Privacy, Terror and Trump’s Totalitarianism

The best case for privacy, given where the world appears headed, may be as the quiet place of reflective solitude in the face of mindless totalitarianism.

Montesquieu saw the moving and guiding principle of monarchies as honor, of republics as virtue and of tyrannies as fear.  To those, Hannah Arendt added totalitarianism, which she said does away with such principles entirely by undermining the reflective, thinking individual.  Looking at the 20th Century totalitarianism of Hitler and Stalin, she found the intellectual basis of the death of the thinking individual in logically-tight “ideologies,” the “ice-cold reasoning” of Hitler and the “merciless dialectics” of Stalin.

Arendt did not live to watch reality TV.   The bread and circuses of the 21st Century, does reality TV involve a story illustrating or questioning a motivating principle?  The story is almost always the same: a competitive series of ordeals in which the winner is the last one standing, as in a tontine.  Who can survive?  Who can survive naked?  Who will be fired?   The story, of course, is the war of all against all.  But not nearly of all, only of the contestants.  The rest of us are just supposed to watch, at most perhaps to tweet whom we want saved.   Well, not all of the rest of us.  There is still the puppetmaster, the guy who does the firing.  He could be President.  He could fire the Muslims.

So to me, Arendt is most dated where she talks about totalitarian leaders as logicians and dialecticians.  The 21st Century boob tube takes care of that for them; they just have to express popular anger in partial sentences without committing a HUGE gaffe.  And by HUGE, I guess I mean even bigger than saying that all members of what according to Pew will soon be the largest world religion should be banned from entering the nation that invented the First Amendment, because THAT was not a big enough gaffe to stop him!

Where Arendt could not be more correct, on the other hand, is in her refined sense of what totalitarianism destroys, and therefore what we need to fight to maintain:  the reflective, thinking individual, who enjoys enough solitude — rather than loneliness — and personal freedom to be able to make well-considered moral choices.   As I write this, with Los Angeles schools shut down for the day due to a “credible threat,” and France considering bans on encryption and public wifi, the protection of the reflective individual against terror and totalitarianism seems like it might become the most important meaning of privacy in this century, and a meaning in which privacy and security are not in many respects opposed.   In closing for now, I therefore offer you this excellent Apprentice whose image I hope will come to mind as you watch the debates tonight:

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