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William Faulkner: “On Privacy”

In the mid-19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson helped define a uniquely American brand of individualism and personal liberty when he wrote “Self-Reliance”, an ode—in essay form—to the man who “in the midst of the crowd” was able to maintain his unique sense of self. Just over a century later, William Faulkner, in his 1955 essay entitled “On Privacy,” would all but declare that man swallowed whole by the masses around him. His essay, part elegy, part indictment, is a full rendering of the rapidly decaying state of privacy in mid-twentieth century America, and it is through this that Faulkner traces and attributes the decline of the “individual” and her ability to embrace the freedoms once laid at the bedrock of the “American dream.”

That Faulkner’s essay so closely interweaves notions of privacy and freedom, as Alan Westin does in his book entitled just that, is not surprising. Astutely, he recognizes privacy not only as its own freedom, but as a prerequisite for all others. If privacy did not make the man, for Faulkner, it certainly creates the sacred individual, allowing opportunity for a person to grow distinct from the rest of society in a way of their own choosing. It is this self-definition that Faulkner holds in such high esteem and he places it at the center of a quintessentially American possibility: in a country rid of “old arbitrary hierarchies,” self-invention was and remains an integral component of the American dream.[1] He goes on to describe an inviolable “individuality” in every man whose existence is both contingent on individual privacy (“lacking which [man] cannot be an individual”) and necessary for any life worth living in the first place.[2] Most simply, for Faulkner then, privacy comprises the conditions necessary for man to reach and maintain his fullest potential. Yet, as he argues in his essay, those conditions were scarcely apparent in mid-century America.

Faulkner’s first argument to this effect cites a years-long personal anecdote in which he is politely hounded to grant permission for the writing of a magazine profile on himself. Steadfastly resistant to divulging any part of his private life for public consumption, Faulkner here mirrors Westin’s info-centric view that defined privacy as the “claim of individuals […] to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others.”[3]  Not only does he declare it his right to decline but the duty of the public respect his wishes—“since one man’s liberty must stop at exactly the point where the next one’s begins.”[4] This attitude calls to mind Daniel Solove’s discussion of the view of privacy as a “constitutive element of a civil society,” an argument Faulkner undoubtedly would have agreed with.[5] For when the next magazine finally refused to obey his wishes, Faulkner does not consider himself alone the victim, but also the publisher and writer, all suffering from the same “mores of the hour” that had seen “bad taste […] converted into a marketable and therefore taxable and therefore lobbyable commodity.”[6] Harshly critical of a Freedom of the Press gone amok, Faulkner identifies an internecine industry struggle that satisfied both reader and publisher temporarily but eroded at the core elements of humanity in both.
Through this lens then, it is far more difficult to minimize Faulkner’s concerns over a seemingly insignificant magazine profile—from a friendly acquaintance no less—given the fact that he was already a renowned literary figure known the world over. He recognized, just as Solove does, that disclosure fundamentally undermines “democratic self-governance,” and its normalization in modern society left all parties victim to its consequences.[7] For an American society that so prized the individual—or at least claimed to—Faulkner highlights the vital function of the self-ownership necessary for making such claims anything more than mere platitudes.

Faulkner, of course, does not limit his examination of privacy to his own experiences, and in expanding his to view to consider the plight of a grieving Charles Lindbergh or a beleaguered J. Robert Oppenheimer, he exhibits a cannier understanding of the topic than merely one concerned with the transfer of information. On the former, Faulkner is especially piercing, describing a nation more eager to violate a man’s privacy than protect it, one “which assumed an inalienable right to abrogate to itself the glory of his renown yet which had neither the power to protect his children nor the responsibility to shield his grief.”[8] Here, he recognizes what Solove defines as exposure in the form of the needless amplification of a man’s personal anguish. Lindbergh was denied not only the dignity to grieve in private but the ability to properly do so at all. Westin describes the “protective function” of the “emotional release” afforded by privacy in such trying times, a benefit conspicuously stripped from Lindbergh until he fled to Europe.[9]

Faulkner’s consideration of Oppenheimer and the Anti-Communist hunt during the 1950s speaks to other privacy problems, including: surveillance, interrogation, and identification. But it also, perhaps more significantly, speaks to the general attitudes of the American populace at the time and the blanket immunity granted to any action “provided merely that the act be performed beneath the aegis of the empty mouth-sound of freedom.”[10] The irony, of course, as Faulkner points out, is that the very privacy stripped of Oppenheimer—“by the means of such catch-phrases as ‘Freedom’ and ‘Salvation’ and ‘Security’ and ‘Democracy’”—is the same privacy, the untampered space to think and explore and examine, that enabled his and all other scientific and artistic contributions in the first place.[11]

Faulkner’s criticisms and arguments are ultimately all the more compelling because they are rooted in a distinctly American brand of individualism that understands the essential link between freedom and privacy, and the existential risks of separating the two. While he reiterates many of the same concepts discussed by Solove and Westin, Faulkner’s main concern is ultimately the continued existence of the individual…the man who could exist within the crowd without being reduced to an “identityless integer in that identityless anonymous unprivacied mass” he feared the nation was hurdling towards.[12] Regardless of whether our nation has worsened in this regard since the essay’s publication, Faulkner’s worries remain equally troubling in what remains an individualistic society that continues to face many of the same privacy problems today.

[1] William Faulkner, “On Privacy: the American dream / what happened to it?,” Harper’s Magazine, July 1955, 33.

[2] Faulkner, 36.

[3] Alan Westin, Privacy and Freedom (New York: Atheneum, 1967), 7.

[4] Faulkner, 34.­

[5] Daniel Solove, “A Taxonomy of Privacy,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 154 (2006): 488.

[6] Faulkner, 35-6.

[7] Solove, 530.

[8] Faulkner, 36.

[9] Solove, 36.

[10] Faulkner, 36.

[11] Faulkner, 37.

[12] Faulkner, 36.

Christopher Browning’s “Ordinary Men” & The Dynamics of Mass Murder

When one considers the full effects of the Nazis’ Final Solution, it is easy to assume a uniformly efficient and orderly method to their ideologically driven madness. Yet, in Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, we instead see a side of the Holocaust marked by fits of doubt, tears, vomit, and drunken stupor. That this perspective lacks the utterly depersonalized and mechanized nature of murder seen elsewhere in Nazi bureaucracy is not to suggest its outcome was any different, only that the perpetrator was often not afforded any distance between his actions and their consequences. Accordingly, Browning’s book, which focuses on the Reserve Police Battalion 101, offers a thorough examination of the dynamics of genocide on an individual, actively participatory level. Further, it seeks to explore how ordinary men not only assented to participation in such travesties but could transform so radically into murderers capable of killing innocent men, women and children alike.

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Book Review: “To Save the Children of Korea”

When activists of the late-1960s began to brandish the phrase “the personal is political” it is unlikely any thought was given to the thousands of Korean children that had traversed the Pacific in the prior decade and a half. Yet, as Arissa Oh demonstrates in To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption, the blurring of the private and the political took many forms including that of the emerging international adoption complex she assiduously explores in her book. Focusing on the birth and evolution of a practice that saw thousands of American families adopt “orphaned” Korean children, Oh charts the infusion of global implications into a once intensely private endeavor. Her book, in turn, examines issues as varied and significant as race, identity, class, gender, colonialism, victimhood, and privilege, all of which are invariably suffused with Cold War ideology from the period in focus. Keep Reading

The Emergence of the Modern Blockbuster in the 1970s

"Jaws is No. 1"

As Hollywood prepared to enter the 1970s, its future had never been less assured. Recognizing this, the National Association of Theatre Owners—the leading trade organization for film exhibitors—hosted their November 1969 convention centered around the theme: “The Challenge and Response to the Unconventional ’70s.” The organization’s president, Julian S. Rifkin, in his introduction to the event, declared the challenge of the upcoming decade to be “an all-inclusive, all-important one: the very problem of survival.”[i] Though the decade had not yet arrived, a host of existing challenges from the 1960s seemed poised to carry over and intensify in the coming years. And only industry response to these challenges, Rifkin contended, would “determine the future of the motion picture and motion picture theatre industries.”[ii]

These anxieties, while alarming, were not without reason. Weekly theatre attendance, which had declined in the prior decade, would reach an all-time low in 1971.[iii] Television viewership, meanwhile, was on the rise, and the introduction of “pay TV” presented as a great a perceived external threat as any the industry had yet faced. And overshadowing all of this was an industry-wide recession from 1969-71, the result of rampant overproduction and underperformance, that nearly drove several studios to the point of insolvency, Yet, out of these circumstances, the movie industry would develop itself anew and emerge transformed by decade’s end, no doubt because of the decisions made by executives over the course of the period.

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Review of “Charity & Sylvia: A Same Sex Marriage in Early America”

Charity & Sylvia

Despite Rachel Hope Cleves’ early assertion to the contrary, her book, Charity and Sylvia is hardly an “unremarkable” history. Certainly, elements of the work’s focus—namely its look at romantic and familial relationships, gender expectations, and domesticity—are rather ordinary and speak to a common 18th/19th century New England experience. But one would be mistaken to discount the extraordinariness of the title characters’ abilities to adapt these otherwise typical components of life to their own unique circumstances. Cleves, initial modesty aside, knows this well and so her study of Charity and Sylvia, a same-sex married couple in 19th century New England, reads as nothing less than profound and worthy of the extended consideration given it.

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