Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America

Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America

Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America

Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America

Synopsis

Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America explores the relationship between confessional poetry and constitutional privacy doctrine, both of which emerged at the end of the 1950s. While the public declarations of the Supreme Court and the private declamations of the lyric poet may seem unrelated, both express the upheavals in American notions of privacy that marked the Cold War era. Nelson situates the poetry and legal decisions as part of a far wider anxiety about privacy that erupted across the social, cultural, and political spectrum during this period. She explores the panic over the "death of privacy" aroused by broad changes in postwar culture: the growth of suburbia, the advent of television, the popularity of psychoanalysis, the arrival of computer databases, and the spectacles of confession associated with McCarthyism. Examining this interchange between poetry and law at its most intense moments of reflection in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, Deborah Nelson produces a rhetorical analysis of a privacy concept integral to postwar America's self-definition and to bedrock contradictions in Cold War ideology. Nelson argues that the desire to stabilize privacy in a constitutional right and the movement toward confession in postwar American poetry were not simply manifestations of the anxiety about privacy. Supreme Court justices and confessional poets such as Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, W. D. Snodgrass, and Sylvia Plath were redefining the nature of privacy itself. Close reading of the poetry alongside the Supreme Court's shifting definitions of privacy in landmark decisions reveals a broader and deeper cultural metaphor at work.

Excerpt

Is privacy dead? By all recent accounts, we should think so. When independent counsel Kenneth Starr published on the Internet in 1998 the titillating details of President Clinton's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, there was widespread agreement that the “Starr Report” marked the death of privacy. However, it was generally forgotten, though it had occurred merely six months before the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal broke, that privacy had just died a grisly death in an underground tunnel in Paris. Princess Diana's fatal car crash while being pursued by tabloid photographers had also constituted the final proof of privacy's demise. And again, commentators on Diana's death failed to recall that privacy had died just a few weeks earlier in Time's 1997 “Death of Privacy” cover story, which exposed new and previously unimagined violations enabled by the Internet. What's more, throughout this spasm of anxiety, the media's absorption in Clinton's comedy and Diana's tragedy elicited parallel “death of privacy” warnings. This time they were provoked not by the intrusion of the state, mass media, or new technology, but by the extrusion of private life in public discourse, the blurring of boundaries associated with what is often disparaged as our “confessional culture.” Privacy, it seems, is not simply dead. It is dying over and over and over again.

It would be a mistake to imagine that this pattern is somehow unique to the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Such thinking merely perpetuates the amnesia that the warnings themselves display. Indeed, this sequence of obituaries belongs to a pattern that attained a measurable density some forty years prior to the most recent “deaths” of privacy. Since the end of the 1950s, the cry “the death of privacy” has rung out from a wide variety of sources: journalism, television, film . . .

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