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The Joy of Aloneness

When I was a boy, there was a turnip farm about an hour’s walk away.  In those pre-citified days before I learned fancy ways, it was not unusual for me to simply pull a turnip out of the ground, brush the dirt off with my pants and eat it raw.  But, the reason I went to this little farm was that there was a small, maybe 50 feet by 50 feet, stand of pine trees on the edge.  Chasing my dog into the stand one day, I realized what a magical place it was.  The pine trees were so thick a person could not see inside more than a few feet.  Once inside, it was impossible to see outside the pines.  I would often lie on the pine needles with my dog, Pal, and just think.  I can remember trying to count the small dots of sunlight breaking through the tree canopy above.

I wondered why this small stand of pine trees had been allowed to survive.  I marveled at the softness of pine “straw.”  I learned that air is sweeter if it doesn’t have words floating in it, with no talking.  Silence is made golden with the sound of wind or birds but not words.  I learned to enjoy my “aloneness” or enjoy my own company.  That was probably the first time I had existential thoughts about individualism.  Over time, that dense stand of pines, that place of aloneness would always come to mind whenever I heard the word “privacy.”

In 1961, I read George Orwell’s classic book 1984, which told the story of a nation in a perpetual state of war with government surveillance of everything and everywhere.  I tried to imagine my little stand of pines under surveillance by a camera, and it made me shudder.  There was nothing to conceal in those pines, except aloneness, which is hardly visible anyway.  Another boy in another age would never experience the aloneness I learned to love.

My daughter is a member of the Facebook generation and chuckles at my quaint old-fashioned concept of privacy.  Facebook knows more about her than she does.  Google knows more about me than I do.  And, you too!

So, it is with a deep sadness that our worst fears of government snooping are confirmed.  While I’m sure President Obama and, before him, President Bush are both fine and decent people, who would never use any information against us unreasonably, I know there is another President Nixon in our future at some point who will.  But, it is not the stolen information that is important, it is the right that was stolen, i.e., the right to privacy.

Of course, in a state of perpetual war, it can be justified . . . of course!  But, are there no limits to the destruction of privacy?   To reduce my risk of injury in a terrorist attack by 1%, must I give up 2% of my privacy?  What is the ratio?  Would you permit cameras in every room of your home, as in 1984, if it reduced your risk by 1%?   How about 20%?  Define the limits.

Today, a house sits where my little stand of pine trees taught me so much.  Now, where can a little boy find that joy of aloneness?  Maybe, it is just another intangible cost of perpetual war?  It is too bad economists cannot quantify that cost . . . it is not a small cost.