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Home > Privacy Fundamentals > Book Reviews > The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America

Book Review: The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America, by Jeffrey Rosen, New York: Vintage, 304 pages

The Unwanted Gaze is Jeffrey Rosen’s earnest effort to survey the apparent loss of privacy we suffer in the modern age. An associate professor at the George Washington University Law School and legal affairs editor of the New Republic, Rosen is an influential voice in the debate about privacy, its protections, and threats to it.

The book tours through various social contexts and the status of privacy in them: at home, at work, in court, and in cyberspace. To flesh out his points, Rosen draws from a wide array of sources, legal doctrines, and recent historical events.

To the book’s detriment, a recent historical event serving as a touchstone is the impeachment of President Clinton. The President and his paramour/seducer Monica Lewinsky were certainly subject to heavy scrutiny, and Rosen makes interesting and valid points about the privacy-invasiveness of our over-extended sexual harassment law. But, overall, the return to the Clinton impeachment makes the book seem prematurely dated. Evidence is lacking, but the reader may suspect Rosen of shading points about privacy to buttress a position about the impeachment proceeding or the actors involved.

Another touchstone is Rosen’s motif that privacy has so much to do with being accurately portrayed to others. It does seem a particular problem of this modern media-driven age that a person who comes under the limelight will be exhibited to the public as something he or she is not. And with the limelight so fickle – 15 minutes of fame is a good run – one has little ability to correct the record.

But privacy and fair treatment are not as closely related as Rosen would have them. Indeed, privacy has as much to do with inaccurately portraying ourselves as being accurately portrayed by others. We omit or amend our histories, sexual lives, innermost thoughts, and so on to craft the different characters we play when we are at home, at work, in court, and so on. And that is all a good thing.

Rosen’s use of public figures to make a point about fair portrayal suggests that he has actually fixed on privacy’s counterpart: publicity. The brief spasms of publicity that people get do deny them the opportunity to rebut wrong information, or to share the whole of what they may want to share, either of which can be quite distressing.

The Unwanted Gaze is not Jeffrey Rosen’s last work on the topic of privacy. Given the care he invests in the subject, readers of the book can reasonably expect improved intellectual clarity and even greater insights from his future works.


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[updated 10/11/04]

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