Can public figures have a private life?

On a visit to Jolo not too long ago, I sat in a huge social hall with then newly-elected ARMM Governor Nur Misuari as he attended to the crowd that had stayed up all night waiting to see him.  There must have been about a thousand people in that rundown building that served as his provisional office.  Many were carrying folders and manila envelopes containing resumes and project proposals.

Misuari looked haggard.  We had scheduled an interview that morning, but it was apparent that he had not slept.  I told him that it was all right for me to wait so he could retreat into his  bedroom and rest awhile.  He said he only needed to freshen up and change his shirt.  He excused himself from the crowd and asked me to follow him to his private quarters.  The quiet sanctuary I expected was filled with about fifty people.  Some sat on the bed, while the rest stood huddled around Leonie, the Chairman’s wife.  Then I realized that politicians could never have private lives.  And that privacy is practically nonexistent in customary societies like Muslim Mindanao.

In the beginning was the public.  The private sphere evolved only with the fragmentation of the traditional extended households into separate nuclear families.  There in the womb of the simple family, private space was carved so that the individual of modern times could emerge.  The quiet home became his refuge, the backstage where no masks need be worn, where he was free from the urgencies of public life.

If the norm of privacy is an invention of modern times, how then does one explain the current obsession of the most modern nation on earth with the sexual life of its president?  The unremitting voyeuristic feast that has been served by the US media on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair just seems astonishingly out of sync with the art of privacy that we associate with the American way of life.  Why have Americans allowed such radical intrusion into the ethic of private life?  What hidden resentments fuel this humiliating carnival of the presidential libido?  In an effort to find some answers to these  questions, I turned to the fascinating 5-volume work provocatively titled “A History of Private Life” (Harvard Univ. Press, 1991), by Antoine Prost and Gerard Vincent. The fifth volume in this collection, subtitled “Riddles of Identity in Modern Times”, is particularly illuminating.

Prost writes: “The turn-of-the-century press was oriented entirely toward public life.  The subject might be politics or the local country fair, but it was public not private.  The papers did not tell readers about themselves.  They gave advice about farming or politics but avoided personal topics…. A newspaper was not a looking glass.”

But the last 100 years have taken us very far.  After television breached the walls of the home and the TV set became a permanent fixture in the living room and bedroom, the division between public and private became blurred.  News used to be about events external to us, says Prost, but today “we are all supposed to become involved in the issues of the day.  General problems are cast in the form of particular examples with which one is supposed to identify; issues are dramatized and emotionalized.  We watch the events of the day unfold ‘live’ on the screen as if we were actors rather than spectators.  The boundary between private life and public life is eroded.”

The personal engagement of the viewer with what is shown on TV has been perfected by American talkshows.  These programs specialize in the public baring of the private life of their guests.  This format began with celebrity talkshows.  Actors and showbiz personalities are invited to momentarily lower the barriers and allow their fans a glimpse of their private side.  In this very public setting, they talk of their past as abused children, of their failed marriages and illnesses, and of the everyday idiosyncrasies that link them to the private world of their fans.

The politicians soon caught on with this mania.  The camera was invited into their kitchens and living rooms.  Their families became visible.  They began to be photographed going to church or deep in prayer – events that used to reside exclusively in the private realm.

Even their pets became the darling of a public made more and more curious about the personal lives of their leaders.  What was going on? As Prost puts it: “The public figure must dramatize his private qualities in order to establish his credibility with the viewing public.”

This new public accessibility into the corridors of a person’s soul made it okay for ordinary people to bare themselves on camera in exchange for a moment of immortality.  They are now seen daily on US television, and increasingly by our own imitative local TV  – spouses sorting out their differences, lovers replaying their quarrels, parents and children showing their most intimate and vulnerable selves before a sympathetic, agitated, amused, and entertained public.

What this has led to is a culture of insatiable voyeurism, a type of addiction that relentlessly feeds on the private. In an ironic way, we may view this as the revenge of the private upon the public.  Through television, politicians and celebrities invaded private homes, “spoke the language of private life in approaching public issues,” and became part of the family.  The cost of this is that they themselves are now denied a separate private life.

But describing it in these terms does not make it right.  I am still appalled by the kind of treatment that President Clinton is getting from the US media, and I am dismayed even more by the American media’s incapacity for introspection.


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