The utility of privacy

AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano,File

A scientific article recently cited by the New York Times proves it is possible to create a world without males. “Life With No Males? These Termites Show That It’s Possible.  A discovery among termite colonies in Japan suggests that males can be discarded from advanced societies in which they once played an active role.”  An expert interviewed by the article confidently declared that for termites at least “the future is female”.


The implict theme of the doomed male cannot be escaped in the MeToo era. In case you missed the point white males especially are headed for the boneyard and even science knows it. Can they be serious?  More serious than you think. Friedrich Nietzsche observed that “in individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”  It was the rare individual in 1930s Germany who concluded that the best thing to do for the next decade was conquer the world. The joint probability of millions of individuals independently converging on that plan was surpassingly small.  The odds they would do that as part of a group to which their wills had been subordinated was shockingly high.  Similarly in the age of Kavanaugh individual women are less likely to aspire to a world without males than organized feminism for whom such a goal is not only feasible but desirable.

One of the underrated dangers of Oneness is escaping the binding consensus exemplified by the all-hands meeting at Google after Hillary’s election loss.  It was implicitly assumed that everyone in the auditorium was on the same wavelength and shared the goal of undermining Trump.  That assembly shows how easy it is to get trapped in groupthink, especially when everyone knows who you are unlike the early Internet “when no one knew if you were a dog”.

Peer pressure can create a sameness which destroys information. In a world of ideological uniformity only conventional wisdom can be safely expressed.  Since information is by definition is surprise  — what you don’t know — an surprise-less meeting is despite appearances an information poor gathering. The reason why diversity, not cosmetic diversity where people look different but think the same but intellectual diversity where people think differently,  is so important is that it’s nature’s way of spreading the risk.


Contrary to conventional wisdom human beings will always face risk, whether from runaway technology, unpredictable pandemics or asteroid strikes from outer space.  But they will rarely find the best solution unless all options can be considered.  Preserving freedom maximizes a society’s chances of survival.  Freedom as we shall see, is partly a function of privacy.

Observers are often puzzled and perplexed by the power of the idée fixe in ideological movements.  Andrew Sullivan for example is surprised at how a putative concern for female victims of sexual assault could so quickly become a war on privacy.  “To the extent that the hearing went beyond the specifics of Ford’s allegations and sought to humiliate and discredit Kavanaugh for who he was as a teenager nearly four decades ago (a dynamic that was quite pronounced in some Democratic questioning of the nominee), it was deeply concerning. When public life means the ransacking of people’s private lives even when they were in high school, we are circling a deeply illiberal drain.” (Italics mine)

A civilized society observes a distinction between public and private, and this distinction is integral to individual freedom. Such a distinction was anathema in old-school monarchies when the king could arbitrarily arrest, jail, or execute you at will, for private behavior or thoughts. …

The Founders were obsessed with this. They realized how precious privacy is, how it protects you not just from the government but from your neighbors and your peers. They carved out a private space that was sacrosanct and a public space which insisted on a strict presumption of innocence, until a speedy and fair trial. … And it is the distinguishing mark of specifically totalitarian societies that this safety is eradicated altogether by design.


Sullivan eloquently defends privacy but doesn’t really explain why it is vital.  Modern information theory may provide additional insight into its importance. Privacy not only helps preserve the intellectual diversity, more importantly it prevents the convergence into group madness. It creates the room people need to be different. Without privacy it is all too easy to be pressured into an absorbing Markov state, where everything conforms to the Party Line. “In the mathematical theory of probability, an …  absorbing state is a state that, once entered, cannot be left.”  They are  a kind of probabilistic Hotel California. Once you check in you can never leave.

Groups trapped in this black hole eventually sink into the bog of their obsessions.  The classical example, cited by Timothy Snyder, was how Hitler’s redoubled efforts to exterminate the Jews even as the Third Reich was running out of everything.  A rational actor would use was left of Nazi might to first win the war but Hitler madly devoted his dwindling resources to murders of no military utility.

You can create what Hannah Arendt talks about, “a fictional world”—we use the phrase today “alternative reality” to mean the same thing. … So in December of ’41, when Hitler faces this unbeatable alliance basically of the British, the Americans, and the Soviets, he interprets that as the Jewish international conspiracy, which of course it wasn’t—the Jews had nothing to do with that whatsoever. But he interprets it that way, and he says, ‘Ah-hah! This is what I’ve always said, that all the world powers are controlled by the Jews, therefore they’re lining up against us,’ and then that becomes an argument for escalating the Final Solution.


Hitler had a choice between Germany’s survival and his fictional world — and he chose the latter.  But lest we think that group madness is now an historical curiosity at a recent conference two Ivy League professors, both of whom had grown up in totalitarian countries,  they pointed out that Communism, an ideology which is alive and well and even chic on American campuses, instigated some of the deadliest mass insanities ever seen and is still with us today.

The panel included Yale history and religious studies professor and immigrant from communist Cuba Carlos Eire, Princeton math professor and Socialist Republic of Romania immigrant Sergiu Klainerman, and Skidmore College political science professor Flagg Taylor.

Communism is “d*** close, if not exactly the same as a religion,” Eire said, adding that it has both “orthodoxy and heresy.”

It is “impervious to empirical evidence, scientific evidence, sociological evidence,” the Yale professor continued. “It is also an extremely sloppy theology that does not base its observations on human behavior.”

The self-destructiveness of mad groups is why ideologues routinely fail to take over the world.  But they keep trying.  The reason why the political fight surrounding the Kavanaugh nomination may feel so bizarre is that it is not really about an appointment to the Supreme Court nor even about politics in any conventional sense.  It’s about termites, patriarchs and fictional worlds.


Group madness can overtake movements without their being aware of it.  It’s the kind of prison you can never see from the inside.

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Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, this book paints a portrait of Custer that demolishes historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person — capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years). The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many other areas, Custer helped to create modern America, but could never adapt to it. Stiles casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding or “tribes,” a connection now largely lost. But its pull on us remains and is exemplified by combat veterans who find themselves missing the intimate bonds of platoon life at the end of deployment and the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Junger explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. He explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today’s divided world.


For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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