THE UNWANTED GAZE: The Destruction of Privacy in America.

Author:Barrett, Paul M.

THE UNWANTED GAZE: The Destruction of Privacy in America By Jeffrey Rosen Random House, $24.95

THE "UNWANTED GAZE" OF THIS BOOK'S title alludes to "hezzek re'iyyah," a concept in Jewish law, author Jeffrey Rosen tells us, which means "the injury caused by seeing." He quotes the Encyclopedia Talmudit: "Even the smallest intrusion into private space by the unwanted gaze causes damage, because the injury caused by seeing cannot be measured."

Jewish jurisprudence of the Middle Ages provided for a legal action to stop a neighbor from building a window from which he could peer into your courtyard, Rosen notes wistfully in this collection of essays on how protections of privacy have eroded in modern-day America. He believes we would be better off today if more people could sue over their privacy being invaded--one of the many provocative ideas in a book that bounces from medieval legal theory to Monica Lewinsky.

As we increasingly expose our thoughts and preferences by means of e-mail, Internet retail, chatrooms, and the like, we are losing control of how we are perceived, of our very identities, Rosen asserts. Fragmentary personal data are taken out of context and distorted in a world of shrinking attention spans. An unusual scholar-journalist who writes for The New Republic and The New Yorker, Rosen combines a facility with legal history and an apparent fascination with icons of contemporary political scandal. His quirky intellectual leaps may leave some readers a bit dizzy, and he sometimes seems to choose examples more for their celebrity dazzle than their actual value in illustrating general assertions. But overall, there is much to learn and debate in this lively book.

Two interwoven topics chiefly concern Rosen. First, there are the familiar incursions by law and technology into people's intimate dealings and expression. He wants to curb the unwanted gaze of government and employers into the lives of ordinary people. Second, he argues that some types of sexual harassment are misconceived as discrimination rather than as a form of invasion of privacy. The unwanted gaze that concerns him in this regard is not that of the leering male predator, but of the employer or prosecutor who, in the name of vindicating gender equality, intrudes on personal relations or expression.

Rosen excels at concise legal history for the layman. The best parts of his book explain in bursts of five pages or less the unlikely ways that legal ideas have evolved. There is, for example, the tale of how Anglo-American legal protection of private papers has eroded since Englishman John Wilkes, an 18th-century member of Parliament...

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