I started to write this post at 37,000 feet, between New York and Paris, flying to see my grandson, Ludovic, and his parents Michel and Brina (my daughter). Preoccupied by the private purpose of my visit, I tried to think about recent public events and their meaning. I was looking forward to private pleasures, working on public matters.
My trip is very much a family affair, no lectures, no meetings planned with colleagues. I am not even sure we will see any sites: Paris without the Eifel Tower or the Louvre, maybe a hardware store or two as Brina and Michael are in the middle of some serious home renovations.
But as I hurtled through the sky over the Atlantic, I wondered about how the private is linked to the public, aware of the fact that generally the French and Americans, and more particularly the French and American media, have dealt with this in very different ways, revealed in recent scandals.
Americans are more likely to look for the truth of the public by examining the private. The French are more convinced that private matters are not public issues. Both have important insights and blind spots, apparent in this week’s news and in the discussions here at DC.
Gary Alan Fine welcomed the candidacy of Tim Pawlenty. Fine, who enjoys what he calls pungent political discourse of the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, also recognizes the importance of serious political debate, seeing this possibility in Pawlenty. But there was another such candidate presenting serious alternatives to the Democrat’s positions, with a record of accomplishment. Many informed Republican partisans thought Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana would be an even more significant candidate. But the twice married to the same woman politician with an apparently complicated private life, chose not to run. His family, specifically his daughters, vetoed his run. Fear of public exposure of what should remain private deprived the Republicans of a candidate. Public debate and contestation has been diminished by the apparent confusion of public and private virtues.
Fine also likes scandals and humorously thanks Dominque Strauss-Kahn for providing the latest, one that radically underlines the problem of absolutely distinguishing public from private. But DSK’s scandal is particularly serious. He is charged with a most serious crime, and the French reaction to the news has been quite instructive.
First, there was denial, linked with a variety of conspiracy theories. Then, there was outrage, not directed at DSK, but at the NYC police for the perp walk. Next, there was some realization that Strauss Kahn might not just be a womanizer, but a sexual predator. This led to a series of revelations about silence, and reflections that some things left in the shadows should see the light of day, some private matters need to be exposed, and are matters of public concern, and that a general sensibility that strongly distinguishes public and private may systematically impede this.
More about the specifics of the Strauss-Kahn controversy, I hope, next week from Daniel Dayan. But for now a quick observation from Brina and Michel’s kitchen table: Talking to them, and reading the news, upon our arrival, I am convinced that the difference between the French and the American media approach to public and private will not be so great in the future.
Tim Rosenkranz’s report on Habermas’s latest public intervention also is about the relationship between public and private, in a slightly different sense of these terms. Habermas fears that the private opinion registered in “pubic opinion polling” leads to political leadership with short horizons and undermines the political significance of elections. Politicians driven by the quick shifts of public mood can’t develop serious solutions to pressing problems and these aren’t properly debated as part of the election process. While I wouldn’t categorically dismiss polling, Habermas, with Rosenkranz’s final note, shows that there are dangers, which are evident in the U.S.
A prime example: any move to address the crisis in our healthcare system leads to partisan attacks, and necessary change becomes extremely difficult. This problem has persisted for a century. “Obamacare,” a reform that resembles Republican proposals and programs in the recent past, including Mitt Romney’s great accomplishment as Governor of Massachusetts, is attacked as socialist and as pulling the plug on grandma, scaring many in the vulnerable public. The Republican program to privatize Medicare into a kind of Obamacare for the elderly is likewise attacked, becoming a key to the rising prospects for the Democrats in Congress in the next elections. The polls inform the politicians and are directed and interpreted for partisan purposes. Commitment to serious solutions to pressing problems becomes next to impossible. This is the measure of the accomplishment of health care reform thus far, which is likely to become as popular as Medicare, it seems to me, once it is fully enacted. I think this will be a story with a happy ending.
The same problem is evident in American policy towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where there are few signs of a happy ending. President Obama openly, i.e. in public, said the obvious. Any peace deal starts with the 1967 borders between Israel and the Palestinians, with mutually agreed upon land swaps. Gershon Shafir this week strongly supported this move, and suggested that a door was opened and that its now time to walk through, to actually endorse or at least not vote against a U.N. resolution recognizing an independent Palestinian state. I tend to agree with Shafir, with a strong sense that the only way Israel will survive in the long run is through a negotiated settlement pushed forward by outside parties, especially the U.S. But this is highly unlikely given the Republican attacks on even the modest step Obama took, and given the impact this is likely to have on public opinion as measured by the polls.
Just when it would be good to be bold, the American leadership will follow the polls. The politicians will hold to inflexible positions, concerned that they may be defined as being “anti-Israel.” This is a matter in which the question of who owns the polls is very important, indicated by IrisDr’s report on her experience with a group calling itself the Republican – Jewish Coalition. Obama’s sustained pro-Israel policy (for better and for worse) can be undermined by such attacks, perhaps insuring that a reasonable peace won’t be achieved. Instead of serious public deliberation about these matters by responsible parties, there are politics directed to satisfy the prejudices of private individuals and their personal fears and opinions (named public opinion).
The French are learning that the distinction between public and private is hard to sustain, and that it’s a good thing too. Sometimes it is important to critically evaluate private matters in order to make sound public decisions. The individual moral character of a political leader matters.
But we need to make a distinction between passing individual private opinions, even when collected in a public opinion poll, and legitimate public decisions and deliberations that are connected to elections and concerted political action.
The public – private distinction: we cannot live thoroughly with it, can’t live democratically without it.