It is not obvious that true privacy in our day will endure the ministrations of its narrow partisans. There is a bizarre sort of double pressure on the idea of privacy right now: a simultaneous exaggeration and diminution. Its deterioration as a firm principle of life proceeds at once with the most horse and desperate cries in its defense; almost as if a howling mob of revolutionists, their hands bloodied from the work of expropriating and uprooting, now turn around and with all the sincerity of madmen, demand that their appointed despots reinstate Tradition, so that they may live by the simple customs and prejudices by which simple men lived before the Revolution. It is like the most ferocious Jacobin turning monarchist just as the guillotine’s blade falls on the King; and stridently claiming he was monarchist all along. It has an air about it, undoubtedly inspiring a certain human sympathy, of furtive penitence; perhaps it is the confession of faithless men. In any event, it is an intriguing phenomenon.
Say something shocking like “I favor censorship” to the average American, and you will not likely hear in reply a statement taking cognizance of privacy. But in truth part of the motivation for censorship has always been a robust notion of a bright demarcation between public and private spheres. Censorship is a way to insure that what is of necessity public does not encroach upon what is properly private. And the republican principle empowers a community to legislate to enforce this demarcation. More: the republican principle positively demands it, because the republican principle contains within it an ineradicable element of what is suggested by the old word virtue. It is unlawful, declare the good people of Anytown, USA, for commercial enterprises to depict graphically in public what is appropriately recognized as uniquely private — especially when what is depicted is a uniquely private sin. As a signal of the poverty of our politics, and more unmistakably the poverty of our idea of privacy, many Americans have come to imagine that such legislation is unconstitutional because it infringes on the principle of free speech. This despite the fact that laws against obscenity, pornography, etc., were already on the state law books at the time of the Bill of Rights, and that many more were passed later, with hardly a word ever spoken against them as infringements on free speech. It wasn’t until the enlightened twentieth century that such laws began to be overturned. There is a simple and even plain reason for this: Free speech for our forefathers always meant public speech, in the sense of debate and argument on matters of public controversy. A film of nameless choreographed encounters of the flesh is not an argument. And our error inheres precisely in the fact that, having obliterated the natural demarcations between public and private, we have thrown ourselves into a bleak confusion about what the free speech clause protects. In our confusion, we consent to vitiate the republican principle that is our inheritance; and endure a quiet cheeping despotism of unaccountable judges.
I find it fascinating that the people who castigate any natural or republican move toward censorship, like when Mr. Rudy Giuliani came to the defense (as he defiantly did on occasion) of New York Catholics who felt an understandable annoyance at the deliberate blasphemes of their icons at public galleries, are the same people who shout “privacy!” whenever an equally natural or republican act of legislation conflicts with their sexual “liberation.” The State should stay out of the bedroom; instead it should fund and endorse bringing the crudest and ugliest representations of the bedroom to public spaces. The public square, in Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus’ apt phrase, should remain “naked” — pristinely free of any religious argument or sentiment — yet in its nakedness should be teeming with base allure and temptation to lust. Our confusion about public and private has made a mockery of our politics. There is an unnerving sense that the American privatists really cannot imagine that the legal protections afforded to pornographers might possibly be quite ludicrous. They really think Larry Flynt is a free speech hero; their own bombastic rhetoric, which has its roots in the farcical drama that so often characterizes our legal system, beguiles them. They believe their own wild formulaic hyperbole. One is tempted to speculate that future generations, looking back from a saner age, may regard us with that kind of befuddlement, or almost bemusement, reserved today for Prohibitionists and Puritans. We are puritanical about our vice: no touch of virtue or hint of public restraint will tarnish it. Pornography, at its barren core, is the annihilation of privacy. That an enterprise dedicated to the crude exhibition of private things as grotesqueries or perversions is defended on the grounds that restricting it is a offense against liberty, is just the sort of insanity the modern world is capable of producing.
The intensely vulgar public square we are confronted with today is simply not the work of democracy — if by democracy we mean the prevailing of popular will. It is more nearly the work of oligarchy or aristocracy. An example I often turn to is the example of the film American Beauty — a film celebrated by Hollywood beyond all reason. Well acted and cleverly written, the movie nevertheless did nothing so effectively as projecting onto a fictionalized Middle America all the pathologies and obsessions of Hollywood. In that its creators were almost comically manipulative, fancying (sincerely, perhaps) that the rest of the country shared the particular disorders of their class. Now Hollywood is probably as near as America comes to a truly aristocratic society, as Adam Bellow demonstrated in his recent study of nepotism. What emerges from it, whatever the pressures of the market may be, is still largely the product of a segregated and complacent elite. The despair and frightful decadence of American Beauty is the despair and decadence of an elite. Which is not to say that what issues from the elite does not infect the people — it is only to say that its origins are not democratic.
There is also what we might call the supply-side insight: that supply generates its own demand. Economists of a certain stripe are happy to argue that high tax rates are counterproductive even from the taxman’s point of view; that, in other words, reducing taxes will stimulate the “supply-side” of the economy — the producers of wealth, who are in turn the primary sources of government revenue. Emancipate the economic activities of the productive class from the fetters of taxation, and you will enrich the federal treasury. But these economists, also often being of a libertarian cast of mind, are less eager to acknowledge that the supply-side of vulgar oligarchs and complacent aristocrats in the entertainment business benefits from this mechanism as well. Their alluring filth generates its own demand.
One might argue that the rise of the modern mass entertainment industry presaged the defeat real privacy. The rapacity of exposure of the former crushed the flourishing of the latter. The entertainment industry feasts on temptation and the exploitation of the feeble and vulnerable. I once argued my charges against American Beauty with some colleagues, and was told by one that the “moral” of the film was not, as I contended, that bourgeois life is soulless, but that “things that appear fine on the outside are probably a mess underneath.” In other words, there is value in annihilating privacy, so that we may discover once again that man is a strange and sinful creature. The idea might be more palatable, or least more fruitfully provocative, if it did not stand alongside this incessant chirping about privacy. The filmmakers and their ilk seem to say that bourgeois respectability is contemptible because it is a dreary façade for human frailty and ugliness. But is not the façade also, whatever lies behind it (and I certainly reject the hypothesis of the film that behind it, always and everywhere lies perversion and alienation), a kind of organic fortress of privacy? Do families not present a front of respectability in order to deflect prying eyes? to maintain their sanity and integrity in an honorless world of exploitation? And if the façade or the front is contemptible, what does that imply about the principle of privacy?
Now I admit that I rest quite a lot of polemical weight, as it were, on inferences drawn from a single film. But note the reception in Hollywood that American Beauty received. Note the magnification of its effect on subsequent Academy Award aspirants, and on subsequent Hollywood fare in general. We hardly go a month without a new film attacking bourgeois America. I recall hearing it reported that this particular film made considerably more money after it was awarded the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1999. Perhaps this is more common than I realize. In any case it suggests to me that hardly anyone cared about this sorry specimen until Hollywood lent its weight to promoting it. And let us not underestimate the potential of the most profitable industry in the most prosperous nation in history to promote what it likes.
What remains an open question at the moment is whether privacy will survive the privatists.