"Tis Time to Part": Breaking Away from Bipartisan Barbarism

By Tucker, Scott | The Humanist, March-April 1995 | Go to article overview
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"Tis Time to Part": Breaking Away from Bipartisan Barbarism


Tucker, Scott, The Humanist


To reach home and safety once again (or for the first time), people must sometimes cross a river of fire--and no Cassandra warnings, no history lessons, no homilies can substitute for that experience. Warnings are just that: only precautions for that crossing, and often they go unheard. Not only because escapism is always a temptation; not only because the loud static of the mass media often prevents intelligent conversation; but also because so many citizens have given up hope for real democracy. Politics is widely regarded as the specialty of politicians, rather than the public life of all citizens.

In fact, politics neither begins nor ends in the voting booth--as the members of the far right understand so well, and indeed they learned the lesson very largely from cultural radicals. The personal is political--hasn't this been the common wisdom among some leftists and among most feminists and queer activists? All slogans must be stark and simple, and this one, too, can be applied mechanically; it can even serve our enemies. The most radical implications of that slogan were and still are widely resisted by cultural conservatives within the "old left" and New Left (now grown old), and within both the women's and gay movements. The "countercultural" social movements of the 1960s and 1970s created limited but real changes in this country, and the far right is now seeking reversal and revenge with its own "cultural war."

Why should personal life require political struggle? Any answer must include careful distinctions. For example, between a woman so poor that she lives on the streets and struggles daily and nightly for any secure privacy, and a working or middle class lesbian who "lives in the closet" and bears a great burden of secrecy. Both live in wariness of public exposure, and neither is entirely at home in the world; but there can be no simple equation between these kinds of social isolation, nor can there be any exact formula for social solidarity. In this sense, we cannot begin to talk about democracy unless we are honest about disparity: we inhabit the same country but not the same worlds, and some citizens are much more deeply endangered than others.

At just this point in many political discussions, someone--often a liberal--laments that, if no distinctions are made between private and public life, or between culture and politics, then totalitarians from left to right inherit the earth. Civilization is then undermined by incivility, every human contact and creation is "politicized," every last inch of every last mile becomes a battle ground, neighbors engage in house to house combat, and no place is left to cultivate one's garden. Assuming, of course, that one ever had a garden to cultivate--or even a room of one's own.

This late in history, such objections are still "classically" liberal, but by no means strictly nor exclusively so. They are shared by a spectrum of "neo liberal" and "neo-conservative" pundits and writers such as Christopher Lasch, Jean-Bethe Elshtain, and others. These letter are often nostalgic for a "public square" where the social proprieties of yesteryear are the rule. Indeed, feminists and gay activists frequently become the exemplary figures of liberal individualism which has gone too far. In the marvelous formula of neo-con pundit Midge Decter, for example, gay activists are said to be "turning their condition into politics" The world was safer and simpler when we knew our place in the closet or on the psychoanalyst's couch. Today there is nothing "neo" about the neo-cons; they have long since become cheerleaders of reaction.

If any of these folks were to pursue a thorough critique of classical liberal economic privatism, they would have to extend it so far as to unmask the "individual" legal standing of business corporations. Lasch came closer to so doing but reverted again to nostalgia for Mom and Pop free enterprise. This is Sunday school economics.

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