Friday, October 06, 2006

Earth to Mars

Gary and I are now near the end of Season One of Veronica Mars, the series about a seventeen year-old girl detective who works for her private-investigator father while also juggling school and dating woes. We started watching the show at the recommendation of Patrick Nielsen Hayden, my editor at Tor Books, who calls it "Buffy Methadone."

And so far, we have one very large problem with it: Veronica Mars appears never to have heard of privacy or ethics. She has her best friend steal student files from the school, breaks into a doctor's office to look at her ex-boyfriend's medical file, and cheerfully taps, bugs and photographs anything that moves. She charms a police deputy into giving her a box of witness-interview tapes from a sensitive investigation. Very occasionally, someone to whom she's just divulged supposedly confidential information snaps at her, "How do you know this?" but nothing much is ever made of it. So far, the only person who's really called her on this behavior -- provoking cheers from me and Gary -- was discredited when it turned out that he really was a drug dealer. The conclusion we're meant to reach, evidently, is that the ends justify the means.

It's fine for Veronica to trample all over confidential personal information because She's Right, and furthermore, She's Doing It For the Right Reasons. If you question her methods, you place yourself on the side of drug dealers, dog-nappers and other Bad Guys.

What does this remind us of?

A friend of mine commented recently that today's twenty-somethings are oblivious to the erosion of privacy in America because they're steeped in celebrity culture: privacy has no value in a society where people are obsessed with obtaining their fifteen minutes of fame. I'm not sure I'd go quite that far, but Veronica Mars certainly seems to support this theory, although many of the people making the show are undoubtedly past their twenties.

Granted, we haven't yet gotten to the end of the first season. Maybe there's a dramatic climax where Veronica's confronted by all the people whose privacy she's invaded; maybe at some point, these concerns do become an issue? But it hasn't happened yet, so I'm worried. Gary pointed out last night that by this point in the season, she should be up to her ears in lawsuits. One of the strengths of Buffy was that it always, and increasingly, addressed the ethics of being a Slayer (especially in the third-season conflict with Faith). So far, Veronica Mars completely lacks that kind of subtext.

So are Gary and I the only people reading this show as a rather terrifying allegory of the erosion of civil liberties? Or is it just crime-show-as-usual? (What are the ethical constraints on private investigators, anyway?)

I'm especially interested in hearing Patrick's take on this, since it would be difficult to find a more fervent defender of Constitutional rights.

5 comments:

  1. Snooping is part of the appeal of the private investigator story. There's a "Oooo, look! A medicine cabinet!" thrill in watching (or reading about) a character digging up The Real And True Secret Of Someone Else's Life.

    It's not something you'd want to see in real life (Hello, HP pre-texters!) but within the safe space of fiction it's fun.

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  2. Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?

    I'm a good guy, the rules don't apply to me. Sorry, you're a good guy because you believe the rules do apply to you. If you don't, you're not.

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  3. A friend of mine commented recently that today's twenty-somethings are oblivious to the erosion of privacy in America because they're steeped in celebrity culture: privacy has no value in a society where people are obsessed with obtaining their fifteen minutes of fame.


    It sure doesn't seem to me that it's the young who are oblivious to the erosion of privacy: Look around the web and see who's fighting that fight, and it's mostly very tech and internet-savvy young people.

    To the extent that the erosion of privacy has anything to do with "celebrity culture" -- which has been with us at least since the early days of the movies -- I don't think it is about people's celebrity aspirations. Rather, I think we have been persuaded by celebrity journalism and by "respectable" journalism that no one ultimately has a right to privacy; if you're famous, losing your right to privacy is "part of the price you pay", and the celebrity who dares to object will be roundly mocked; if you're in the news, your right to privacy is trumped by the public's supposed need to know. (Witness the offensively intrusive coverage of the Amish killings, and the taping and photographing of people who's belief system is against it, beliefs the news media refuses to respect even at their time of grief: a grief that none of us "needed" to see in pictures in order to comprehend it.)

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  4. Scraps said:

    "Rather, I think we have been persuaded by celebrity journalism and by "respectable" journalism that no one ultimately has a right to privacy; if you're famous, losing your right to privacy is "part of the price you pay", and the celebrity who dares to object will be roundly mocked; if you're in the news, your right to privacy is trumped by the public's supposed need to know."

    Right, exactly. Celebrity culture has created an atmosphere where we don't believe that anyone has a right to privacy. The "public's supposed need to know" is the same rationale VM uses. It's also the rationale Homeland Security uses, with "the government's" substituted for "the public's."

    Different scale, same logic.

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  5. Anonymous4:59 PM

    I agree with Harry - "snooping" is part and parcel of a classic private eye story.

    Magnum was always asking his pals to sneak him confidential documents and Dave and Maddie on Moonlighting were breaking and entering and lying to people every week. It's the appeal of a P.I. story over a cop story -- the P.I. gets to break all the rules in pursuit of the case, and hopes he/she doesn't get caught (and when she does, she worms her way out of it).

    It doesn't make it "right" but it allows the P.I. to get info they wouldn't get otherwise. And imho, Veronica gets her comeuppance more than once for her methods.

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