Shrinking Privacy Means Expanding Government

Sam Karnick Heartland Institute
Published January 15, 2013

With all the important things going on in the world, it would be easy to overlook the recent news story titled “Kathy Griffin Kisses Anderson Cooper’s Crotch.”  It is worth attending to, however, and applying a bit of analysis.

Here’s what happened, during CNN’s New Year’s Eve program hosted by Anderson Cooper:

Just after midnight, Cooper cut to a report by correspondent Gary Tuchman from Eastport, Maine, where the town’s custom is to kiss an 8-foot sardine after it has dropped from the top of a building.

When the camera came back to Griffin and Cooper, she stooped to kiss his crotch.

“Did you drop something?” he asked.

“No, I was kissing your sardine,” she answered.

“I can do it again,” Griffin said kneeling. “I can do this all night long.”

“No, sweetie,” said an uncomfortable Cooper, lifting her back to her feet.

“You know you want to,” she said.

“Believe me, I really don’t,” Cooper said as he once again pulled her upright.

Griffin had preceded this with other on-air references to Cooper’s private parts.

The story returned to the news on Tuesday, after Griffin, a brassy, frequently sex-referencing comedienne, refused to apologize for the stunt Monday night on The David Letterman Show.  USA Today reported:

“If you think this is the part where I’m going to apologize …,” she said, “you are sorely mistaken.”

Not having watched the Letterman show in question (I will do only so much in the interests of science), I do not know whether anyone actually suggested that she should apologize, and it seems likely that the event will only enhance Griffin’s reputation as a wacky, do-anything-for-a-laugh entertainer.  Nonetheless, despite the essential triviality of the event itself, there are some serious implications to be seen in Griffin’s antics being broadcast to the world during a news network’s New Year’s Eve coverage.  What is important here is the further erasing of the line between what is private and what is public, because that affects all of us.

Griffin has a right to kiss whatever strikes her fancy whenever the urge arises (although Cooper’s obvious discomfort with her behavior suggests that mutual consent was not the case here).  Nevertheless, the essential element in any assertion of a right to privacy is, as should be obvious, privacy.  If we agree that an activity is protected from interference by others because it is private, we can expect others to adhere to that agreement only if we keep that behavior private.  To argue that what may be done in private must also be acceptable in public thus contradicts the assertion of privacy.  It invites others to respond, and they may do so in ways the initiator did not foresee.

Of course, a single instance of such exhibitionism will have little effect, and Griffin’s stunt is probably of no great moment in that regard.  But when such actions are commonplace, as they indeed are in today’s culture, there is a cumulative effect that serves to confuse and indeed erase the distinction between private and public.  Cultural activity such as Griffin’s public emulation of behavior that is privileged from interference precisely because of its private nature, then, is not a triumph for liberty, but instead a threat to it, as noted astutely by the political thinker Frank S. Meyer.  For what is at stake in the elision of the difference between public and private is the very foundation of rights and liberties: as the public sphere expands, the state inevitably claims authority over it.

This is the classic distinction made in the English claim that a man’s home is his castle.  What is private belongs to the individual to attend to as he or she may see fit, and other individuals, banding together in society, have no right to interfere in what is private, except in cases of force or fraud.  But as formerly private things become public, the state is naturally seen as having a legitimate purview over them.  This is evident in feminists’ contemporary inversion of the English claim to privacy: “The personal is the political.”

All of this suggests a connection between the seemingly contradictory positions of the collectivist left in wanting more government in economic matters but more liberty on social issues: the latter actually leads to more government overall.  Consider how the rise of illegitimate births was spurred by the welfare state, which then created perverse economic incentives that led to further increases in illegitimacy, which, as we know, is a huge creator of poverty.  The additional increase in poverty brought an outcry for more government action in order to remedy it, and so on.  Multiply that across a variety of issues, and you have a synergistic effect between the sexual revolution and the increase of the state, resulting in an increasingly rapid growth of government power.  The political scientist Charles Murray has done particularly good work in documenting this phenomenon in his books and other writings, especially Losing Ground and Coming Apart.

This helps explain why the Sexual Revolution was accompanied by rapid growth of government instead of a reduction in state power.  A central element of the Sexual Revolution was the great expansion of sexual content in the public square through mass media.  After the publication of the Kinsey Report on sexual behavior, the subject became an increasing topic of public discussion and debate.  Soon thereafter, in the wake of Supreme Court decisions on obscenity, it began to pervade the realm of entertainment and amusement.  Increasingly, then, matters which everyone had long agreed were private (and still considered to be so, as the commonality of sexual right-to-privacy argumentation makes clear) were brought out into the public, and the personal became the political by virtue of becoming public. For example, laws regulating workplace sexual relationships proliferated, reaching an apotheosis of sorts in the messy impeachment of President Clinton and its introduction of new subject matter into the public conversation.

On top of all that, in recent years, technological change has vastly increased the amount of personal information and individual expression made publicly available and has further broken down any remaining barriers of privacy.  As far back as 1999, The Economist observed, in reference to increasing government surveillance of individuals through new technology, “In the brave new world of the information age, the right to be left alone is certain to come under siege as never before.”  That assertion has proven true.

The notion of a person’s home being his castle surely has its shortcomings: it can leave the way open for outrages and tragedies behind closed doors.  But it is definitely superior to the idea that everything is political — i.e., the sphere of the state.  And in undermining the distinction between what is private and what is public, a culture in which bedroom activities and other highly private behaviors are widely publicized actually serves the interest of an ever-expanding state.

The way to interrupt the feedback relationship between the shrinking of privacy and the growth of the state is certainly not regulation of the culture (which is probably unworkable under current conditions, anyway), but instead a concerted effort to reduce government power.  Yet this appears to be unlikely without a common agreement to redefine much of life as private and treat it as such.  Edmund Burke identified the importance of this relationship and the distinction between public and private when he stated, “Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”  Our culture appears to be particularly adept at forging those fetters, and until that changes, it seems that continual government expansion will remain the way of things.

S.T. Karnick is editor of The American Culture.

[First published at The American Thinker.]