Wednesday, May 23, 2007

christmas: the loneliness of private property

If one were to take a stroll in any Chinese town, or in any Indonesian town, or for that matter in virtually any community in any nation with a weak state apparatus, one would miss what one sees in American suburbs: open spaces around houses. What one sees are walls and fences, ranging from woven palm frond fences around a property to the severe brick visage and monumental gateway of Chinese walls, within which the house stands protected, hidden. Population density is not the reason for the uniform presence of fences and walls in other places, only for the greater proximity of houses. In America, even crowded suburbs (emphasis on “urb”) like Daly City near San Francisco maintain an openness, or at least gesture towards it, with a tiny square of grass no bigger than a baby’s blanket next to the driveway, a reference to the expanses of green of larger properties.

My Australian friend Geoff tells me that even in his country, which shares the Anglo-Saxon heritage, fences and walls are the rule. Walls and fences are not “in” in American suburbs, not along the front of the property facing the road anyhow. Defining the sides and backs of the property with fences is much more common. The back yard, after all, may be considered the “private yard,” like a bedroom in the house, the space where families can cavort or lounge as they like – especially if hidden from view by a fence or hedge. The front yard, however, as the public face of the family, must be like a living room, open to guest’s eyes. And if the lady of the house simply must have a fence, well then, a spindly white one not rising past the belly will suffice. Anything higher and stronger than that risks demonstrating an offputting defensiveness, a withdrawal and closing in that in this culture can only be considered a symbolic act of aggression.

Walls and fences only come down if and when the state is strong enough and the judicial apparatus committed enough to put the rights of property above all other rights. In this respect the United States is almost unique in the world. Even England, the birthplace of a global, imperial capitalism, was never able fully to eradicate earlier communal traditions and norms, which often were transmuted into modern labor movements. The right of the US president, to give only one contemporary and tangential example, to withdraw into the “property” of his post and face the public representatives only in ritualized, stilted appearances, would be unthinkable in England, where the Prime Minister is bound into a tradition of rhetorical confrontation (in the “Commons”). England does not allow a high and mighty isolation – even one posing as open – as the American president is allowed. For the US president, given this sacrosanct privacy, the crafting of the image is his primary preoccupation. The image crafted in such sheltered privacy is, oddly, one of openness to the people.

The American president, then, is reminiscent of American homeowners in their tendency to replace social negotiation, required to maintain neighborhoods, with an aesthetic display of exemplary – rather than actual -- openness and virtue. By contrast, a Chinese town is full of walled properties within which live families intimately bound to each other through ties of solidarity, kinship, and conflict. Private property is not able to serve as an inviolable, and sole, basis of a family’s existence. It is important, of course, but in absence of a strong state judiciary it is jealously guarded with a mixture of walls and social alliances.

In American suburbs, on the other hand, social ties are strictly optional. Safe within the castle of private property, a castle guarded by the moat of laws and the boiling oil of police protection, the American suburban family can give full play to the crafting of a proper image. Of course, just as with the president, this image is always one of trustworthy openness and generosity – ensconced in and enabled by the inflexible, brutally defended regime of private property. But private property is colorless, odorless, and, like cash in the hand, it tells no tales, blending murderers and saints into one suburban order. A man whose money came from stock fraud lives next door to an altruistic pediatrician and one might never know the difference, since both are equally committed to an appropriate and proprietary image.

The proper image, which legitimizes ownership with a display of virtue, could not be crafted without the rigid exclusivity of individual property laws and an absence of social obligations. A suburban person, then, can present him and herself as proper and virtuous only when all other social claims on time and property have been obliterated, leaving only taxes paid to the state. Only then, in the emptiness of a time and space completely at his disposal, can this individual become a generous and open person. This generosity and openness is strictly abstract, strictly symbolic. The absence of walls around the front yard (and often the back, too) means only that an iron system guarantees his right to total social isolation. He owes nobody a thing for his wealth and privacy. Once the danger of being hit up for favors by extended family or neighbors is gone, the suburban family can relax its vigilance of its own boundary lines and put on a benevolent face.

The Christmas season is the premier time for suburbanites to imagine themselves as open and generous. Money goes to Christmas decorations rather than to people outside the nuclear family (or it goes to unprivileged strangers, through charities). The unfenced home, the public face of familial property and virtue, becomes the stage for a show of Christmas festivity. Wreaths are hung on windows and doors; lights are strung on trees and along eaves.

The loneliness of this magnificent isolation in property is apparent in a thousand ways, large and small. As I jogged this morning along Scotland Avenue, I passed a sign posted in the snow of one front yard. A background of a baby duckling amid flowers announced, “Its a girl!” Black marker had filled in the spaces. Name: Brooklyn. Date: 12-22-04. Weight, and so on. Such a sign is evidence that even in important family events, families are by and large alone, unless they are unusually active outside the home in clubs and organizations and churches. The sign indicates a desire for a larger circle of participation in the joyous event, even if this amounts to strangers jogging by and taking note of the fact before passing on.

Every few years brings innovation in yard decorations. The nineties brought the decorative flag, which heralded holidays or changes in season. A tableau of red and yellow leaves drifting over a jack o lantern might announce fall, for example. This year, inflated figures have made their appearance beside the metal reindeer studded with lights. Person-sized santas and snowmen, often lit from inside, stand in front yards of homes. They bob and jiggle in the winter wind, an attempt to adorn the family’s social face with a certain festive generosity. But such sights of adornment bring to my mind a loneliness and isolation, a reaching out from within property, a beckoning toward some festive spirit, a beckoning, however, which is not intended as a true invitation; a sad remnant of Christmas which refuses entirely to die.

For if a person had a rich circle of community, would the need to pose for strangers with season’s greetings ever arise? If one’s home was jammed with wellwishers crowding in for a peek at the newborn, would one even think to stick a sign in one’s yard announcing the birth to total strangers?

There are other signs that rights in private property, including chiefly the right to be left alone, are chafing people’s patience even in middle America’s red states. Though inhabitants of such areas profess undying obeisance to private property, one does see frustration with the anomie that such a cold structure imparts to social life. The cause of this anomie, however, is chalked up to liberals and “secular humanists” (such as our “founding fathers,” it should be noted) out to destroy Christmas. Twice this season, stories have appeared in national newspapers about the battle of certain activist homeowners to pump up their properties with the Christmas Spirit Steroid of lights, music, and displays. Such displays inevitably bring vehicular pilgrimages from people with an equal craving for some kind of solidarity, even if it be of the drive-by kind.

Such Christmas extremists throw themselves body and soul into their non-commercial enterprises. They feel a passionate need to share of the “Christmas spirit” which so overwhelms the bounds of their one house, that it can only be construed as an attempt to swamp and obscure the bounds of private property, not directly, of course, but indirectly, and temporarily, a tide of ethnic-religious feeling that will ebb in the new year. These activist displays inevitably provoke the ire of neighbors just as determined to withdraw inside their castles and the “traditional liberty” afforded by private property, namely, the liberty to indulge in total isolation.

Amazingly, such quietist champions of “peace and quiet” – the deadness of suburbs, in other words – are vilified as Grinches both by the Christmas bullies and the general public. The groundswell reveals a backlash against both separation of church and state and, I believe, the individualistic anomie allowed and encouraged by general obeisance to private property. The secular order, however, is the only direct target. The Christmas bully featured in the New York Times article on December 27th, for example, somehow saw his Disneylandish display as being an attack on the secularist trend apparent in the growing habit of people saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”

For the purposes of my argument, what is significant is that such people turn not to real social contact or activism, nor to an attempt to establish relationships with neighbors, within which the holiday spirit could be festively expressed without an attack on one’s neighbor’s castle, but to turn their own private property into a mass media platform. The hunger to break out of the bonds of American individualism, underpinned by private property, results not in a direct challenge to such anomie or its economic bases, but to a politicized, purely visual and symbolic display which draws the support of drive-by viewers.

By defining themselves as Christmas activists, their target is a superficial trend of secularism growing partly out of a more diverse society and mainly out of the timid culture of corporations and retailing. The target that gets hit, though, is something else altogether: the by now mainstream desire of people to hunker down in the bunker of private property and not be disturbed – lonely or not. With private property an ironclad feature of our culture, it appears that other tsunamis are brewing. And they brew in the suburbs.

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