Monday, June 7, 2010

Mind your own damned business

“If I want to honky tonk around 'til two or three
Now, brother that's my headache, don't you worry 'bout me.
Just mind your own business
(Mind your own business)
If you mind your business, then you won't be mindin' mine”
-Mind Your Own Business
By Hank Williams (the real one)

Minding your own business is a concept that’s gone completely out of fashion in America, with consequences for our commerce, our culture, our politics and our government.

The right to be left alone, all though it got left out of the Constitution somehow, is one Americans have always cherished. And, in fact, it wasn’t so much left out of the Bill of Rights as more politely stated. The net effect of the first sixth amendments is to spell out that the government, unless it has a good reason to intervene, should leave us alone. The Ninth Amendment points out that the rights spelled out in the preceding eight amendments are not be taken as an all inclusive list. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade confirmed the existence of a constitutional right to privacy.

But that doesn’t mean we really have any privacy in this day and age.

Recently Facebook was embroiled in controversy over changes to its privacy policy that made it easier for users' information to be accessed by a third party. That’s not a surprise.

I’m a latecomer to Facebook, but I quickly became addicted to it. I’ve gotten in touch with friends I’d thought forever lost, renewed old friendships and learned that some people I’d thought of as merely acquaintances were much more interesting than I’d previously known. It’s an interesting source of off- beat news and more than a little humor. I’m a pretty happy Facebook user.

But I never expected the company to do much to protect my privacy. That’s because their whole business model is to sell their users’ data to advertisers. They don’t charge you to use the service. You aren’t their customer. You are their product. The idea is that if advertisers know what you like, who your friends are and what they like, they’ll be better able to design advertising that will appeal to you.

I’ve got my doubts about how well that works. I’m not sure too many American of average intelligence or better who are over 12-years-old believe anything they see in advertisements. After all, modern Americans are deluged with advertising 24-hours a day, from the cradle to the grave. It makes most of us a little cynical. Maybe a lot cynical.

After an uproar from Facebook users, the company walked its privacy policy changes back. A little. Call me cynical, but I expect they’ll slip the revised policies through in the future. Because their real clients want them.

Apparently we’re not so cynical that we don’t cling to the belief that we should have some privacy. Even in the age of Google – where you can find out practically anything about practically anyone – we cling to the notion that other people should have the good manners to mind their own business.

Even if we aren’t minding our own.
Recently author Joe McGinnis, rented a house next door to Sarah Palin’s house in Wasilla, Alaska. Palin is the subject of McGinnis’ next book. That got me thinking about the way the concept of privacy has been shredded in America. Particularly for those who’ve gained either public acclaim or infamy.

And Palin has racked up a little of both.

I’m on record as thinking the former Republican candidate for vice president is a grifter intent on extracting as much money as possible from her improbable brush with history. I don’t think she’s looking for future political office, because that would require actual work. So far, she’s done nothing to disabuse me of that notion.

But I don’t think that means she’s completely given up the right to any privacy. I’m a journalist; I think journalists should have access to information. But I don’t think we should stalk people and what McGinnis did is both intrusive and, frankly, creepy. McGinnis, best known for “The Selling of the President” and “Fatal Vision,” has always been a better self-promoter than a writer. His stunt will help generate publicity to sell his book. That doesn’t make it right.

But McGinnis’ pursuit of the “inside scoop” on Palin is driven by keen commercial instincts. It will sell. Because we want to know. And we know longer believe that there is any limit to what we should know.

When I was young, like everyone else, I wanted to be rich and famous. I’ve decided that while rich would still be great – America is a pretty great place to be a rich person – I could do without famous. Because being famous in America means giving up any pretense of privacy, unless you want to hire private security to enforce it.

In a culture where we want to know the private peccadilloes of politicians and rappers, athletes and news anchors, singers and fashion designers, who would want to be famous?

And yet many still do. We have a whole entertainment genre, reality TV, based on the premise that there is nothing so humiliating or degrading that Americans won’t do it to become famous and that the rest of us are so fascinated by dirty laundry that we’ll even sneak a peak at the secrets of non-celebrities. Some will apparently even risk jail in the quest for fame, as in the case of the Virginia couple who crashed a White House dinner, apparently in an attempt to win roles on “The Real Housewives of Washington, D.C.” We now have a class of celebrities in America who are famous only for trying to be famous.

Have we gained anything from this? I don’t think so. In fact, I think we’ve lost something. We’re too familiar with everyone, from our political leaders to our movies stars. A little mystery goes a long way. And too much familiarity breeds contempt.

Are the citizens of South Carolina or New York better off for having learned of the marital indiscretions of Mark Sanford and Eliot Spitzer? Did the country actually gain anything from the extended Clinton/Lewinsky psychodrama? Will anything be gained if we learn the details of Al and Tipper Gore’s breakup? No, not really. And I’d argue that we lose something in the process of invading people’s privacy. We lose our ability to distinguish important news from gossipy trivia. We lose our respect for the people who oversee our most important political and cultural institutions, which causes us to lose respect for the institutions themselves.

In my mind, the reporters who didn’t tell the public that JFK was sleeping with Marilyn Monroe or that FDR couldn’t walk were doing the country a favor.

In the age of the Internet, we’re going to know everything about everybody. But, like much of what you’ll find on the Internet, a lot of it won’t be true and a lot of what is true won’t be worth knowing.

It will just be taking up brain cells you could have used to learn calculus or a foreign language or the rules to soccer.

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