No, The Personal Is Not Political

The truism that is tearing at the fabric of liberal democracy.


Something truly sinister is happening in America. The critical distinction between public and private life is being eroded.

You can see it first of all in political protests. Not content with marching in the streets to air complaints, demands, and grievances as a public spectacle, demonstrators of all kinds increasingly seek out the private homes of public figures to hound them intimately and personally. In the past year or so, the examples have mounted quickly. The mayor of Portland had to move house because activists besieged his condo building, breaking windows of other people’s offices and throwing burning debris into them. The mayors of St. Louis and Buffalo were also driven from their homes, and Chicago’s mayor was under constant threat: “[Lori] Lightfoot already receives 24/7 protection from cops including officers stationed at the residence.”

After a police shooting in DC, protestors didn’t just demonstrate outside a local police station, as is their absolute right, but traveled 13 miles to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s home to yell deadly threats at her:

“If we don’t get no justice, then you don’t get no sleep,” protesters were allegedly heard chanting outside the home, according to a video posted on social media. “If we don’t get it, burn it down.”

This also happened in Pittsburgh (“an encounter that ended with tear gas”), Philly (“five hospitalized — including a police sergeant with a broken finger”), and Oak Park, where protestors “banged on [Mayor Abu-Taleb’s] windows and doors, tore up a garden and spray-painted sidewalks when the board voted down a police defunding measure.”

Such tactics have escalated to vandalizing the private homes themselves, often covering them with graffiti, to drive home the message: “Spray painted phrases included ‘BLM,’ ‘Jacob Blake,’ and an expletive directed at San Jose’s mayor.” In Oakland, a similar scene:

“Defund OPD,” “homes 4 all,” and “blood on your hands” were all spray-painted on the garage, sidewalk and stone wall outside Mayor Schaaf's Oakland home overnight. Witnesses say 30 to 40 people dressed in black and wearing masks shot projectiles and set off fireworks around 2 a.m.

And in Sacramento:

“The idea that people would come terrorize [Mayor Steinberg’s] street, intimidate his family, damage his home is beyond the pale and he was quite upset about it," Mary Lynne Vellinga, the mayor’s communications director, said. Along with breaking lights, dinging up siding, busting a yard sculpture and writing inflammatory words in chalk on his front walkway, the demonstrators, according to Vellinga, shouted and chanted threatening phrases …

And of course Seattle:

[Deputy Mayor Mike Fong] knew what happened at Mayor Jenny Durkan’s house. People vandalized her home, writing “die,” “Resign bitch,” “guillotine Jenny,” and “Jenny is a bitch.”

Although not as persistent or as widespread as the far left’s invasion of the privacy of public figures, the far right is not innocent either. LA Mayor Garcetti’s residence was targeted by anti-lockdown activists; LA County’s public health director was also targeted at home; some folks brought menacing tiki-torches to the Boise mayor’s home; in Duluth, Trump supporters organized 20 trucks to circle the mayor’s home. Over the new year, Nancy Pelosi’s private home was vandalized, graffiti written on her garage door, and a bloody pig’s head was thrown into the mix for good measure.

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There are also attacks on school board members around the country, who favor teaching the concepts of critical race theory to kids, or are implementing Covid mask policies. It’s fine and good to protest; it is not fine and good to force these people and their families to live under personal siege.

Anti-mask demonstrators, for example, hounded one Brevard School Board member and mother, Jennifer Jenkins, at her Florida home, at one point coming to her doorstep and coughing in her face. She later testified that she was ok with demonstrators outside her home, but that “I object to them following my car around, I reject them saying they are coming for me and I need to beg for mercy … that they are going behind my home and brandishing their weapons to my neighbors. That they’re making false DCF [child welfare agency] claims against me to my daughter. That I have to take a DCF investigator to her playdate to go underneath her clothing and check for burn marks. That’s what I’m against.”

What we are seeing here is not just the boorishness of mobs. What we’re seeing is something more dangerous: the erosion of the boundary between public and private. Violating private homes and intimidating people’s families are just two of the more glaring examples. The Internet, via emails, has also rendered the whole notion of private correspondence — a principle the Founding Fathers saw as essential to freedom from tyranny — so porous that it barely exists. A permanent record of everything you have ever put into pixels, however intimate or personal, exists somewhere; and it can be easily searched exhaustively — forever. There is no safe space from that.

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Not long ago, Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned from the NBA for life because of a phone conversation he had with an ex; ESPN’s Rachel Nichols was recently called out by the NYT for what she thought was a private chat and was subsequently demoted; teachers have been fired for group chats on Slack they thought were private; three Netflix execs were similarly sacked; two Georgetown law professors met the same fate for a Zoom chat they thought was between them; a private Instagram outburst got a man in Miami canned; and the new Jon Gruden scandal is rooted in private emails to friends that were caught up in another probe altogether. Some guy in Georgia lost his job over a butt-dial, for Pete’s sake.

Combine this technological eavesdropping capacity with a wave of tribal and political fanaticism, and you can see how a liberal society can unravel so quickly. In one tribe, people can be terrified that a private chat or text or a bad hook-up can hand anyone else a weapon to brandish them a “white supremacist,” “misogynist,” or “transphobe” — and see their life ruined. In the other tribe, a woman in Texas may be terrified that any private comment, email, or text about an unwanted pregnancy could come back to haunt her, because of a GOP law whose enforcement despicably depends on snitching on fellow citizens. Revenge porn is yet another variation on this brutalizing theme. Everywhere you look, the idea that everyone deserves some zone of privacy is disappearing.

You may argue that making the political personal is a boon for accountability. And this is true to a point. But is it too much to ask that you don’t hound a US Senator when she is trying to go to the loo? Or that you protest in a manner that does not traumatize people’s families and destroy their property? Or that you don’t turn a bad date into a public attempt at character assassination? At some point, as we just saw in Britain today with the murder of a member of parliament, you lose the qualifier.

You may equally see transparency as a brilliant way to expose hypocrisy. And this is true to a point. But who hasn’t said or written something in their private lives they regret? We are all human, and all hypocrites to one degree or other. Ripping away every veil that conceals us at our worst is not just cruel; it’s inhuman. I have long felt that way even about “outing” public figures who have bad records on gay rights. Legitimize outing gays to combat homophobia and you legitimize other people outing gays in order to shame and humiliate.

What we’re losing, I fear, is the idea that we can take on a role as public citizens that is separate from our role as private human beings; that we can place limits on what the state can do to us, and what we can do to each other. As Hannah Arendt perhaps best grasped, a liberal society is almost defined by its belief that politics has limits, and that it exists to defend us from either the government or our fellow citizens leveraging private human flaws for political purposes. There are, in fact, many worse things than hypocrisy. Shamelessness, for example. The first is human; the second is sociopathic. I want to live in a world where the former prevails.

The idea that “the personal is political” is not just a glib phrase. It is actually best exemplified by totalitarian systems, which seek no limits to their authority over private matters, even those matters that are buried deep in your mind and soul, and which enroll citizens into becoming mutual spies in pursuit of heretics. I don’t want to live in that transparent, unsparing, brutalizing world. It turns us all into spies; it gives no one space to think or escape; it is devoid of mercy and gives no benefit of the doubt.

Let’s not lose the distinction between public and private. Let’s remember that everything we decide to do to violate the privacy of others comes back to legitimize others’ violation of ours. The immediate payoff may be gratifying; but what it does to a society over time, as the tit-for-tats cascade, is to remove the chance for civil debate, and enhance the power of personal hatred, and, ultimately political violence. That’s where this leads: a descent from civil argument to civil war.

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(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: an in-depth discussion with the legendary Bob Woodward and old soul Robert Costa on the dangers of Donald Trump; dissents from readers who voted for Trump; more dissents over my praise of Dave Chappelle’s special; three notable quotes for the week; seven recommended pieces from other substackers, on topics such a climate change and the history of American racism; a Mental Health Break of musical typewriters; a vivid view from an autumn window and a muted one from Cape Cod; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)

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I’ve been a reader of yours since 2003, when I was 23. You were one of the first voices to wake me up to the reality that the world wasn’t actually governed by sternly competent and incorruptible men and women for whom the public interest was their primary concern. Your Chappelle column was a perfect example of why I’ve loved your work for so many years. I’ve been feeling uneasy about the tone around wokeness recently and I couldn’t quite put a finger on why it was making me so uncomfortable. You helped me make sense of it all, so thank you.

Thank you for subscribing! Dissents over my Chappelle column are below.


New On The Dishcast: Bob Woodward & Robert Costa

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The pod conversation was the first one scheduled after my annual return to DC from Provincetown, so the three of us were able to meet in person — and we had video cameras on hand in the studio. So, something new for the Dishcast this week: living color. If you’re a paid subscriber and want to watch my discussion with Bob and Robert in our studio, go here. Or, if you’re not a subscriber yet, check out this short clip of the 1.5 hour episode:

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That link also takes you to a bunch of reader commentary over the most recent Trump-related episode we aired, with Michael Wolff. Trump’s record is praised in several of the posted emails — one written by a Trump voter who now regrets her choice, and another written by a Trump voter sticking by him. See if they persuade you on any points.

Here’s an email from a Dish subscriber — “a very happy one” — regarding the Dishcast:

I hadn’t known much about Cornel West, my limited exposure being mostly snarky interviews with that Master of Snark, Bill Maher. West, even in that sarcastic format, shone. But your conversation with him last week astonished me. I’ve now listened to it twice, going on my third round. I thrill to it, frequently to tears. I hadn’t known West to be such a man of God — a love warrior, as he so poetically put it. Paired with you, a fellow Christian, it was a conversation I found inspiring, encouraging, revealing and reforming. I am Catholic/Episcopal — a lame sort, more Thomas than John, bumbling mostly — but the West conversation rekindled my faith in a way I haven’t felt in a very long time. Simply, thank you.


Dissent Of The Week: Enough With The Woke!

From an exasperated reader:

How many times can you use the word “woke”? Week after week. Column after column. It’s the same pabulum every issue. You are a gay foreigner with HIV. Where exactly do you think you’d be without those “woke” people? You know if left to conservatives you wouldn’t be here and you probably wouldn’t be alive.

Let’s review, shall we? It is emphatically a matter of record that for decades, the woke opposed marriage equality and gay military service and did everything they could to stop both reforms. It’s also a matter of record that the president who signed the original ban on HIV-positive gay foreigners was Bill Clinton. He also signed the Defense of Marriage Act, and doubled the rate of gay discharges from the military, having lured them out of the closet with empty promises. I do not dispute the fact that the Democrats have long been much more friendly to the cause of gay rights in general than the GOP, but on the issues I fought for, marriage and military service, they were fair-weather friends.

Moreover, the person who finally gave us marriage equality, fiercely opposed by the Clintons and Bush and the gay rights establishment, was a Reagan nominee, Anthony Kennedy. The person who finally put trans people in the Civil Rights Act was a Trump nominee, Neil Gorsuch. The key pro-gay legislation championed by the Democrats since the 1980s — what has now become the Equality Act — is still not law.

And wokeness does not mean liberalism. I never use it to describe, say, economic leftism, or liberal anti-discrimination principles. In my first book, Virtually Normal, I go to great lengths to make the distinction between liberalism and liberationism very, very clear. This is not about being pro-gay or anti-gay, or pro-black or anti-black, whatever those terms could mean; it’s about being pro- or anti-liberalism, being opposed to a neo-Marxist view of society, or in favor of it. This is not pabulum. It’s a core principle and I won’t apologize for defending it.

You can read for yourself many of my early, “anti-woke” arguments for gay marriage, military service, and homosexuality in general in Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989-2021.

For several other dissents in this week’s issue, including ones countering my praise of Dave Chappelle’s special, go here. I respond to readers in kind, but this image speaks volumes:

As always, please keep the dissents coming, and every week we will continue to post the strongest ones (selected by Chris Bodenner, not me): dish@andrewsullivan.com.


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  • A fascinating history of black GIs in England during WWII, centered on a deadly gun battle instigated by white GIs at a pub. “It exposed radical and uncomfortable differences between the two countries,” Ian Leslie writes.

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