Peggy Noonan had an excellent piece in last week’s Wall Streen Journal which everyone should read. She reminds us why privacy is so important:
Privacy is connected to personhood. It has to do with intimate things—the innards of your head and heart, the workings of your mind—and the boundary between those things and the world outside.
Noon refers to an icon of the past, Nat Hentoff, a respected journalist and civil libertarian.
Mr. Hentoff sees excessive government surveillance as violative of the Fourth Amendment, which protects “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” and requires that warrants be issued only “upon probable cause . . . particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
But Mr. Hentoff sees the surveillance state as a threat to free speech, too. About a year ago he went up to Harvard to speak to a class. He asked, he recalled: “How many of you realize the connection between what’s happening with the Fourth Amendment with the First Amendment?” He told the students that if citizens don’t have basic privacies—firm protections against the search and seizure of your private communications, for instance—they will be left feeling “threatened.” This will make citizens increasingly concerned “about what they say, and they do, and they think.” It will have the effect of constricting freedom of expression. Americans will become careful about what they say that can be misunderstood or misinterpreted, and then too careful about what they say that can be understood. The inevitable end of surveillance is self-censorship. (Emphasis WWTFT)
All of a sudden, the room became quiet. “These were bright kids, interested, concerned, but they hadn’t made an obvious connection about who we are as a people.” We are “free citizens in a self-governing republic.”
This is why political correctness is more than just annoying and stupid. When enforced by the federal government it has the effect of inhibiting political discussion.
Mr. Hentoff’s second point: An entrenched surveillance state will change and distort the balance that allows free government to function successfully. Broad and intrusive surveillance will, definitively, put government in charge. But a republic only works, Mr. Hentoff notes, if public officials know that they—and the government itself—answer to the citizens. It doesn’t work, and is distorted, if the citizens must answer to the government. And that will happen more and more if the government knows—and you know—that the government has something, or some things, on you. “The bad thing is you no longer have the one thing we’re supposed to have as Americans living in a self-governing republic,” Mr. Hentoff said. “The people we elect are not your bosses, they are responsible to us.” They must answer to us. But if they increasingly control our privacy, “suddenly they’re in charge if they know what you’re thinking.” Emphasis WWTFT
This is a shift in the democratic dynamic. “If we don’t have free speech then what can we do if the people who govern us have no respect for us, may indeed make life difficult for us, and in fact belittle us?” Emphasis WWTFT – (Belittling Americans has become a hallmark of Mr. Obama over the past 5 years.)
If massive surveillance continues and grows, could it change the national character? “Yes, because it will change free speech.”
What of those who say, “I have nothing to fear, I don’t do anything wrong”? Mr. Hentoff suggests that’s a false sense of security. “When you have this amount of privacy invasion put into these huge data banks, who knows what will come out?” Or can be made to come out through misunderstanding the data, or finagling, or mischief of one sort or another. “People say, ‘Well I’ve done nothing wrong so why should I worry?’ But that’s too easy a way to get out of what is in our history—constant attempts to try to change who we are as Americans.” Asked about those attempts, he mentions the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the Red Scare of the 1920s and the McCarthy era. Those times and incidents, he says, were more than specific scandals or news stories, they were attempts to change our nature as a people.
Nenthoff is right. We are not subjects of government magistracy. These people are supposed to be public servants, accountable and answerable to the people.
Roles are rapidly reversing.