July 2, 2013

Exhibitionists Demand Privacy! Film at 11.

As a teenager, I loved MAD Magazine. I grew to admire the regular contributors: Don Martin and the Fonebones; Al Jaffee with the Fold-In; the endless rivalry of Spy-Vs.-Spy. (If you don’t understand, don’t ask. You had to be there.)

The aforementioned cartoonists were always good for a laugh. But Dave Berg was different; he brought a subtle brand of social commentary that sometimes went over the heads of us pimply-faced readers. With his regular feature The Lighter Side, Berg had a way of pointing out the foibles of our human nature. (What’s more disgusting, trimming the hairs from your nose, or leaving the house with untrimmed nose hair? Yeah, it’s like that.)
In one particularly poignant installment, a group of teenagers romped on the beach (Think Gidget). All of the girls wore bikinis. At the end of the day, they went into the bathroom to change. When one of the boys wandered in absent-mindedly, they screamed and covered up.

The joke (in case you missed it) was this: The girls had just spent several hours in a public place with hundreds of witnesses (mostly strangers), covered by nothing more than three tiny strategically placed triangles of polyester; yet they were now embarrassed to be seen in their underwear.

You might ask, whatever came over me – a grown man – to reminisce over this crude pedestrian humor?

In recent months, it has come to light that the National Security Agency might be reading your emails and phone records. A young ex-spook spilled the beans to the world media. Agency officials testify before Congress, spending hours to say almost nothing. This is an outrage! Unconstitutional invasion of privacy! Impeachment! Treason! Oh, really? Did this really surprise you?

Years ago, when I first learned of Roe v. Wade (the 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion), I went to my local library to read all about it. Curiously, the court’s decision did not take into account the morality of the act. And it didn’t attempt a scientific argument that a month-old fetus isn’t really “alive.” Rather, the case turned on Miss Roe’s constitutional right to “privacy.” Which, after studying the issue at length, I still don’t understand.

On most mornings, shortly after getting dressed and checking email, I log in to Facebook. I witness the status updates of my friends: On the bus, going to work. Creepy homeless guy staring at me. Or Girls’ night out! Margaritas, here we come! Photos everywhere, of people doing the stupidest things, proudly displayed for all the world to see.

…that is, until it’s seen by a prospective employer, and they feel violated. Oh, where’s a lawyer when you need one?

Our kids willingly distribute obscene pictures of themselves with their cellphones. Anonymous phone sex has been replaced by online video chats, where you show your face and your precise location can be determined from your IP address. We leave an electronic trail of evidence everywhere we go, knowing full well that (though probably unlikely) it all can be traced back to us. We willingly give ourselves over to strangers online, exchanging everything except bodily fluids.

…And yet you get angry because the government now knows that you ordered a pizza from Domino’s last week? Or because a bank ATM camera caught you committing a crime?

Yup. You proudly show off your body in a barely-there swimsuit, yet you’re ashamed to be seen in a less-revealing bra and panties. You’re not willing to change your behavior, but you fight to the death to protect your public image. You gladly broadcast your most shameful moments, and...complain when someone sees it.

Something’s wrong with this picture.

The government tells us they need these tools, these intrusions, to keep us safe from terrorists. Of course that argument would get you nowhere with our national hero Benjamin Franklin, who famously told us “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither.” While I certainly appreciate his boldness in the face of a brutal king, I’m not so sure that I would agree today.

If you’ve ever taken a college course in economics, chances are that you learned a technical term called Opportunity Cost. That is, every choice that you’ll ever make in life, will naturally preclude you from doing something else. If you spend your paycheck on chocolate, you won’t be able to pay the rent. If you marry Betty, you can’t marry Sue. And so on.

Similarly, our national security will always come at a cost. Our law enforcement agencies continually face the conundrum of balancing national security with civil liberties. Suppose the FBI could have prevented the horrors of September 11, by listening in on a few phone calls. Would you approve?

Sometimes, it seems, many of our citizens don't truly appreciate the freedoms they enjoy in this freest of all countries. They don't understand that they've got it better than any other civilization -- EVER --  in the history of the planet. As if it was normal. Which it ain't.

I don’t claim to know just where that balance is found, but I appreciate the attempt. You can't always have it both ways.


  1. Steve,
    I agree, it is a precarious balancing act. I loved your references to MAD Magazine, it was one of my favorites!

  2. Great piece, Steve - I also loved Dave Berg's stuff, and find much of the discussion about how we do National Security in this country to be...well, unbalanced on both sides of the aisle. That doesn't surprise you, I know - but I wonder if it amuses you as often as it does me.