The Porous Psyche
Every day, Americans make decisions about their privacy: what to share and when, how much to expose and to whom. Securing the boundary between one’s private affairs and public identity has become a central task of citizenship. How did privacy come to loom so large in American life? In The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America, Sarah Igo tracks this elusive social value across the twentieth century, as individuals questioned how they would, and should, be known by their own society. Here is an excerpt focusing on privacy in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1958, with Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting a fresh memory, the political journalist and former Communist sympathizer Richard Rovere reflected on the state of his fellow citizens’ privacy. In a wide-ranging essay for the American Scholar, Rovere called attention to wiretapping, bugging, and uses of state power that accompanied an age of heightened national security. But he also cataloged a surprisingly varied and seemingly more trivial set of intrusions to which Americans were subject: television cameras that tracked shoppers in grocery stores; on-the-job inquiries into employees’ drinking habits; the prying of behavioral scientists but also of neighbors; the work of professional social workers as well as volunteer organizations; even the sights and sounds of passersby. Invoking Louis Brandeis, both his 1890 essay and his dissent in the 1928 wiretapping case, Rovere called the “right to be let alone” unique in that “it can be denied us by the powerless as well as by the powerful— by a teen-ager with a portable radio as well as by a servant of the law armed with a subpoena.”
Rovere reflected that the latter, official kind of privacy violation might well be reined in by legislation or public policy. But the other sort was more nettlesome, tied as it was to “the growing size and complexity of our society” and involving rights of speech, press, and inquiry. Even if legal abuses — easy to conjure up in 1958 — were curbed, it would leave “all those invasions that are the work not of the police power, but of other public authorities and of a multitude of private ones.” What exactly was the nature of these “private” invasions? Rovere ticked off an illustrative list: “A newspaper reporter asks an impertinent personal question; the prospective employer of a friend wishes to know whether the friend has a happy sex life; a motivational researcher wishes to know what we have against Brand X deodorant; a magazine wishing to lure more advertisers asks us to ll out a questionnaire on our social, financial and intellectual status.” Transgressions of the intimate realm, that is, were as much the work of the society and the citizenry as the state. Far from trivial, the persistent prying of a knowing society profoundly shaped the degree to which individuals could move through that society undisturbed and undisclosed. Rovere concluded, “My privacy can be invaded by a ringing telephone as well as by a tapped one. It can be invaded by an insistent community that seeks to shame me into getting up off my haunches to do something for the P.T.A. or town improvement or the American Civil Liberties Union.” The right to be let alone, he declared, “is a right I may cherish and from time to time invoke, but it is not a right favored by the conditions of the life I lead.” That the ACLU, the leading defender of civil liberties in the United States, appeared on this list indicates just how all-encompassing the invasions of citizens’ solitude could appear by the late 1950s.
Rovere’s meditations capture a paradox of the early Cold War era. Potential threats to citizens’ privacy from the national security state, in construction since the turn of the century and fortified by military conflicts around the globe, were real and well known. The tools of espionage and surveillance that Woodrow Wilson had seized during World War I were now state of the art, a “sub rosa matrix that honeycombed U.S. society with active informers, secretive civilian organizations, and government counterintelligence agencies.” A new kind of twilight conflict with the Soviet Union, coming immediately on the heels of World War II, meant that the nation remained, seemingly permanently, poised for war. The “culture of secrecy” that developed on both sides of the superpower divide altered the relationship of the U.S. government to its own people. Although the state kept more secrets in this era than in the past — cloaking a range of national security actions, including the atomic weapons program — it increasingly distrusted them in its citizens. As had been the case in Wilson’s day, vigilance in protecting a “free society” was turned inward as well as outward. By the 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, federal and state loyalty programs, the Smith and McCarran Internal Security Acts, the tapping of citizens’ phones, and extensive FBI dossier keeping were ample evidence of a government empowered to conduct domestic surveil- lance. Authorities’ attempt to root out subversives affected the personal and professional lives of suspected Communists, but also of progressives, labor union members, sexual minorities, and civil rights activists, along with their families and associates.
Arguably, the perils posed to individual privacy by the U.S. state and its agencies ought to have overshadowed all others. Yet the focus of much public commentary was elsewhere. A vocal segment of the population turned its attention instead to the subtle pressures on the person owing from modern social organization and, indeed, the surrounding culture it- self: “policemen” to be sure, but also “prying acquaintances, sociological eld workers, and psychoanalysts.” For these observers, the imagined threat to citizens’ sovereignty and solitude was neither the Cold War enemy nor the domestic state forged in its image. It was, rather, dominant American values and modes of living. And it brought into focus a host of daily trespasses by private citizens — whether marketers, teachers, employers, or neighbors. Together, they comprised, in critic Myron Brenton’s memorable phrase, “Big Brother in his civilian clothes.”
Why, in an age of alarming infringements on civil liberties, should so many have worried about matters as mundane as a ringing telephone, an “impertinent” question on a job application, or an “insistent community”? Certainly, government surveillance, if more visible than it had been in earlier decades, was simultaneously more difficult to challenge in the cautious political climate of the 1950s. Too, most citizens did not consider themselves to be direct targets of national security measures and, as a consequence, worried little about their implications. More critical than either of these factors, however, was what was experienced as a sea change in the prospects for personal autonomy in the decades following World War II. Citizens’ entanglement with the institutions, gatekeepers, and norms of their society seemed indicative of a peculiarly modern form of unfreedom — a coercion that owed as much from the encouraging tones of experts as the explicit control of official authorities.
Across the decade of the 1950s and into the first half of the 1960s in the United States, we can track a blossoming concern with the vanishing boundary between the self and the social world. It was a concern at once abstract and palpable, hard to pin down yet clearly felt. Social critics may have spied it first, but other Americans identified it in their own fashion. Whereas public discussions about privacy had up to that point focused on those prying into citizens’ affairs, in the 1950s they fastened on probes into the personal interior: the mind, emotions, thoughts, and psyche. This was not the late nineteenth-century concern about damage to reputation or even to “personality.” Nor was it a concern about the state administering the outer traces of individual identity, as in earlier twentieth-century controversies over fingerprinting and numbering. The puzzle of postwar privacy, as well as Cold War-era individualism, was that the person herself seemed porous, her perimeter unfixed, her very being improperly inhabited by the larger society. This was a new stage in Americans’ thinking about the known citizen, and it would make something akin to psychological privacy both an urgent problem and an elusive goal.