Alone in our nakedness


A QUARTER OF a century ago a rare and brilliant gentleman, my mentor George Armstrong Kelly, regaled me with a late-night tale of a play he was writing to divert himself from his heavy and consuming scholarship (on the French Revolution).

The drama opened with a male and female character in the nude, seated in a comfortable living room. The man was lounging on a sofa, reading a newspaper, and yawning from time to time. The woman was curled up, polishing her nails, also plainly bored. Then one of the two arose and casually put on a piece of clothing. The other followed, languidly. The dressing began slowly, then quickened.

Only by the play's end, with each protagonist fully dressed, up to and including their accessories, did the pair express any interest in one another; only then did the dialogue begin. If memory serves, the script ended with the couple in an ardent embrace, having become interested, even amorous, after the dressing was complete.

The point? The point, I suspect, was that only mystery, and embrace of certain forms and norms of circumspection, makes interest and passion possible. Only then do we have something to talk about. Stripped naked, we are reduced to the tedium of a nudist convention. Mystery lies at the heart of human variety.

In ways I didn't then understand, and found quirky and quarrelsome at best, George Kelly stood apart from the tell-all, reveal-all, expose-all ethos taking shape. He was countercultural to the conformist counterculture. He represented reticence and reserve. These qualities, in short supply in 1970, are even less evident and honored now.

Moralistic lament

Those who lament the loss of these qualities often do so in language that is cribbed and crabby, excessively moralistic: things are going to hell in a handcart.

But Mr. Kelly's point was different. He began with the assumption that we were likely on the road to perdition. This was a given of the human condition after the Fall.

He then asked: But what sort of life do we live in the meantime? If it is to be a life of texture and depth, it requires a culture that can sustain the distance between people. The culture must preserve certain distinctions, rather than throwing us up against one another nose to nose, without discrimination.

The political fallout of this mania for exposure is evident all around us. We want every detail of our political leaders' lives fully revealed. We have a love-hate relationship with the news media for their indefatigable digging up of all the dirt that's fit to print.

This phenomenon, which as been going on for decades, stems partly from a cyclical process involving the public and the private: the public collapses into the private; the private is denigrated; and then, to complete the cycle, a besmirched notion of private life is offered as public fare.

Consider the current tendency to regard the answer to the question, "Have you or have you not cheated on your spouse?" as just as significant as a political candidate's track record on, say, U.S. intervention abroad or civil rights.

This is more than just a matter of conflating a personal transgression and a public position. It amounts to the harsh conclusion that an episode of weakness exhausts the entire truth of the individual's private life. We judge people by their moments of weakness, their lapses and limits.

We forget the exchange in the film "Unforgiven" between Clint Eastwood's protagonist and a kid who has for the first time killed a man. "Well, I guess he had it coming," the kid says, seeking to justify his deed. "We've all got it comin', kid," Eastwood replies -- a classic restatement of a basic truth; that we are all sinners, all finite, frail, torn in basic ways.

To be sure, the big sinners, those who flagrantly violate certain norms of decent behavior, raise legitimate suspicions about their characters and their capacity for public judgment. But entertaining doubts about them is different from the scandal-sniffing pettiness of the present moment.

In "Democracy on Trial," I call this reductionistic process a "politics of displacement." It is a political attitude that presumes an identity, rather than a relationship, between the personal and the political. Nothing is exempt from political definition, direction and manipulation -- not sexual intimacy, not love, not passion, not raising children, not friendship. This is disastrous for democratic politics. A political perspective requires us to differentiate the activity we call "politics" -- that which is held in common and open to public scrutiny and judgment -- from other activities and relationships. If all conceptual boundaries are blurred and all distinctions between public and private eliminated, no politics can exist.

The emergence of a politics of displacement carries deep implication for how we will think about and conduct politics in the years ahead. We will do more of what we are doing already: taking to the airwaves and the streets, in our boredom and our anger, to proclaim the awful and ugly truth about a spouse, friend, a lover, a parent, a child, a political figure or a despised enemy or group.

A young woman, for the delectation of millions, spews venom at her sister for coveting her boyfriend. Reporters scour people's trash and video-rental records. Political activists insist that everyone's racial or sexual identity exhausts what he or she can say. This ugly substitution of publicity for that which is truly either private or public is now America's leading growth industry.

The complete collapse of the distinction between public and private identities, commitments and activities, is anathema to democratic thinking, which considers these differences of vital importance. This democratic tenet does not create a wall of separation between what is public and what is private. Rather, it insists that a distinction must be preserved, for the sake of both public life and private life. Historically, it has been the anti-democrats who have insisted that political life must be cut from one piece of cloth. They have demanded overweening and unified politicization, unclouded by various passions and interests.

The anti-democrats disdain variety and refuse to honor Isaiah Berlin's recognition that not all worthy values harmonize in a tidy way. It is the absolutists, not democrats, who promote a single harsh standard of judgment and who undermine our capacity to be both friends and citizens, parents and activists, private and public persons.

The irony of the current moment is that we are rather like Mr. Kelly's bored nudes. Until we recapture a sense of forms, norms, place and simple propriety, we are doomed to boredom -- alone in our nakedness, with little to say to one another.

Jean Bethke Elshtain writes for The New Republic, in which this article first appeared.

Pub Date: 8/13/96

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