SOME CONFIDENTIALITY DILEMMAS

Most people have their smart phone in their pocket at all times. Most smart phones are also recording deviseS. If there’s any chance it’ll be a “he said, she said”, stick your hand in your pocket and press the record button. And if you’re asked to leave the room, so that Asshole 1 can speak privately with Asshole 2, leave the phone on under some papers, and when the meeting’s over just say, “Oh, ‘scuse me, I think I left my phone in here.”

Eventually assholes will catch on, but if they ask you to leave your phone at the door, just keep a spare on you. What’s he going to do? Pat you down? And if he does then you know he’s going to say something he’s later going to deny saying, so just decline to listen to it. Even without any such device, if he starts a sentence with, “Off the record …” just say, “No it’s not.” If he wants to go ahead anyhow it’s on his head.

As far as I know, there are no conditions, neither under criminal law nor under tort, in which one is required to keep a confidence not agreed to beforehand, either explicitly or by voluntarily accepting the position giving one access to confidential information. It is an article of my contract with the university that I will not disclose information about my students. I entered that contract of my own free will. But were I drafted into the army, I would not be under any moral obligation not to reveal secrets to the enemy, nor am I under any moral obligation to disabuse the enlistment officer of his supposition that I am. This is why the Israelis, at least so far, have had the good sense not to draft its Palestinian citizens into the IDF, though Netanyahu has recently been advocating an end to Palestinian immunity from the draft. Presumably saner minds will prevail.

Non-disclosure agreements aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. “So how much was your payout?” “I’m not allowed to say.” “Fair enough. But feel free to blink when I’m getting close.” What holds people to non-disclosure is nothing more than their having given uptake to it. Don’t give it. If it’s something you think shouldn’t be shared then just don’t share it. If you think it should, then do.

This places the would-be whistleblowing in a very difficult position. Most whistleblowers – Edward Snowden among them – have taken an oath of non-disclosure. But can one take an oath not to disclose a criminal offense? Certainly my having promised my buddy I won’t report his sexual interference with a minor will not save me, neither legally nor morally. It’s easy to say, then I shouldn’t make such a promise in the first place. I won’t ask, you won’t tell. But the breaking of a promise is often the sine qua non of putting a stop to a series of serious crimes. Save for specified cases where the public interest in the crime outweighs its interest in the sanctity of marriage, a spouse cannot be forced to testify against a spouse. But then surely the same rationale should apply to close friendships. And to some extent it does. Judges tend to be very lenient with people who refuse to rat out a friend, because that kind of loyalty is often all that stands between us and 1984.

As with virtually the entire corpus of ethics and law, all of these considerata can only seek some imperfect equilibrium. Reasonable people can and do disagree about where that equilibrium lies. Hence the ongoing debate over Snowden. I can see both sides of the issue. On the one hand he did us all yeoman service. On the other, the next set of loose lips might sink some ship on a mission of unquestionable mercy. Even if we suppose, as does Mr. Spock, that “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few!”, it’s not at all clear how many lives Snowden saved versus how many the next Snowden might endanger. So principles don’t offer umuch help here.

My own view, for what little it’s worth, is that Edward Snowden be allowed to disappear in plain view into the streets of his home town back in America, and we all pretend we saw him taken down in a blaze of bullets as he stepped onto the tarmac. Mutatis mutandis this is how we solve the mercy killing dilemma. And some people think this is precisely what we did vis a vis bin Laden. Sometimes a little collective delusion can go a long way.

 

TENNYSON’S ULYSSES

I’m told that “May you live in interesting times!” was actually an old Chinese curse. I guess seems the Chinese are ill-disposed to excitement. “Soooo,’ I ask my Chinese friend, “what’s happenin’ that’s interesting?” “Nothing,” he answers. “Thank God,” he adds. I guess I’m not Chinese. I’m more like Tennyson’s Ulysses.

How dull it is pause, to make an end,

to rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

As tho’ to breathe were life!

But do we live in interesting times? Well, I’m certainly old enough to remember times that were more interesting. February 1968, for example. I wouldn’t know about the wine that year, but the Tet Offensive was kick-ass! Those were very interesting times. Now the only politics and world affairs that grab the headlines is the stand-up comedy inspired – or mostly performed – by the Donald. It’s almost as if we’re living in what was once predicted would be ‘the end of history’, by which was never meant the end of the world, just the end of anything interesting happening in it.

What are the great social movements that will define the current generation, the kids who are morphing into adults as we speak? The rise of jihadist Islam? Not likely. All these young would-be warriors have smart phones. Smart phones access everything. Soon enough they’ll be into internet porn like every other young man their age. Maybe it won’t be “Make love, not war!” But at least it’ll be “Make out, not war!”

Or how ‘bout the fight for LGBT rights? Sure, only a First World problem today. But once from his smart phone Ahmed realizes he could, after all, be the Fatima he always felt he was, it becomes an Every World problem. Though even at that it’s rapidly ceasing to be a problem. Did you know that the country leading the world in the number of sex change operations is actually Iran? Well now, whoduthunkit?!

Borders move this way and that. Passenger planes take down tall buildings. Tanks roll into Gaza or South Lebanon and then back out again. But none of this has the chutzpah of Entebbe or the drama of that scene on the roof of the American embassy in Saigon.

And the music died too. I suppose that with the fall of Saigon it was all inevitable. Lady Gaga is no Janice Joplin. Leonard Cohen is dead. Paul Simon got fat. Even Dylan is no longer Dylan, not really. And without the musical score to make it all mean something, it doesn’t. Occupy Wall Street just meant get a job there. The Idle No More bus is in the parking lot idling. And as it turns out, surprise surprise, Black Lives really don’t Matter.

But then to be fair, neither does anything else. And maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s that, though there’s always something that matters to each of us, there’s nothing that matters to all of us. That’s probably how it was back in the day as well, but that’s not how I remember it. The way I remember it is, we had a war to end, and we did. We had women’s rights and gay rights and the civil rights of blacks to enshrine , and we did. We had sexual taboos to bust, and we did. Obama’s campaign slogan was only Yes We Can. We didn’t need a slogan. We had bell bottoms. And that made us much more effective.

I’m two thirds of a century old. But how did Tennyson’s Ulysses put it? Ah yes,

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

I’m not sure what work of noble note remains to be done. It all seemed so important back then. And it was. And at least some of those things still are. But there’s something else. It’s not unfinished business, nor something new, nor something urgent, nor something blue. Two thirds of a century, and here, such as it is, is the wisdom I have to show for it: What’s yours to do is whatever could have as easily fallen on someone else’s watch but just happened to fall on yours.

I didn’t choose any of the topics I’ve written about in this blog. Nor, in all likelihood, what I’ll write about tomorrow. They’re all things that just happen to have fallen on my watch. If my colleagues weren’t such idiots, or my wife not a fledgling philosopher in need sometimes of a little lift under her wings, I’d be writing about either or both of the two things that have obsessed me, if not my whole life, then certainly my whole career. 1) I’m an atheist obsessed by theodicy, and 2) I’m a man who spent less than an hour in one, and yet is obsessed with understanding war.

Now then, if my colleagues would just stop being such idiots, and my wife would just hurry up and get her PhD, maybe I could get a few words in edgewise about these two things. But I’m not holding my breath.