Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"Landscape", Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot


A friend recently bemoaned the gradual disappearance of privacy, but I’m not sure it should be grieved over. One dictionary says the word private refers to something that “belongs to some particular person” or “pertains to and affects a particular person or a small group of persons”, but is there really anything in this universe that is private in that sense? Yes, I realize that I “own” a certain amount of money, but does the value of that money belong only to me? Did I alone make that money valuable, or was it not, rather, the hard work of countless strangers, over many years, that made the dollars in my pocket worth something? Yes, at this point in time they are in my pocket and my bank, but they have passed through innumerable hands to reach me, and their journey will continue far into the future after I spend them. In a sense, I don’t “own” my money; it doesn’t belong to a particular person named “Ham”. I just use it for the time being before it passes along to others. In that sense, it’s not my own private property. The material goods I “own” are also not strictly mine – not a personal, exclusive possession. Like my money, I’m “borrowing” the couch and chairs in my living room (even though I paid cash for them). The craftsmen who made them and the people who may use them after me surely own them as much as I do. The furniture is “on loan” to me -- and so, as a matter of fact, is everything else I theoretically “own”. “My” heart certainly does not “belong” to me. I did nothing to earn it; it was freely given to me by the Universe some 65 years ago. The same goes for “my” lungs, “my” muscles, even “my” thoughts and feelings. Ideas and feelings aren’t “made” by me. They’re not my private possession, something I can own and be proud of. They come from the vast world of ideas and feelings that’s been re-creating itself for eons and eons. They’re created from the books I’ve read, the people I’ve listened to, the movies I’ve seen, and so on. Like all of us, I’m lucky enough to share in an immense and very public wealth of thoughts and emotions.

So what’s the big deal with privacy? As far as I can tell, we live in a universe in which, the dictionary notwithstanding, nothing “belongs to some particular person” or “pertains to and affects a particular person or a small group of persons”. Everything belongs to everything, everything affects everyone, and everyone belongs to everyone. Privacy would seem to be essentially impossible in this kind of universe, so we may as well bid the charade of it a grateful farewell.

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