Thoughts about privacy, “outing” and Joe Sobran

Two men, separated by 46 years in age, died this week. Of Tyler Clementi, 18, I knew nothing, but it appears that we’ll all know much, some of it perhaps true, before long. Of Joseph Sobran, 64, I was at one time an ardent admirer, “clipping” some 200+ of his columns, articles and book(s).

Between the shy, gay lad and the curmudgeonly 64-year-old paleoconservative-turned-anarchist, there’s a theme I think worth sharing.

But first, I need to pay my respects.

Joe Sobran, R.I.P.

Sobran died Thursday. Read his obit at the New York Times and you’ll see why I loved him (if you know me at all). “He was an unapologetic paleoconservative, opposed to military intervention abroad, big government at home and moral permissiveness everywhere.”

After his blackballing by mainstream conservatism, he became unrealistic and obsessive about the political power of American Zionists. You can’t blame Zionists for having “an agenda,”but were it not for amplification by noisy dispensationalists (approaching or constituting a majority of American Evangelicals), Zionists would barely be audible. The dispensationalists pretty much believe that God won’t bless America unless we prostrate before Zionist wishes, and they’ve had True Believers in some pretty high places in the GOP. (Why the Democrats follow suit is a bit of a mystery to me.) I only noticed one source where Sobran laid any blame at dispensationalists’ door for any distortion of our Middle East policy.

But even after he declared himself an anarchist and wrote for more marginal sources, he could spot a nugget pretty acutely.

Joseph Sobran: Memory Eternal! You veered off in some weird directions later in life, but you always made sensible people think.

Sobran on Privacy and Sexuality.

Learning of Sobran’s death, I rummaged through my trove of some of his writings to find a suitable tribute. I found some recurring themes that seem relevant to the tragic events at Rutgers this week. Not all are direct quotations; my indexing wasn’t good enough to reliably distinguish his quotes from my summaries or paraphrases in all cases.

For the record, should anyone read this in the future, a talented, shy freshman at Rutgers committed suicide, apparently in response to being “outed” [historic note: exposed involuntarily, typically as one who experiences same-sex attraction] by his roommate, who remotely controlled a webcam [historic note: a small camera, typically connected physically to a computer, and typically used to take photos or videos for dissemination digitally through the internet] to stream a gay encounter to the world [historic note: “gay” was a late-20th and early 21st century neologism for people, particularly men, who experience same-sex attraction exclusively]. (“Let’s not dismiss the possibility that future historians, surveying our age, will die laughing.” Sobran, Syndicated Column, circa 1/28/93)

I’m already on record (on FaceBook) as fearful of some Orwellian “Tyler Clementi Cyber Anti-Bullying and GLBTQ[Whatever] Protection Act” being foisted on us by those who won’t “let a good crisis (or tragedy) go to waste.” But that does not mean that I condone what the young man’s roommate did.

I’m also skeptical that barbarian legislators can restrain barbarian college students with cutely-named laws. It probably would never be applied to people who “out” conservative public figures or their children.

Guess who “outed” Phyllis Schlafly’s homosexual son, John.  Not Dan Quayle, nor Pat Robertson, nor Pat Buchanan.  It was the paragons of the homosexual community, the publishers of QW (Queer Weekly), who treated John as a means to the end of getting his mother.  It is typical of the indecency of the gay community, who blackmail those who truly do want privacy.

Syndicated column, circa 9/22/1992.

Where I differ with the narrative that seems to be developing about the Clementi suicide is that I can’t call the roommate’s behavior “bullying.” It was a barbaric and surreptitious invasion of Clementi’s privacy, done with smirky commentary, all behind Clementi’s back. You can’t bully someone behind his back.

I believe there’s a right to privacy, but not a constitutional right of privacy.

[Supreme Court Justice William O.] Douglas and his colleagues have suggested that the “right of privacy” is sort of underlying principle of rights that are specified, as if the concept had been struggling to be born in the minds of the Framers but had to await their more articulate successors in order to be delivered.
But the Framers weren’t exactly men who had to grope for words and ideas.  They were fully acquainted with the concept of privacy and as a value it is certainly felt in the Constitution.  As a value — not as a right.
Like freedom and justice, privacy can be a governing principle.  But it is almost nonsense to speak of it as a “right,” at least in a legal sense.  “The right to freedom shall not be infringed;” how could such a provision possibly be applied in the real world? … The right to own property is more concrete than the right of privacy, which is particularly hard to define.  But the Framers … avoided anything as general as a provision that “the rights of property shall not be infringed.”  Instead, they [used specific prohibitions].
It would not be an improvement . . . to say “Aha!  What they were trying to express was property rights!  Let’s have no limits on property rights.  Property rights is what it all means!  We know a penumbra when we see one!”  But this is more or less how the court derived “the right of privacy” from scattered passages . . . It deduced a general right — arbitrarily … then deduced another specific … from the generality.

Owning and Belonging, Human Life Review, Winter 1989.

The right of privacy, like the right to liberty or justice, is too general to be of jurisprudential use.  As a moral principle, privacy is admirable, but it will create legal chaos.

Syndicated column Indianapolis Star, 11/22/88.

Constitutional rights of persons are rights against the government, by and large, not against louts and cads in Ivy League Schools. For their breaches of privacy, there’s tort law and, apparently, some criminal laws you can stretch to fit.

I even believe there’s a duty of privacy we owe our neighbors. Our private lives ought not to be broadcast even by us and with consent. That’s because some behavior, even if not shameful, should be kept private and unseen:

We do not regard the routine butchering of animals for food as immoral, but we would hardly consider it proper fare for public viewing  either.


To say that nothing is obscene or indecent may sound like an affirmation of the goodness of all things.  But it is really tantamount to saying that nothing is private.


Decency for the most part has to do with what is seen.  It is concerned with veiling things not because they are evil but because they do not belong to the eye.  They must be known in a deeper context of significance.

Single Issues, 1983. Among the things Sobran would “veil,” apparently, is all explicit sexual expression.  And I’m with him on that, desiring a nice, clean single standard for gay and straight.

But well before he declared himself an anarchist, Sobran made clear that he thought the state should stay out of consensual adult sexual matters, though he worried eloquently about the state’s effective abolition of the level of society that might deal with sexual activity that harms community:

The state makes statutes and formal laws, but the tribe is the matrix of morals and manners, which are the real stuff of social order.  Modern society has lost something vital by becoming more political and less tribal, because the state is no substitute for the tribe.  The state can only use force or propaganda, of which ‘safe sex’ is a fair specimen.  But the tribe has innumerable subtler pressures and incentives that are far more efficacious … [T]he tribe is ideal for policing the very kind of problematic conduct that the state is finding itself impotent to affect: above all, the sexual.  The state knows nothing of morals or manners; they are not its province, and it can only act stiffly and irrelevantly when it tries to address them.  In the eyes of the state, we are isolated individuals, and sex can only be regarded as an affair between individuals.  But sex is a supremely social concern, and the tribe has always recognized it as such … Outright coercion, the state’s modus operandi, is inappropriate for policing sexual behavior.  To that extent, the liberals are right.  The trouble is that they are rapidly abolishing the only level of society that has always policed sex with fair success … The state is useful for dealing with egregious criminals who are at war with society.  But it can’t and shouldn’t attempt to police our common faults, which include most sexual vices (in the old sense of sins of weakness).  The modern statist mentality can’t grasp this.  It feels that whatever is immoral should be made illegal, and that whatever is legal, or whatever can’t be effectively proscribed by law, should be regarded as moral.

AIDS and the Tribe, Human Life Review, Winter 1992.

In a world where people were somewhat matter-of-fact about 2% or so of their fellow citizens experiencing same-sex attraction, and about that 2% being no more successful at perfect containment of urges than are heterosexuals, what happened to Tyler Clementi might not drive him to suicide, but it would still be an outrage because his encounter was, whatever you think of the morality of it, private.

Heck, I would be outraged if someone surreptitiously broadcast streaming video of me in my icon corner saying my prayers. They aren’t enacted in public and are not for public consumption.

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a corollary: pornography shouldn’t be tolerated by decent people. The behavior it’s portraying is part of the private realm. The same probably goes for “sexting.” The same goes for the copious amounts of cleavage currently on display in all kinds of public places; I caught an eyeful of chest full in the courthouse elevator Friday, for instance, that would have been pretty racy in a singles bar.

“But film is different. Film of sexual encounters is just being realistic.” Baloney! It’s exploiting the commercial value of sex. There are all kinds of “realistic” things that are daily parts of tens of millions of lives but are never portrayed dramatically either because they’re taboo (as Sobran asserts) or because (as I suspect) they won’t attract as many dollars.

The old taboos have fallen, and now the taboo is on the spiritual.  If media were candid, ‘they would show people praying, marrying and having children as well as fornicating; the fornication might at least occasionally result in pregnancy, disease, and the heartache and shame that more than occasionally accompany such inveterate behavior in real life.

Sex, etc, Human Life Review, Fall 1986.

I’m in no position, nor do I have the time, to explore how the internet has eroded all sense of privacy. Sexual images greet us with cheerful brutality everywhere, including the internet domains frequented by the kind of Beavis and Butthead “conservatives” that blackballed Sobran. I suspect that, in such a climate, none of the participants would feel even a microgram of shame had young Clementi not so dramatically reacted to the breach of his privacy. That’s kind of where we’ve arrived, isn’t it? (Google something like “Internet erosion of privacy” if you want to dig deeper.)

I don’t need to confirm that the internet culture is part of the problem to know there is a problem and what’s part of the solution:

  1. restoring a sense that some things are simply private;
  2. refusing to discuss or exhibit private things publicly; and
  3. the severest ostracism, at a minimum, for barbarians like Tyler Clementi’s roommate and dorm mate, who violated rules 1 & 2 surreptitiously and mockingly.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts about privacy, “outing” and Joe Sobran

    1. So, I guess you’re okay with Paperwork Nation.
      But is the contrary view driving driving the Tea Party? Not “is the contrary view sensible about this juncture in history,” but “did Noonan capture the Tea Party pulse?”

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