The play of darkness and light – the critical need for both – was rarely more eloquently described than in the writings of political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Arendt is best-known as a chronicler of a specific sort of darkness. Reporting for The New Yorker, she witnessed the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the man whose darkness she famously characterized as embodying “the banality of evil.”
But there was another sort of darkness that Arendt wrote about: the crucial need for what she called “the security of darkness.” It’s that sort of darkness that will be the subject of a two-day international conference titled “Why Privacy Matters” at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College on October 15 and 16.
The Hannah Arendt Center calls itself the world’s most expansive home for bold and risky humanities thinking, and this year’s conference promises to fulfill that description, in spades. Among the conference’s 21 distinguished participants will be the world’s most controversial privacy advocate: National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. To add to an extra helping of boldness, the conference will include Robert Litt, the man charged with prosecuting Snowden in Litt’s capacity as second general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. (Snowden, who was granted a three-year asylum in Russia, will join the discussion by satellite.)
The conference’s theme and the Center’s raison d’etre are both inspired by the spirit of Hannah Arendt, one of the leading political philosophers of the modern era. Arendt, who died in 1975 and is buried on the Bard campus grounds, could not have imagined the surveillance-soaked world that we live in today. But she recognized in her writings the importance of privacy, calling it “the essential refuge for a human uniqueness.”
In daily life, she writes, we “return back from the outside world and withdraw into the security of private life within four walls.” These walls of the private “enclose a secure place, without which no living thing can thrive.” For Arendt, “Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone, emerges from darkness and, however strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all.”
Arendt acknowledged that while privacy guards “the dark recesses of the human heart,” its loss can have a corrosive effect on the individual and on the body politic: “We all transgress taboos and even a few laws. Yet, when we are forced to police private urges and actions by public standards, our belief in public morality appears hypocritical. Distrusting ourselves, we trust no one, which is the source of cynicism of political life.” Contrast those graceful words with this blunt assessment by Scott McNealy, former CEO of Sun Microsystems: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”
Believing that McNealy’s words are a more accurate reflection of the public attitude toward privacy, the conference’s organizers expect to explore why privacy seems to have become a ho-hum issue in society. The questions that they’ll be addressing are as intriguing as they are important to every realm of our lives: Why, for example, do we willfully participate in the loss of our privacy? How is it that we so rarely register its loss? Do we simply value privacy less? When indiscretions are knowable, who will have the courage to enter public life? Can we hold government and business accountable for their use of private data? Why is government becoming more secret as individuals embrace transparency?
Just a few of those who’ll be exploring, if not answering, those provocative questions include:
David Brin, Hugo Award-winning science fiction writer and author of the nonfiction book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose between Freedom and Privacy?
Rochelle Gurstein, author of The Repeal of Reticence: America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation and Modern Art.
Ann Lauterbach, an American poet and writer and recipient of both a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts.
Uday Singh Mehta, author of The Anxiety of Freedom: Imagination and Individuality in the Political Thought of John Locke and Liberalism and Empire.
Fritz Schwarz, chief counsel for the Church Commission, investigating activities of the US Intelligence agencies, and recipient of the 2014 Ridenhour Courage Prize, which is presented to individuals for their courageous and lifelong defense of the public interest and commitment to social justice.
For a full conference schedule and bios of featured speakers, visit https://www.bard.edu/hannaharendtcenter/conference-fall15. For more information or any questions about the conference, e-mail [email protected] or call (845) 758-7878.