Political/economic pluralism: the case of privacy
I don’t know much about Rochelle Gurstein. She doesn’t have a wikipedia page, and her various author bios around the internet seem to be pretty minimal. The most that I can come up with is that she was once a history professor, which is very strange to me, because she doesn’t seem to have a very good grasp of what history is and how it works. To wit :
“WHAT DO WE LOSE WHEN WE LOSE OUR PRIVACY? This question has become increasingly difficult to answer, living as we do in a society that offers boundless opportunities for men and women to expose themselves (in all dimensions of that word) as never before, to commit what are essentially self-invasions of privacy. Although this is a new phenomenon, it has become as ubiquitous as it is quotidian, and for that reason, it is perhaps one of the most telling signs of our time. To get a sense of the sheer range of unconscious exhibitionism, we need only think of the popularity of reality TV shows, addiction-recovery memoirs, and cancer diaries. Then there are the banal but even more conspicuous varieties, like soaring, all-glass luxury apartment buildings and hotels in which inhabitants display themselves in all phases of their private lives to the casual glance of thousands of city walkers below. Or the incessant sound of people talking loudly—sometimes gossiping, sometimes crying—on their cell phones, broadcasting to total strangers the intimate details of their lives.” Already, we’re off to a very rocky start. Instead of being a single, well-defined subject, Gurstein’s idea of “privacy” resembles that stupid Family Circus bit with the kid running around, in that it takes her all over the map without producing any obvious pattern. For example, do “reality TV shows” and cell phone conversations actually have anything meaningful in common? And which sort of reality TV are we even talking about? The label extends all the way from job-based, quasi-documentaries (Deadliest Catch, Miami Ink, etc.) to contrived competitions (Survivor, etc.) to makeover shows (Queer Eye, etc.) to tabloid-style soap-operatic trash fires (The Real Housewives of Wherever). Which, if any, of those things represent “self-invasions of privacy”? Likewise, if “addiction-recovery memoirs” are bad, why are other memoirs okay? Or, I dunno – are other memoirs okay? Gurstein singles out the one kind, but who the fuck knows what she really means.
And what does any of this have to do with windows (or, I’m sorry – “glass”)? The last time I checked, the vast majority of people had at least one window. Does that make us all exhibitionists? Maybe more to the point, the nature of optics is such that you can’t actually see the “private lives” of people who live in “soaring,” glass-fronted buildings while you’re “walk[ing on the street] below.” I guess I could set up a telescope or fly a drone up there or something, but then surely I (and not the windows) would be the problem.
This, as I’ve already said, makes for a very precarious start for Gurstein’s argument. It would be hard enough to track the creation and development of any one of those phenomena (i.e., of just reality TV or just memoirs or whatever). For her to attempt a joint historical investigation of all of those things at once is downright foolish. And it doesn’t help that she apparently conducts that investigation under the assumption that privacy is somehow ahistorical:
“Surprisingly, it turns out that a large number of people began to speak of privacy in a self-conscious way only toward the end of the nineteenth century.” Why would this be at all surprising? Even the word (in its current meaning) isn’t much older than that . Privacy, just like every other element of human society, can be anything from impossible to crucial depending on context. Indeed, as Gurstein herself eventually says, privacy is arguably not even the norm:
“It is also worth noting that in the most searching analyses of privacy, an author almost always pointed out that privacy was ‘a distinctly modern product, one of the luxuries of civilization, which is not only unsought for but unknown in primitive or barbarous societies,’ as E. L. Godkin, a leading man of letters and founding editor of The Nation, put it in 1890.” So then let’s return to the original question: do we lose anything when we lose our privacy? I mean, if privacy is “a distinctly modern product,” then humans have done without it for tens of not hundreds of thousands of years. And unlike the other “luxuries” of modern life, it’s not hard to see how humans could survive and even thrive without conducting some significant chunk of their lives in secret. It’s not as though we’re talking about food or medicine, right? So, seriously, what do we lose when we lose our privacy?
Startlingly, Gurstein never actually answers the question. This doesn’t mean that there is no answer – again, maybe we happen to be in one of those social arrangements in which privacy is very important. But we can’t know that unless we can identify some specific, real reason to think that privacy matters right now. The closest that Gurstein ever comes to providing such a reason is in this stretch right here:
“We are no longer aware, as the party of reticence was, that when private matters are indiscriminately flooded with light their very nature changes. Take, for example, the affair of Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels (or that of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky or Anthony Weiner and his sexting partners). For the people involved—most certainly for the cuckolded spouses—the affairs were important and consequential, but once they were exposed in public they became banal and laughable, furnishing steady material for the jokes of late-night talk shows. And the transformation can go in another direction: now that newspapers have abandoned euphemism to describe what these people did in what they believed was private, their sexual proclivities, flooded by light, have become obscene. The latter has especially been the case with the #MeToo movement: any reader of the latest, minutely detailed article about sexual harassment that the New York Times specializes in quickly finds that he or she has been turned into a voyeur. It is no wonder, then, that the world we inhabit together feels ever more ugly, coarse, and trivial…
What is needed to protect both our privacy and our common world belongs to an entirely different realm—one that is deeper, and far more elusive than the law: the realm of sensibility. Here we need to acknowledge again that the sensibility that once protected our privacy and our common world—the reticent sensibility with its keywords of shame, propriety, decorum, and decency—has been discredited and now feels anachronistic. Yet, without it, in a cruel turn of historical irony, we are largely resourceless and defenseless.” This, however, is some awfully weak tea. We’re in desperate need of privacy simply because “the world we inhabit together feels ever more ugly, coarse, and trivial”? Seriously? That’s the reason why glass-fronted buildings are abominations and people shouldn’t write about how they dealt with cancer? Forgive me for being skeptical, but I don’t buy it.
And it’s not that Gurstein is wrong to say that, “when private matters are indiscriminately flooded with light their very nature changes.” It is, indeed, hard for a person’s private life to become the subject of talk shows and yet still remain private. But so what? Is she trying to say that Clinton’s or Trump’s or Weiner’s actions should have been kept secret? Those men had (and one still has) positions of immense power, and in those positions they were (at least theoretically) directly accountable to the public. It’s one thing to be a grump about the person next to you on the bus who’s sobbing into their cell phone, but it’s another thing entirely to suggest that politicians’ crimes and abuses should be covered up just because they might sadden the public. Likewise for #metoo: it’s horrifying that Gurstein, a female scholar of history, would scold victims of harassment, assault, and rape in the name of upholding “propriety, decorum, and decency.” If that’s the best that she has to offer (i.e., a retrograde commitment to the mere appearance of moral purity), then she ought to quit academia and go to work for the Vatican, because those motherfuckers have demonstrated a remarkable commitment to maintaining the blissful ignorance of the general public by keeping “obscene” matters private.
So, okay – let’s take a step back and try to recap a little bit. Gurstein doesn’t really know what privacy is or why it matters. Worse yet, she spends far too much time making arguments that don’t pertain to any specific period of history. Take, for example, the #metoo thing: by definition, when people think about things that they consider to be obscene, they will feel offended or disgusted by those things. No fucking kidding. But that tells us nothing about what privacy means right now – that is, what role (if any) privacy plays in our particular socioeconomic mechanisms. She does, at one point, suggest that privacy has something to do with “the development of one’s individuality and autonomy,” which, at the very least, does bring us into the present day. As anthropologists will tell you, our modern ideas of “individuality and autonomy” are also not human universals, and so they could serve as the basis for Gurstein’s argument. There’s only one problem: they’re extremely hard to connect back to any of her specific examples. Living on the twentieth floor of a glass-fronted apartment building is surely no impediment to autonomy; if she’s really worried about people’s freedom, she’d be better off checking in on the people who are living in fucking storage lockers .
Here, however, we might finally be on to something. Entirely contrary to what Gurstein alleges, we aren’t living through particularly coarsened or collectivist times. If you want to measure our society relative to those that have come before – which, y’know, is what you’re kinda supposed to do if you’re a historian – you’ll find that we’re actually quite sensitive and individualistic: we don’t engage in human sacrifice, we don’t murder twins because we think that twins are evil, we’re at least nominally against animal abuse and the torture of other humans, and we support a staggering array of dialects, hobbies, fashions, lifestyles, sexual proclivities (which are not “lifestyles,” thank you very much), and so on. But the times that we are living through are certainly extraordinary in at least one respect: they feature breathtaking levels of economic inequality and hence of economic power differentials. Except for a few historical periods during which imperialists conquered large physical portions of the world and hence were said to control or own large portions of the world’s wealth, today’s levels of economic inequality are outliers. And here, finally, we find a meaningful connection to Gurstein’s article. Specifically, she says that we now have
“unprecedented opportunities for violating [our] own privacy, furnished by the technology of the internet. The results are everywhere, from selfies and Instagrammed trivia to the almost automatic, everyday activity of Facebook users registering their personal ‘likes’ and preferences. (As we recently learned, this online pastime is nowhere near as private as we had been led to believe; more than fifty million users’ idly generated ‘data’ was ‘harvested’ by Cambridge Analytica to make ‘personality profiles’ that were then used to target voters with advertisements from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.)” Clearly, whatever the merits of this argument may be, they can’t save her above-mentioned support for a changed “sensibility.” Capitalist exploitation happens whether or not we like it and regardless of which particular type of dislike we happen to feel at any given moment. To return to an earlier example, a great many of us are absolutely horrified by the way in which farm animals are treated, but we can’t do anything about it at the moment because the agricultural industry is rich enough to render our voices effectively mute.
Still, though, we do now have at least one example of something that we lose when we lose our privacy. By constantly giving information to advertising and marketing firms like facebook, we also cede some of our economic power to those firms, which means that we lose even more ground in the contest to determine how society works. This may well be a relatively minor loss (especially as compared with, say, the presidency), but it does at least check all of the boxes that Gurstein wants to check. It’s only too bad, then, that she only mentions data harvesting in passing – and even then, only with respect to the major scandal of Trump’s election and not the quieter, ongoing afflictions of targeted advertising, location tracking, and so on (i.e., day-to-day capitalism).
So I’ll reiterate: I don’t know much about Gurstein. Maybe her editor fucked with her prose in this article. Maybe she’s normally much better informed (and much more clear-headed) about the subjects she chooses to write about. I dunno. So far, though, I’m not impressed. She seems to be far too easily distracted by shiny novelties that are ultimately empty and irrelevant – reality TV, Stormy Daniels, and so on. A more skilled historian would look beyond such trivialities in order to find the more important shifts and patterns that shape our power structures, our ideals, our physical environments, and the like. Hopefully Gurstein will be replaced by such a historian soon.
3 on the Road: Chicken Auction
3 on the Road: Chicken Auction – WLBT.com – Jackson, MS Member Center: 3 on the Road: Chicken Auction 2018-08-17T22:26:48Z Source: WLBT Source: WLBT
We’re heading to Carthage to a monthly event. It’s an auction. But be prepared for some foul language. Foul language like “chickens and gunnies and geese,” stuff like that. It’s a chicken auction.
“Chickens, turkeys gunnies, geese, ducks, rabbits. Sell a few goats here and there, said Eddie.”
Eddie started this auction four years ago as an experiment.
“Well one of my hobbies is back yard chickens. And I’m an auctioneer,” added Eddie. “I’d heard about some of them in Tennessee. I decided I was going to have at least one if it cost me money.”
Well after sustaining itself for four years now, every third Saturday of the month, seems like the auction has become a great success. Seems like most of the people are hobby chicken farmers. You know, back yard stuff. Some more serious than others. And when their flocks increase the excess winds up here in search of another back yard.
James Quick goes for the unusual type chicken.
“I got ones that look different. I got some that lays green eggs, brown eggs, speckled eggs,” said James.
And even if you come and don’t buy a thing it’s not like a wasted day. At least Marvin Pinter from Brandon doesn’t think so.
“It’s a good clean place to come if you want to bring your family,” said Marvin. “Good food and good fellowship.”
Sort of like going to church without the praying.
“We might even get a prayer going, (laugh)” added Marvin.
It’s a family deal for Bill Kitchens. Its his family that brings him.
“I’m up here with my daughter. She’s got, you know, home rabbits and turkeys and chickens and this is something she looks forward to every month,” said Bill.
“I’ve got some for sale today. I have rabbits and some chickens,” added his daughter.
And she’ll probably reinvest her earnings into some other animals before she leaves today. Some of these folks had chickens at their houses when they were young and they want to have them again as a reminder.
To others it’s a pastime, more serious to some than others. But to all it’s good clean entertainment in Carthage every third Saturday. Foul language and all.
The auction is just north of Carthage on highway 25, three miles beyond the highway 25-35 intersection; left hand side of the road when you are going that direction.
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