arena of telecommunications. Just this past summer, for instance, the “border exception” to the Fourth Amendment—the one that prohibits unreasonable searches, but does not apply to suitcases and satchels at border checkpoints—was extended to include electronic devices, such as cell phones, cameras, and laptops. Without having to show due cause, border agents are now suddenly permitted to search the pictures, text messages, and computer files of travelers, American citizens or otherwise, entering the United States. Or consider this one: in what can only be an almost nostalgic nod to the sinister visions we once had of our future now that that future has finally arrived, the Department of Homeland Security moved, in the summer of 2007, to broaden its use of picture-taking satellites, capable of penetrating even heavy cloud cover to, from space, snap crisp close-ups of people on the ground. Smile!


The Bush administration and its supporters argued all along that, insofar as the expansion of the federal government’s powers to search, eavesdrop, and spy were directed toward protecting the United States from threats, those who did not pose a threat to the United States—those, they were fond of saying, who were “not doing anything wrong”—had no reason to be concerned. And, of course, they were right. Not only did those who were “not doing anything wrong” not have anything to worry about, but in reality those of us who were doing little things wrong—most of us, in final analysis—like downloading pirated music or pornography from the Internet, firing up the occasional joint, or splitting the neighbor’s cable line, didn’t really have anything to worry about, either. The Bush administration was not concerned with our petty infractions and minor subversions—from the beginning it had bigger fish to fry.

All the same, we who were never the subject of the government’s systematic assault on privacy lost something as a result of it. Our belief in the sanctity of the distinction between public and private pointed, perhaps, to a still more crucial faith: a faith in the distinction between inside and outside, between in here and out there—perhaps, at bottom, a faith in the very distinction between self and other without which, both individually and collectively, we might very well cease to exist. We did not quite cease to exist, over the last eight years, but each time the interior was turned inside out, becoming just another exterior, our existence grew more fragile, more precarious, more uncertain. One by one, and all at once, we found ourselves slipping away from ourselves.


It is with that in mind that it seems worth nothing, now that it is over, how throughout his marathon campaign Barack Obama managed to manifest a number of moments of radical privacy that, it seemed, had nothing at all to do with escaping the glare of the spotlight, nothing at all to do with not being seen or heard or otherwise captured—something that would likely have been detrimental to his campaign, and surely impossible in any event.

The first such moment that caught my attention came after Obama’s June speech in which he proclaimed victory in the Democratic primary. When his wife Michelle came onto the stage to greet him, before the expected and conventional conjugal embrace, the two touched fists. That fist bump, although perfectly familiar to anybody who watches sports or is under the age of 50, was a private language—the kind of secret code languages children invent together—distinct from the very public language of the embrace that followed, evoking a deep mutuality. Conservative pundits squawked about it being hoodlum, or ghetto (too black), or a “terrorist fist bump,” but one had the impression that what so infuriated them was its far more profound inaccessibility—not for cultural or semantic reasons but because it was so utterly between the two of them, the Obamas, that it seemed to constitute its own space, impenetrable as much by the public that bore witness to it as by the media whose job it was to broadcast it.

The second such moment came on the final night of the campaign, less than twenty-four hours after the candidate’s grandmother had died of cancer in Hawaii. That night, in battleground North Carolina, he mentioned what everyone there knew. “She is gone home,” he said, preacher-like (is, rather than has), and then he talked a bit about her, artfully (but also rather transparently) weaving her narrative into his stump speech, finishing up by describing her as one of the “quiet heroes” on behalf of whom he had waged his campaign. As he spoke, a tear rolled down his cheek. But the most amazing thing, watching video of the speech, is how he talks about his now dead grandmother in that moment, with literally tens of thousands of people watching and listening—not only talk about her but make her a part of the campaign speech those people had come to see, make her a talking point, a basis for argument—and yet somehow, in spite of it, remains utterly alone in his grief. Even the photographs seem less a point of access to that grief than a sort of boundary beyond which we cannot pass in our efforts to approach it.

There were many such moments, I think, throughout the campaign, but the last, fittingly enough, came when it was over, and once more between the no-longer-candidate and his wife. After Obama delivered his victory speech in Grant Park in Chicago, and after Joe Biden came out to greet him, and the families of both came out to celebrate with them, there was a moment when only Obama and his wife remained on the stage. They embraced, and before they kissed they touched noses, and one knew not whether it was accidental, capricious, or a kind of shared ritual, a way of marking that kiss as between only them. “I love you,” Michelle, the wife, said to the husband, just elected president, with hundreds of thousands of people there in the park and perhaps a hundred million or more watching the close-up on television, and yet what was unmistakable was that she did not say it to us and she did not say it for us—that it was not a public declaration of love, in spite of the hundred million people or more looking on, but instead a private affirmation.

And I suppose that’s just the thing—that of all of the ways in which Obama managed to capture the collective imagination (and now, it seems, there can be no doubt that he did), perhaps one of the most important, if generally underreported, was the manner in which, after nearly a decade of relentless assaults on the very notion of it, he managed to insist upon the survivor’s resiliency of privacy. See, nobody can take away the satellites, the border agents, the endless network of fiber optic eyes and ears and their futuristic ability to watch and listen in (and the President-elect has already hinted that he will make no such effort). But during the long, media-saturated presidential campaign, Obama gave us the faith that we can survive in spite of it all. For privacy, he reminded us, is not a function of being out of sight, beyond the limits of the perception of others; it is, rather, that sacred space at the heart of every intimacy, open only to those who share in it.

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