My joke about Paris Hilton is that none of this would have happened if she had been named Washington Marriott. Then she would have been the child of Mormons and raised quite differently with, one would hope, better results. We would now be watching an Internet tape of her doing missionary work in the Third World instead of assuming that position for much of the First World to see.
Any mention of Paris Hilton leads, in a People magazine sense, to Michael Jackson. The two are starkly different: Jackson is a talented entertainer who originally became famous for his work, although he is now famous for other things. But as with Hilton, a tape exists -- or purportedly exists. It was surreptitiously made aboard the airplane that took him from Las Vegas to his arraignment in California as he conferred with his lawyer.
I think both Jackson and Hilton must share a sense of being burglarized of themselves. I use the word burglary because when I was burglarized, I felt an almost inexpressible sense of invasion: Someone had not just taken some items (a radio, a laptop computer), but more importantly my sense of security -- that my home was inviolable.
Hilton, in particular, has lost much more than that. She has lost control of who she is -- or, at least, who she wants us to think she is. Even though she is a party girl -- night after night at New York and L.A. clubs -- she could still pretend to be her parents' little girl or whatever else she wanted to be. Now her sense of who she is has been absconded with. Someone made off with it.
With Jackson, the burglary of self is only potential. The tape has not been shown and may never be. But you can imagine how it might show him saying or doing things that even he would not want the world to know. His is a hard case when arguing for a sense of privacy, but often it takes a celebrity to bring such matters to the public's attention.
The sense we all once had that we are secure in our own person is gone, probably irrevocably so. Espionage has been democratized. Cell phones come equipped with little cameras so that people in the locker rooms of health clubs have to worry about someone pretending to make a call. Clothing, after all, is the most common of deceptions, because the clothes you wear are your sense of who you are -- how you show you are rich, or a football fan, or whatever. The vicious little cameras take you down to your essentials.
Videocams are everywhere -- placed there by the police for traffic or public-safety reasons or just haphazardly running because someone is taping his cute grandchild and you happen to be in the background. Sometimes the shooter is his own victim. I am thinking now of Dennis Kozlowski, the former Tyco CEO, who must now see his kitschy choices in furniture and other decorating doodads shown to the world. A proud man has been reduced to a jerk -- and that has nothing to do with his guilt or innocence.
You may argue that Hilton and maybe even Jackson deserve no privacy. Hilton, after all, helped make the infamous sex tape herself, and Jackson -- well, what can anyone say? But Hilton committed no crime, and while Jackson is accused of one, it does not relate to what he did on that airplane -- and the snoopers were not law-enforcement officials. Hilton in particular has been robbed of a commodity that we all value -- the face we think we show the world.
Smile, we are all on Candid Camera.
Richard Cohen is a columnist for The Washington Post.