As I look at the last two post headings, I am reminded of the Billy Collins poem, Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause To Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles. So I’ve decided that this will be my gimmick of the summer.
Anyway, this post is about 600 words that found its way into the middle of the previous one. In the June 24 issue of the New Yorker, Jill Lepore wrote an essay titled, “The Prism,” under the kicker, Annals of Surveillance. I chose to read it because I’m following the Edward Snowden incident with the same vigor as any cynic who has resigned himself to government surveillance of citizens as a fact of life pre-dating the Patriot Act and 9/11, the scary stuff of movies like Enemy of the State. But rather than providing a magazine level of the running commentary about the NSA leaks, the piece is instead an illuminating essay that provides interesting context about our assumptions about and expectations for this relatively new thing called privacy.
Giuliana Savini would love this; someone should tell her to read this essay. But I digress.
Lepore begins as so many good essays begin, with narrative. Not about Edward Snowden, but instead about Giuseppe Mazzini, the Italian revolutionary of the pre-Metternich map of Europe. Mazzini was living in England at the time, and the English government was reading his mail. After a bit of hubbub, the English learned the lesson we can fully expect the NSA to learn from this episode: keep your secret programs secreter.
But it’s not the parallel story that makes Lepore’s essay worth writing about for me; it is the way she then reaches back to the middle ages to find the beginnings of the tension between privacy and secrecy in the medieval concept of mystery. Today we are likely to associate detectives, or better yet, sleuths, with mysteries, as our sense of mystery as a genre tells us that we, just like trained investigators, can apply our own powers of reason to tidbits of evidence as a way of bringing what was dark into the light.
This was excommunicable hubris in medieval times, as the Mystery was the Trinity, and it was to be accepted as something beyond knowing; to try to know was heresy. This same sense of mystery was also the basis for much kingly power, as it was not the place of the people to wonder why the King was power, and the “mystery of the state” was a thing designed to perpetuate that power.
Of course, what was a mystery to the people was something that the king wanted to maintain as a secret. But democracy isn’t a form of government that plays nicely with mystery. In a democracy, people have a right to know the secrets of state, which prompted the philosopher Jeremy Bentham to write that what democratic states needed above all was publicity. Just as the meaning of mystery evolved over time (Lepore takes you through Poe’s story, “The Purloined Letter,” in a beautiful bit of detail alignment in the transition from mysteries of God to mysteries of state to mystery as a genre.), so too the meaning of publicity. Bentham doesn’t argue that democratic governments should concern themselves with positive media coverage, but with transparency, with publicity meaning accessibility to the public.
Lepore follows the intersecting trails of mystery and secrecy and privacy through the origination of a right to privacy articulated by Louis Brandeis in the late nineteenth century and codified by a twentieth century Supreme Court decision rendered when Brandeis was a member of that body. We end up in the twenty-first century, where we post articles that reflect our political beliefs and photos that reveal our drink preferences on social media where we haven’t figured out how to manage the privacy settings. Privacy is what we insist upon when it comes to the way we share our own secrets. Weird.