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Left Alone

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

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").

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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.

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