Left Alone

On the lure of private life in a time of public peril

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PROVIDED YOU COULD FIND enough self-described progressives who believed in such a thing, it might be interesting to poll them as to which facts, dates, or quotations they felt an American schoolchild ought to learn by heart. We can imagine some likely candidates: the Bill of Rights (polls have shown that a majority of the American public doesn’t know what it is), the date of the Stonewall uprising, the text of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, the percentage of the nation’s wealth now owned by 1 percent of its population (about 40, a number sometimes used in the Bible to mean “a lot”).

I would be willing to second any of these nominations, though I would also want to submit a modest candidate of my own. I would propose that every child be required to memorize the fact that Henry David Thoreau wrote both Civil Disobedience and Walden (also known as Life in the Woods). It might not mean all that much to a kid at the time, but if she managed to reach adulthood, and especially if she managed to achieve political maturity as a progressive, it might take her a long way toward understanding her own mind. There in the best-known works of a single American author are the two basic impulses that define many of the left-leaning people I’ve known: a pull toward changing the world and a pull toward withdrawing from it on the most favorable terms possible.

This is not necessarily a contradiction. People head for the hills and take to the streets for the same reason: the belief that something is radically wrong and is best remedied by taking a radical step. Seen in that light, Thoreau is no more at odds with himself than many of the hermetic progressives who live in my corner of New England. You can date the start of the back-to-the-land movement by the publication of Helen and Scott Nearing’s 1954 book, Living the Good Life, a record of their homesteading experiment in Vermont. You can date what I hope will one day be known as the back-to-democracy movement by the 1990 election of Bernie Sanders as that state’s congressional representative, an office he still holds. I wouldn’t require kids to memorize the dates, but I would invite adults to see a connection. I’m convinced that one exists.

But beginning the revolution at home is not the same thing as retreating into domesticity. The personal is not automatically the political. When I ask myself, as many of us are asking these days, “What happened to my country?”—and when I also ask, as perhaps too few of us are asking these days, “What happened to me?”—the answer I keep coming up with is that the pull of private life proved irresistible. Oscar Wilde spoke for more than a few of us when he reputedly said, “The trouble with socialism is that it would take too many evenings.” Not to mention too much socializing. When I think of “the tumultuous ’60s,” I don’t see peace signs and freedom riders; I see crowds: rallies and rock festivals and that epitome of way-too-crowded-for-me known as communal living. I hear Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane (circa 1969) singing “Tear down the walls!”—and though that may amount to little more than Robert Frost with a “motherfucker” thrown in for emphasis, and though I’ve been known to sing along, something there is that does love a wall. Something very much in me. My daughter recently pointed this out in case I’d missed it. She noted how a right-wing neighbor of ours (identified as such by his bumper stickers) had been surprisingly “nice” when we stopped by his house. “Of course you and Mom are very nice too,” she hastened to add. “You’re extremely liberal and you’ll help anybody in need. But at the end of the day, what you really want is to be left alone.”

THAT IS WHAT an increasing number of us want, according to Robert D. Putnam’s 2000 best-seller, Bowling Alone. Putnam mustered an impressive array of data in support of his thesis that “social capital” (an index of factors including volunteer work, club membership, church attendance, and having company over to the house) has been steadily declining in America after it peaked sometime in the 1960s. Perhaps nothing supported Putnam’s thesis so well as the fact that, for many of us, it wasn’t news. I recall my father describing how hard it had been in the early ’50s “to get guys out to union meetings” on nights when a puppet show called Kukla, Fran and Ollie was on television. When Milton Berle came on, you could pretty much forget it.

The writing was probably on the wall even before it got on TV. The Founding Fathers of Plymouth and Philadelphia had their alter egos in daddies like Daniel Boone and Pa Ingalls, who found nothing they liked so well as a spacious nowhere. Writing in the purported boom years of social capital, the essayist Joan Didion remarked that while Americans profess to admire philanthropists and statesmen, our secret heroes are people like the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. “In a nation which increasingly appears to prize social virtues,” she wrote in 1967, “Howard Hughes remains not merely antisocial but grandly, brilliantly, surpassingly, asocial. He is the last private man, the dream we no longer admit.”

If Putnam’s contention is correct, maybe more of us are willing to admit the dream now. And it may be, too, that the dream has undergone a major shift. The plethora of home-improvement shows, the phenomenon of the epicurean box store, the elevation of culinary prowess to a mark of sanctifying grace, all point to a privacy that has less to do with Howard Hughes “the last private man” than with Martha Stewart the First Lady of the proverbial Best Revenge. Forget Thoreau. It is as if society were divided into two classes of Romans, those who maintain an unabashed faith in empire, and the more politically fastidious, who only want an imperial style of life: a Tuscan villa, a perfect crepe, an out-of-this-world bath.

This may be too cynical. A more sympathetic reading of the trend toward domesticity would see it as a desperate last stand in the face of powerlessness. I cannot prevent the rigging of elections, but I can at least rewire the den. I cannot halt the bankruptcy of an entire generation, but I can—in midlife and with a better-than-middling income—raise one pampered, politically correct, altogether enchanting child. If we cannot make a heaven on earth, perhaps we can achieve the blue heaven of that old song: “just Molly and me, and baby makes three.”

But the dreamiest part of the dream consists of the failure to see that private life is largely the creation of public—and progressive—policy. That is no less true at Walden Pond than at Bed Bath & Beyond. The eight-hour day, the minimum wage, the right to collective bargaining, Social Security, Medicare—all these help to outfit the hermitage. In other words, we retreat from activism to the house that activism built. We redo the bathroom on the basis of what was done for us on the barricades. In that sense, progressive movements have a built-in regressive component: They never succeed without the risk of retarding their own momentum. Of course, that is true of many human endeavors. A progressive minus a sense of the tragic equals an airhead.

But a progressive minus a sense of hope equals nothing at all. Not long ago a radio interviewer put me on the spot by asking, “What, exactly, is ‘a progressive’?” I said it is someone who dares to hope. A progressive believes that society can be made better, that it can be made better by informed people acting in concert, and that it can be called “better” only when it’s better for everybody. I liked my definition quite a lot. What I didn’t like was asking myself what I was doing to prove it.

WELL, I RECYCLE. Even when we’re feeling most like being left alone, my wife and I still recycle. I am looking at the mail-order catalogs about to be tossed into the bin for junk mail and cardboard, some that come at our bidding and others the result of swapped subscription lists and Internet databases, catalogs for cooking implements, gardening supplies, bed linens and lingerie, movies and books, all aimed at enhancing our enjoyment of domestic life. And it occurs to me how ominously they match up with items in the catalog of current political abuses: the assault on confidential reading encoded in the Patriot Act, the threats to reproductive freedom and Social Security that have now attained the level of solemn vows, the erosion of air and water quality that makes a term like “organic gardening” sound as wishful as abracadabra. Private life is not a given; it is a taken, and when taken for granted, it is soon taken away.

Who could look at the final images of Terri Schiavo, plastered across the media like barracks-house pinups for the Armies of Life, without wondering if this was the future of privacy in America? Was this sad spectacle “going to be me” in another 10, 20, or 50 years? Who can ponder something like “faith-based initiatives” for social welfare, or faith-based bids for public office, without wondering if even the religious argument for privacy—the idea that one’s soul is one’s own business—will soon be treated as contemptuously as a Koran at Guantanamo Bay? The derelict approaches the soup kettle and the senator the podium under the same abject obligation, both compelled to expose their most private beliefs to theocratic scrutiny.

What the theocrats don’t want, the target marketers are only too happy to seize. In
an updated version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” the girl would say to the Big Bad Wolf, “What a lot of information you need, Grandma.” The better to serve you with, my dear. I’d rather live in the busiest aisle of a Wal-Mart than in a police state, but does any police state presume to know as much about its citizenry as the consumer economy tries to know about you and me? Email a friend about flying out to see him and the airline rates suddenly appear in the margins of the screen. Of course the same software company that sells the wherewithal to undress your laptop will sell you the wherewithal to dress it more securely, and so on and so forth, infinitely refining the illusion that you can see but not be seen, that you are as invisible as Howard Hughes and twice as savvy, a true cutting-edge sport.

But by far the greatest threat to private life is the obscene disproportion of private wealth. No surprise there if we consider that private life is a form of private wealth. Without the latter, “lifestyle” reduces to logistics: how to get to a market that isn’t on the bus line, how to parse the ingredients if you can’t read the can. Private life in a class-based society is like a private stash of food in a famine, a private dinghy somewhere off the cracked hull of the Titanic. “It’s nice for some”—and if they have any conscience, it’s not nice for them either.

The question of conscience is by no means peripheral here. Private life depends on political life not only practically but morally. I cannot be “left alone” in the deepest sense if my privacy depends on another’s exploitation, if the noise of that awareness is forever grating on my peace. That explains why so private a person as Thoreau would commit an act of civil disobedience, going to jail rather than pay taxes to a state that supported slavery and the Mexican War. He did not see himself as a political type; one doubts he would have embraced a label like “progressive.” Of the proper channels for political change he writes, “They take too much time…. I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.”

But here’s the catch, the fine print in the lifestyle catalog, the whoopee cushion in the rowboat on Walden Pond: “If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations,
I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.”

THE CLASSIC bourgeois liberal way of looking at a privilege is to cringe with guilt over having it and then to cling to it all the more tightly. If possible, I’d like a more progressive reflex. I’d prefer to embrace the private life I love and employ it in such a way that others are able to enjoy their share of the same thing. That is to say, I’d like to reacquaint my private side with my politics. That requires me to recognize several things.

The first is that private life has political value. “Social capital” is not the only coin of the realm. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler, said, “Let the one who cannot be alone beware of community.” Knowing yourself, in other words, and having the ability to be at home with yourself, are prerequisites for meaningful collective action. Who has not had the disheart- ening experience of going to a political meeting only to discover what amounted to an ad hoc support group? Who has never been tempted to shout, “Do that stuff at home!” Only the person who is never at home.

Private life is also, at its best, a vision of the great society, a glimpse of a heaven not so blue or blue-blooded. My most cherished domestic pleasures buttress my most radical convictions: I want everybody to have their share of the good stuff. Nothing makes me think of a Molotov cocktail so much as a bottle of fine wine.

In addition, I need to recognize that the domestic sphere lends itself to resistance no less than to retreat. Studying the Underground Railroad or the networks dedicated to saving Jews from the Nazis, one is struck not only by the accumulated “social capital” of the tightly knit communities in which these activities took place, but also by the multiple examples of domestic culture and private values: hospitality, secrecy, discretion, the ability to act alone. For all our interest in home improvement, I wonder if we would prove as handy in the construction of trapdoors. It’s a skill that may need to be revived before long.

I need to recognize, too, that private life derives from political life and that it is now in grave danger. It is threatened by government intrusion into our private affairs and religious meddling with our government. It is threatened by mandatory drug tests and ubiquitous electronic surveillance. Most of all, it is threatened by the existence of people who cannot enjoy a private life of their own. When a person who works 60 hours a week cannot afford to buy a home, when women are not safe from assault in their homes, when 50-year-old National Guard reservists are yanked from their homes, when soldiers who have completed their assigned tour of duty are told they cannot go home—in short, when the aggregate home life of the nation cries out for dissent— then domestic retreat amounts to self-imposed house arrest. The powers that be are supposed to do that to us; we are not supposed to do that to ourselves.

Samuel Johnson said, “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labor tends.” A progressive will add that it is also an end that ought to include everyone—that needs to include everyone. To be happy at home without giving a damn about anyone else’s happiness is an abandonment of hope, including, ultimately, any hope of being happy at home.

That assertion runs counter to much of what we assume about the relation between social justice and private pursuit. Somewhere close to “the dream we no longer admit” is the equally inadmissible nightmare in which a more progressive social order necessarily involves a less gracious life. The right exploits that fear to great effect, and the left is not immune to it. We are aghast to learn that the average salary of a leading CEO is 431 times that of the average American worker, but wouldn’t the abolition of that obscenity also involve abolishing many of the private pleasures we hold dear? That is the final thing I need to recognize—and to communicate, if I am to be politically effective: the speciousness of that lie. The lie that says gross inequalities of wealth and privilege are necessary to preserve any semblance of autonomy and freedom. With all due respect to Oscar Wilde, the trouble with unbridled capitalism is that it will take too many evenings, which is to say, the nights you will wind up working to pay for your children’s health insurance, your rich neighbor’s tax cut, and your president’s billion-dollar-a-week war.

I am a socialist in part because I am not an overly sociable person. In other words, I am of the left because, as my daughter so trenchantly noted, I want to be left alone. This will strike some people as a perverse contradiction, but only if they see privacy and politics as antithetical. As a way of remembering that not all people do, I sometimes recall an evening when a young teacher from the People’s Republic of China came to our house for dinner. This was a few years after people had stopped carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, long after Grace Slick had named her baby China, but some time before the Beijing dictatorship had decided that capitalism-in-drag was the way to go. Our guest had not come to America as a missionary, more as an admirer, though he was not above pointing out some of the advantages of a collective way of life. “I am surprised,” he said, “given how much you Americans care about your privacy, that so few of your properties contain walls.” He pointed to the back border of our yard, beyond which is nothing but a hayfield occasionally trespassed by a moose. “In China, you’d have a wall there,” he said. We have since planted a hedge.


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