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Totalitarian chic

A cell phone camera.

Capturing is easy; altering is, too. Credit: Flickr contributor Orin O'Neill

The creepiest section of The New York Times is the Sunday Styles section where they print all the news that’s fit for yuppie eugenicists, from Harvard-Yale marriages to new consumer fads embraced by the rich we’d like to eat.

On Aug. 17 was a classic of the genre: a story about people using Photoshop to clean-up the family scrapbook. Illustrating the piece is a large photograph of Stalin and his minions with a picture of a man edited Zelig-like into the picture. The subhead in the print edition reads: “Regimes revise history. So why not touch up your family album?”

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia, this strikes me as a tad tasteless. Stalin famously altered official photographs by erasing people from them one at a time — people who were being disappeared into graves and gulags. The Times is suggesting its readers might learn from Uncle Joe (the man in the Photoshopped picture looks happy to be one of the dictator’s minions) and use the knowledge to twist reality by deposing your ex-husband from all the snapshots.

Here’s what one woman shared with the paper:

Like a Stalin-era technician in the Kremlin removing all traces of an out-of-favor official from state photos, the friend erased the husband from numerous cherished pictures taken on cruises and at Caribbean cottages, where he had been standing alongside Ms. Horn, now 50, and other traveling companions.

‘In my own reality, I know that these things did happen,’ Ms. Horn said. But ‘without him in them, I can display them. I can look at those pictures and think of the laughter we were sharing, the places we went to.’

‘This new reality,’ she added, ‘is a lot more pleasant.’

I’m fascinated with this appeal to everyone’s inner Stalin, and here I think the Times is on to something. There is some worry (even at the Times) about how our country is losing liberties with massive eavesdropping, surveillance, etc., but the fact is individual Americans are very willing to toss their liberties out at the least excuse. Sanitizing the family history is the least of it. Powerful individual technology is turning us all into Big Brother. The Times, for example, recently ran an essay by a photographer who is spying on people with her cell phone camera. Call it art, but you could also call it “totalitarian chic” because it’s what all the kids are doing.

Such individual power is eroding our sense of outrage at the loss of privacy and freedom in public space. Again in New York, the city is considering setting up a security “veil” with an extensive series of surveillance cameras throughout parts of Manhattan. This system would also record the license plate of every single vehicle entering the city. We used to think of the suburbs as the repository of paranoid, gated-city mentalities, but it’s now big cities that are obsessed with tracking people for security and revenue-generating purposes (not to mention the current obsession cities like Seattle and San Francisco have with the contents of a person’s garbage).

Not only are we all watched, we can all watch. We can use personal technology, like Photoshop, to let loose the Uncle Joe within, and who is going to care? The propaganda tactics of the real Stalin survive as something to be harmlessly emulated on our home computers while his real crimes are airbrushed out of our collective memory. Meanwhile notions like privacy and reality are just concepts that are out of fashion.

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