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The Encroachment of the Public

Sam Vaknin

As privacy fades, so do intimacy, personal safety, and self-esteem (mental health) and with them social cohesion.

As Aristotle and John Stuart Mill observed, the private sphere sets limits, both normative and empirical, to the rights, powers, and obligations of others. The myriad forms of undue invasion of the private sphere — such as rape, burglary, or eavesdropping — are all crimes. Even the state — this monopolist of legal violence — respects these boundaries. When it fails to honor the distinction between public and private — when it is authoritarian or totalitarian — it loses its legitimacy. Alas, this vital separation of realms is eroding fast.

In theory, private life is insulated and shielded from social pressures, the ambit of norms and laws, and even the strictures of public morality. Reality, though, is different. The encroachment of the public is inexorable and, probably, irreversible. The individual is forced to share, consent to, or merely obey a panoply of laws, norms, and regulations not only in his or her relationships with others, but also when solitary. Failure to comply — and to be seen to be conforming — leads to dire consequences. In a morbid twist, public morality is now synonymous with social orthodoxy, political authority, and the exercise of police powers. The quiddity, remit, and attendant rights of the private sphere are now determined publicly, by the state.

In the modern world , privacy — the freedom to withhold or divulge information — and autonomy — the liberty to act in certain ways when not in public — are illusory in that their scope and essence are ever-shifting, reversible, and culture-dependent. They both are perceived as public concessions; not as the inalienable (though, perhaps, as Judith Jarvis Thomson observes, derivative) rights that they are. The trend from non-intrusiveness to wholesale invasiveness is clear.

Only two hundred years ago, the legal regulation of economic relations between consenting adults — a quintessentially private matter — would have been unthinkable and bitterly resisted. Only a century ago, no bureaucrat would have dared intervene in domestic affairs. A Man's home was, indeed, his castle. Nowadays, the right — let alone dwindling technological ability — to maintain a private sphere is multiply contested and challenged. Feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon regard it as a patriarchal stratagem to perpetuate abusive male domination. Conservatives blame it for mounting crime and terrorism. Sociologists, and the Church, worry about social atomization and alienation. Consequently, today, both one's business and one's family are open books to the authorities, the media, community groups, non-governmental organizations, and assorted busybodies.

Which leads us back to privacy, the topic of this essay. It is often confused with autonomy. The private sphere comprises both. Yet, the former has little to do with the latter . Even the acute minds of the Supreme Court of the United States keep getting it wrong. In 1890, Justice Louise Brandeis (writing with Samuel Warren) correctly summed up privacy rights as "the right to be left alone"; that is, the right to control information about oneself.

But, nearly a century later, in 1973, in the celebrated case of Roe vs. Wade, the US Supreme Court, mixing up privacy and autonomy, found some state regulation of abortion to be in violation of a woman's constitutional right of privacy, implicit in the liberty guarantee of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. But if unrelated to autonomy, what is privacy all about?

As Julie Inness and many others note, privacy — the exclusive access to information — is tightly linked to intimacy. The more intimate the act — excretion, ill-health, and sex come to mind — the more closely we safeguard its secrets. By keeping back such data, we show consideration for the sensitivities of other people and we enhance our own uniqueness and the special nature of our close relationships.

Privacy is also inextricably linked to personal safety. Withholding information makes us less vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Our privileged access to some data guarantees our wellbeing, longevity, status, future, and the welfare of our family and community. Just consider the consequences of giving potentially unscrupulous others access to our bank accounts, credit card numbers, PIN codes, medical records, industrial and military secrets, or investment portfolios.

Last, but by no way least, the successful defense of one's privacy sustains one's self-esteem, or what Brandeis and Warren called "inviolate personality". The invasion of privacy provokes an upwelling of shame and indignation and feelings of indignity, violation, helplessness, a diminished sense of self-worth, and the triggering of a host of primitive defense mechanisms. Intrusion upon one's private sphere is, as Edward J. Bloustein observes, traumatic.

Incredibly, modern technology has conspired to do just that. Reality TV shows, caller ID, electronic monitoring, computer viruses (especially worms and Trojans), elaborate databases, marketing profiles, Global Positioning System (GPS)-enabled cell phones, wireless networks, smart cards: are all intrusive and counter-privacy. Add social policies and trends to the mixture — police profiling, mandatory drug-testing, workplace keylogging, the nanny (welfare) state, traffic surveillance, biometric screening, electronic bracelets — and the long-heralded demise of privacy is no longer mere scaremongering.

As privacy fades, so do intimacy, personal safety, and self-esteem (mental health) and with them social cohesion. The ills of anomic modernity — alienation, violence, and crime, to mention but three — are, therefore, directly attributable to diminishing privacy. This is the irony: that privacy is increasingly breached in the name of added security (counter-terrorism or crime busting). We seem to be undermining our societies in order to make them safer.

Additional Reading
The Law of Technology and the Technology of Law — An Epistolary Dialogue
The Ghost in the Net — An Epistolary Dialogue

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If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

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8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

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7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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