Constructing the Privacy Argument

I hope it's clear to everyone who visits that this site is not meant to be a placid celebration of pacifism (as if pacifists have anything to celebrate), nor some kind of artistic or spiritual experience. This site is designed to be a platform upon which original arguments can be constructed, debated, examined and improved. If we're not building something new and noteworthy here, and if we're not changing people's minds (including our own), what's the point?

But constructing arguments for pacifism is difficult on a website, and it's also difficult in real life. Yesterday I had a fascinating discussion in a bar in Northport, Long Island with a smart person who clearly had a lot of sharp thoughts about our current political scene. Just as my entire political mindset is rooted in the philosophy of pacifism (no surprise here, I think), this person's primary concern seemed to be the government's invasion of privacy: NSA spying, congressional acts that permit unspeakable personal intrusions, the entire appalling overreach into private life.

I also consider this an extremely important issue, of course, and I relate to the urgency and rage many people feel about our worsening privacy situation. But I am frustrated at a widespread lack of psychological acuity regarding the root cause of federal privacy invasion. Some people (like the new friend I met at this bar, and many others I talk to who are obsessed with the topic of federal intrusion) speak as if NSA spying and other privacy intrusions are rooted in an insidious and sinister presence in our government. They treat the problem as if it were a character flaw, as if the reason the NSA was spying on people involved some sort of sick or perverted personal desire for or curiosity about the private lives of individual Americans on the part of individuals in Washington DC.

This is an intriguing thing to imagine, because we can all easily picture our federal government embodied as the soul of a lecherous peeping tom. But ... unfortunately, for those of us who actually want to solve the problem of NSA spying and privacy invasion, this is a complete dead end, because it's a metaphor that does not actually reflect reality. As easy as it is to imagine that the NSA spies on Americans because the NSA is a creepy peeping tom, the fact is that there is a completely different reason why the NSA spies on Americans, and it has nothing to do with perverted desires or any other psychological factors.

The NSA spies on Americans because the United States of America is at war with internal and foreign enemies, and is in a permanent state of high risk of terrorist attack. Privacy invasion is, and always has been, a byproduct of the culture of war. The more war we have, the more enemies we will have, and the more our privacy will have to be invaded in vain attempts to prevent hostile reprisals. The two factors are completely tied to each other: it's simple cause and effect. As long as our nation sees itself as a fortress state surrounded by hostile outsiders, the more it will be necessary for our government to protect us against these enemies by aggressively spying on all available communication channels. The only way to regain our privacy is to cease to provoke vast numbers of enemy movements and nations to want to attack us. If we care about privacy, we need to embrace pacifism.

This was pretty much the title of a article I wrote a couple of years ago, when I was writing the Philosophy Weekend series of blog posts on Literary Kicks that eventually morphed into the entire website. Inspired by Wikileaks and the great Edward Snowden disclosures, which had such a great impact on public perception of government but yet has not resulted in any actual policy changes on behalf of privacy, I wrote a piece with this title:

If You Care About Privacy, Be A Pacifist

I think my argument here is on solid ground, and yet it landed with little effect and failed to stir up even as much reaction as a typical Litkicks blog post usually would. Basically, the blog post died on the vine, and I tried again a few months later with this piece:

The Privacy Policy We Deserve

I usually get a pretty satisfying response when I try to present original ideas, so I'm surprised and frustrated by the lack of interest in the argument I'm trying to construct here. The point, in a nutshell, is that our government will continue to invade privacy as long as we are on ultra-high alert against terrorism and foreign attack, and that the only way to restore our natural right to privacy is to find ways to live at peace with the rest of the world. I think this argument is very solid and stands up well to close examination. (The popular theory that the reason the NSA spies on us is that we have elected perverts and peeping-toms to high office, meanwhile, is very attractive as fiction, but has nothing to do with reality.)

But if my argument is the more solid and meaningful one, why have I had such poor results whenever I've tried to lay the argument out? Last night at this Northport bar I tried to lay it out again to a small group of friends, and could see that it landed with no effect. I remember saying "the reason we don't have privacy is that we are at war", and I remember the reaction this got: "well, yeah, that's true". And yet nobody seems interested in connecting the dots and classifying the problem of privacy intrusion as a problem that must be solved by moving away from our state of perpetual war. Why is this?

It's probably because most people consider the possibility of reducing war so remote as to be beneath mention. This points to a sad and unnecessary defeatism. This defeatism is a different problem that must be solved.

The other reason people don't want to connect the dots between our permanent state of war and our lack of privacy is that it's not as appealing as the image of our government as a sinister peeping tom, not as resonant as the image of a leering Barack Obama or George W. Bush or Uncle Sam reading our private texts and chuckling over our selfies. It's more exciting to imagine our government is perverted by quasi-sexual curiosity than to realize that it's perverted by militarism and war.

I haven't yet found the way to make this original argument persuasive or compelling to others, and I gave up during my barroom conversation yesterday. But I'm not giving up here on Pacifism21. I'm going to keep trying to nail this case (and, in fact, this blog post is an attempt to find the right words with which to do so, and is in a way a first draft of an article I will publish soon). Is there anybody out there besides me who sees that we will never regain our privacy as long as we are on high alert against enemies all over the world? Is there anybody out there besides me who thinks this is an important point to consider? I'm going to keep pushing on this one until I figure out how to make it stick.