Democratic Mores and the Hospital-Theater of the Absurd

“As a school, we’ve done a lot of work with human rights,” said Michael McDermott, the middle school principal. “But you can’t have kids saving Darfur and isolating a peer in the lunchroom. It all has to go together.” — The New York Times

Nonsense. It doesn’t have to, and it doesn’t, go together; in fact, it pulls in different directions that each intensify as we oscillate between them. Tocqueville was very good on the way mores grow more gentle in a democratic age, but Constant showed better, even as it saddened him, how it’s public mores that improve while private ones are free to decay. And, to the extent that legalism comes to fully supplant our political space, decay they do — not because politics is, in Arendtian fashion, some privileged realm for the disclosure and display of one’s True Self, but because legalism ‘officializes’ everything, including mores. As political public space wanes and legal public space grows, legalism transforms the very definition of public and private space — or, that is, supplants them simply with official space and unoffical space. In terms of mores, it’s no surprise that the official aligns itself in a liberal democracy with gentleness, relegating beastliness to the unofficial space we awkwardly still refer to as ‘private.’

But, of course, as legalism thrusts the ‘public’ realm into the private, and increasingly beastly mores thrust heretofore ‘private’ conduct ever more brazenly into public, liberalism’s rather cherished public/private distinction becomes rickety, dilapidated, perforated, and porous, increasingly both official and absurd. As is well known to writers who have outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted our 20th-century totalitarian regimes, common folk increasingly recognize officialdom wherever absurdity is found, and come to associate the public realm with the realm of the fictitious and fraudulent. Officials congratulate themselves when certain lessons ‘stick’, but at the same time they are intensifying and concentrating a beastliness that shifts even further into ‘private’, which is to say other, residually ‘unofficial’ (and ever more embarrassingly so) public realms.

Sarah Frohman, 13, said that she catches herself when she is about to call someone who annoys her a “retard,” and that she has told her soccer coach in a youth league not to use the word.

Annie Gevertz, 12, said that she is more careful of what she says about other students. “Sometimes, I think about how it would feel if it were said about me, and I’ll keep it to myself instead of sharing,” she said, though she expects gossip will probably never be gone for good “because we’re teenage girls and that’s something we do.”

Yet the regulation of the sexual mores of the young, with or without condoms, continues to lose steam and confidence justified by any standard other than official gentleness — with all the efficiency value, as a constant in the risk-calculation factor of resource-allocation projections, that mass gentleness has for officialdom. But our public obsession with security and health parallels our ‘private’ tastes for risk and self-poisoning, and our loving, de-eroticized pieties concerning Respect for All grow apace with our beastly appetite for erotic impieties.

In the face of all this, small-l liberal politics largely bites its lip. The ultimate hero of our civilization is a sixteen-year-old sexpot who saves Darfur and bitchily destroys her rivals, all in a day’s work — Lolita Borgia in a reality-TV production of Legally Blonde 4: Barely Legal Bottle-Blonde Beasts of Prey.