The Private Life

I remember when I was a teenager, I loved to read William Safire in the Washington Post. As an out-of-sorts adolescent recently transplanted from Europe to Fairfax County, I was, to put it mildly, a bit isolated. For conversation of sorts, I read the editorials. Safire wrote eloquently on subjects that got right to my heart: self-reliance, self-improvement, the inviolate quality of one’s natural sovereignty. And therefore, one’s natural right to privacy.

Safire would be aghast at the world in 2021. The best joke that describes our transformed society for me is that the government did not need to hide secret mechanisms of Big Brother behind a patriarchal facade and spy on us. We the people invited Big Brother into our lives, all on our own, as the Guest of Honor, aka Alexa. The great intellectual, like many others of his kind, bristled at any intrusion into his life brought by “officialdom.” To witness the masses willingly revealing their most private lives to the amoral, greed-based institution of Capitalism—an even less trustworthy master than fickle government—might have been too much for him to bear. To Safire, the slow and steady chipping away of privacy rights by an expanding government “hive mind” mentality was a grave harbinger, so it seems safe to say that witnessing Americans en masse grabbing a hammer and chisel to join in would possibly overwhelm the man.

For this passionate defense of personal privacy and individuality, he was sometimes lumped in with your garden-variety anti-government (wink) Reaganites. But he was too fiercely independent to be a Republican operative after what Nixon did to him, and too smart to believe that the people who were blowing up the deficit (which more than doubled between 1981 and 1983) were interested in small government. He was conservative—that was his nature—but he was not longer knee-jerk loyal to the party or even its insulated institutions after feeling the deep burn of political betrayal.* I found that stance—that of the observer, never the participant, in the 1980s Washington political flying circus (and by extension the national and global circuses)—to be very refreshing, and enticing. I remember recalling it when I read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce describes the artist as “the observer,” not participating in what they observe but standing apart, disinterested, impartial, “paring [their] nails,” as Joyce put it. Safire was that way. He skewered them all for their mistakes, their petty weaknesses, their pointless political squabbles. From a resolute distance.

And on the last he had a secret weapon: he was a philologist. His love of words and their correct usage was the subject of a non-political column he wrote for a while, called “On Language”. I read that column even more religiously than his political pieces as I got older and less interested in the predictable noise of politics. Safire helped me realize the importance of words, that they mean what they mean or they are useless, and how some ill-defined words are “wielded” as weapons either righteously or factionally. (They are dull weapons, as opposed to sharp ones, but they do the job of triggering a belligerent response in the pliant mind.) He and his successors at the university taught me to examine closely words like “liberal,” “conservative,” “socialist,” “patriot” and more lately, “Islamofascist” or “Christian” or “terrorist” (or just plain “good,” or just plain “evil”).

On this subject, too, Safire would lament the rise of social media and its “democratization” [sic] of language. Orwell – again – and even Lewis Caroll have schooled us on that (along with countless others who’ve heeded them). So when Humpty Dumpty (or a humpty dumpty president) announces that “When I use a word,’ it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less,’ unless we challenge that notion we have all lost the war without engaging in battle. All the weapons – all the words – then belong to the loudest voice.

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*Safire learned he had been the target of “national security” wiretaps authorized by Nixon while working for the New York Times as a columnist, and wrote with what he characterized as “restrained fury” that he had not worked for Nixon through a difficult decade “to have him—or some lizard-lidded paranoid acting without his approval—eavesdropping on my conversations”. (Safire worked on both Nixon campaigns and wrote speeches for both Nixon and Spiro Agnew.)