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A bigger worry than Trump: Privacy and freedom

Opinion: Columns

March 13th, 2018 12:42 PM

By John Hubbuch

I fear we are much too worried about Donald J. Trump and his comic Presidency. Each day our for-profit news media presents us with the raw sewage of American politics, and each night the toilet is flushed only to fill with new effluent the next day. But as Jesus noted, "This too shall pass." 

In Trump's case by 2020, if not before.

Unfortunately, there are much more serious things to worry about. Ask Winston Smith. Winston Smith is the hero of George Orwell's prescient novel 1984. Talk about a book for the times. The novel introduces us to a world where objective reality does not exist. There is universal surveillance, conducted by the Thought Police, using telescreens that both transmit and receive (See Siri). Their world is governed by The Party. It has three governing slogans:

War is peace.

Freedom is slavery.

Ignorance is truth.

The novel highlights what we really should be worried about — our liberty and our privacy.

We need to worry about anything that restricts our personal freedom. This business about creating "safe spaces" to protect citizens from obnoxious opinions is not a good trend. The Founding Fathers got this one right. If a Nazis wants to speak, let him speak. Don't go to the speech. Picket the speech. But he must speak. Truth is discovered. That discovery requires the unregulated airing of competing views. As Winston writes in his diary: "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows."

We need to worry about our personal privacy. Soon enough, most Americans will have lived their entire lives at war — Cold War, Vietnam War, War on Terror, secret wars, undeclared wars. As a result, our economy is dependent on the defense industry, executive power dwarfs legislative power, and probably worst of all, the state gets to spy on us in the name of "security." Even worse, the explosion of technological innovation makes it so easy to invade our personal lives. Hoover's deranged pursuit of certain citizens like Dr. King required sneaky agents sitting hours in cars watching or opening mail. Today you just push computer keys and mine self-disclosed data.

Of course the two — personal liberty and personal privacy— go together. If the state can know your mind, it can punish you for what you think. Ask Winston Smith. It is particularly galling that the efforts to restrict speech and expand surveillance are justified as being in our interest.

Now I know that finding a sweet spot for individual freedom/privacy and public order is not an easy task. My worry is that that this balancing is trending toward Big Brother.

John Stuart Mill figured this out in 1859 in "On Liberty." He wrote that "the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual … is a question seldom stated, and hardly ever discussed in general terms, but which is likely to make itself recognized as the vital question of the future."

We can only hope so.