As with so many trumpeted “breakthroughs” in the advance of human knowledge, I reacted to the news of the identification of the Unknown Soldier with mixed feelings. Disinterred from the tomb and, through the miracle of DNA, delivered from the mystery of his unknownness, he became one particular family’s son–and by that biological unveiling, no longer the symbol of thousands of other servicemen lost in battle, lost to their mothers and fathers and wives. I’m sure his family must be relieved to have their uncertainty laid to rest, but I couldn’t help feeling that the specific had been won at the expense of a larger, more encompassing illusion–a shared mourning for all those other unidentified soldiers, dark and fair-skinned, blue-eyed and brown, brawny, thin, terrified, brave, every kind of person, every way of going.
Yes, I know such sentiments belong to a time in which war was not only accepted but romanticized. A majoritarian vision held sway, according to which we agreed to overlook certain particulars in the interest of a common ideal. It’s what drew a veil over Presidential peccadilloes. It’s what made movie stars of earlier decades so charismatic in the true sense of the word: They were unique, but they radiated outward, embracing whole categories or types and standing for something larger than themselves.
Since then, we’ve lost a communal willingness to accept ignorance, not to press for details, in order that certain figures might be invested with iconic status for the rest of us. The revisionist assumption is that if we’d had heroes and graphic images of the horrors they endured–of D-Day, for instance, arms and legs flying, blood and viscera flowing, as provided by Saving Private Ryan –we’d have been too demoralized to continue fighting. They say unfiltered knowledge will make us act morally. In fact, we still behave badly, only in a different way. All that violence and bloodshed, parading as boldness and honesty, just makes us more cynical, contaminated by the hypocrisy of our voyeurism.
This compulsive need to know seems to fit into some larger picture–the combination of a technology that allows us to see into corners previously hidden and a Zeitgeist uncomfortable with uncertainty. When other parts of our lives were stable, cohering around the absolutes of God, family and country, we could enjoy the thrills of suspense, but Hollywood’s mania for sequels testifies to the lure of the formulaic and familiar. The cautionary tales of the old science-fiction films–there are things man wasn’t meant to know–may ring truer than ever, but it’s a cry in the wilderness: We’re committed to the path of exposing every mystery, leaving no stone unturned.
The rational and scientific side says go up every road–whether nuclear devices, medications or technology–and once some can do it, everyone is entitled. The laws against disclosure are losing ground. Personal data circulate on the Internet, and–always for our health and safety–surveillance cameras tape every move. Medical insurers and credit card companies already know more about us than we know about ourselves. Physicists want to know when and how the world will end, while the rest of us might like a tip-off as to the date and method of our own demise–even as we develop ways to delay the day of reckoning. Big financial decisions rest on our life expectancy, i.e. whether to spend our money now, or save it for the high cost of dying. Once we know what our DNA has in store for us, we can decide whether to begin warehousing pills or saving money for a retirement home, invest in emergency health insurance or only a one-way plane ticket to Oregon.
The Greeks tried to avoid the Oracle’s doomsday prophecies but only wound up fulfilling them instead, arriving in a roundabout way at their appointments in Samarra or at the crossroads in Thebes. And the familiar resolutions of these mythic stories seemed not at all an impediment to the pleasure of those Grecian audiences who went to the festivals and saw old Agamemnon taking a hit from Clytemnestra year after year. I’m thinking that possibly all this fuss over ritual and all those platitudinous choral odes were the biofeedback of their time, reassuring a citizenry zonked out by stress–thundering Asian hordes menacing the borders, the pressure to stay on top in the ancient world. If certain characteristics are transmitted phylogenetically–say, high blood pressure and an aversion to suspense (and recent research suggests they might be)–then it would explain my Greek-American husband’s preference for knowing the outcome of every drama or sports event in advance.
He peeks at the end of novels, sees the movies he loves over and over again, and watches tapes of tennis matches after the results are publicized. He says that by eliminating the suspense factor he can then concentrate on form, but I think that’s a highfalutin rationale for a simple anxiety intolerance. After a blood pressure scare recently, he bought a home sphygmomanometer, the wrist cuff that records the numbers. During the Chicago Bulls-Utah Jazz final, he took his pressure at half time, and it was 210 over 110. That was when he decided to limit the number of hours spent watching basketball, or to tape the games for later viewing and analysis. What makes the Oscars such an exercise in sadism (for us) and masochism (for the nominees) is the knowledge that 80 percent of the faces scrutinized by the camera and beamed into a trillion homes are going to come up losers.
Even the feminist argument that the political is personal has been taken as a mandate to spill every bean in the dubious search for the politically significant. Once a New York Times columnist opens the door onto the personal, analyzing Bill Clinton’s moves not as a President or a politician but as a rejected prom date, then it’s open season on Mr. Clinton’s–and anyone’s–sex appeal. We’re all implicated in the down and dirty. As the Dick Morris scandal unfolded with its myriad implications, a reporter called me for my opinion on what Mr. Morris’ wife should do. How the betrayed wife deals with the philandering husband had now, of course, become a feminist issue. No more averse than the next person to having my name affixed to a pungent quote, I was about to pronounce when I thought, Hey, who am I to sit in judgment on this woman! Who knows what private transactions and tradeoffs underwrite their marriage?
I’ve done my share of ogling in print, evaluating the surface charms of male movie stars, and I understand the impulse of women to talk back and talk dirty. Appraising men in the name of liberation represents an irresistible twist in the overturning of the double standard. After all, men have been judging, whistling and rating women as sex objects since time immemorial, and the proprieties being rejected are ones that have served to protect men by discouraging the more unruly emotions of women, from rage and resentment to desire. But like competition, we weren’t brought up with locker room swagger. The lingo is not second nature to us, and we don’t quite know when to put a lid on it. There’s got to be a better way of redressing the balance without undressing the guys–and gals–in public.
The more we peer into the privacy of cars and bedrooms and the semiprivacy of offices, ripping masks from faces, the more we convince ourselves that what we find there is of national importance, that the need to know trumps all other values, boundaries and proprieties. Everything is on the same level of righteous inquiry, whether it’s the identity of the sex offender next door or the peekaboo details of our politicians’ private lives. Gossip, information, hearsay, leaks and outrageous speculation become the oracles of the hour, our access to them shrouded in a mystique of entitlement.