How Private Life is Strangling Public Life

Here's a story about balancing work and family, as recounted recently by Teddy Kennedy: One day in 1961 John F. Kennedy was comforting his crying daughter at the family's Hyannis Port compound when an aide interrupted to say the White House needed the President on the phone. Kennedy told his daughter he'd be right back, and took the call. Later, at dinner, the President's father took him to task for turning away from the child. "Nothing that will happen during your Presidency will be as important as how Caroline turns out," he said, "And don't forget it."

Now, this may not be the stupidest thing Joseph P. Kennedy ever said (he was, after all, mighty soft on Hitler when he was the U.S. ambassador to London). But it certainly ranks high. "Soviet missiles are on their way? Nothing I can do until we find the sippy cup." Puh-lease!

In 1961, though, Joe Kennedy was an outlier. Americans then still had respect for public life—for the notion that the safety and well-being of hundreds of millions of people could be more important than one family, even if that family's your own. If a child in a TV sitcom then complained that his father skipped the school play, he'd get an earful about how said father's work down at the hospital actually mattered a lot more.

Today, the kid would have the last word, as Julie Just pointed out in this astute piece on the way parents are portrayed in kids' books. Twenty-first century American culture, like a doddering old grandfather, holds that all life is private life. That has been great for commerce, because we buy stuff when we focus on our own needs and tastes. After all, private life is a world of meaningful choices—vanilla or chocolate, blue or green, orange—no, wait, my sister likes apple better—and each choice has to be paid for.

Public life, on the other hand, depends on people accepting that they don't have a choice. That, much as you'd like to see the third-grade pageant, you swore an oath that requires your presence in Afghanistan. That, much as you would like to make sure your grandfather receives every treatment known to medicine, you have to be fair and leave something for other people's grandmothers. That, much as you don't want your children exposed to ideas you find repugnant, you have to negotiate as equals with people who love those ideas. That, as Joe Kennedy pointed out in a wiser moment, his son the President didn't belong to one family, but to everyone.

All the choices that do exist in politics, in debates, votes and polls, depend on this foundation. As citizens, we accept circumstances in which it doesn't matter what we want, how we feel, or who we love.

Without that, politics is poisoned by the illusion that it's another kind of consumer choice. Don't like the elected government? Just secede! Disagree with your fellow citizens? Refuse them medicine! Don't like the way the 2010 Census was constructed? Don't fill it out! If we can't get clear the difference between a citizen and a consumer, politics will keep drifting in this direction. And the first step toward that clarity is saying frankly, once again, that the public side of life is important—that a lot of things matter more than how your kid turns out.

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