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During my first year in medical practice, some of the older doctors criticized me for not wearing a tie to the hospital. “What’s the point?” I shot back. “I just change into scrubs anyhow.” But it was 1989, and the older doctors made me fall into line. Around the same time, the hospital staff discovered that a medical resident had a tattoo on his arm. He was ordered to cover it up with a large bandage. He, too, sheepishly complied.

By the early 2000s, a sea change had occurred. Anesthesiologists like me could wear anything they wanted to the hospital, including shorts and tank tops. On the wards, several doctors and nurses proudly displayed their tattoos. A new deal was making its way through American life.

In the old deal, forged more than a century ago, work life and home life had been rigidly divided. At work, employees conformed to a company’s rules concerning hairstyle, personal dress, and decorum. At home, they could be themselves.

The old deal had supplanted an even earlier deal in which cowboys and pioneers roamed free, unmonitored at both work and play. In 1890, when the Bureau of the Census declared the frontier closed, the zone of personal freedom in the U.S. shrank from the open range (“home on the range”) to the physical building a person called home. Americans moved from farms to cities. They worked in offices or on factory floors. Both sites had rules. The work–home divide began.

The old deal, the one I was born into, satisfied most people. It even had room for those who craved independence and preferred to be self-employed. Although in 1989 I could not dress as I wanted at work, I could practice medicine as I saw fit without a supervisor looking over my shoulder. For the most part I steered my own ship. Wearing a tie was a small price to pay.

The old deal unraveled during the last third of the twentieth century. One driver of the change was the decreasing likelihood of controlling one’s own workplace. Between 1950 and 2023, the proportion of self-employed workers in the U.S. economy dropped from around 17 percent to around 7 percent. In my field, doctors went from being mostly independent practitioners at mid-century to being majority salaried. Today the few Americans who are self-employed often work in marginal industries, such as fishing, dry-cleaning, or barbering. Over the same period, small and medium-sized firms declined. In 2014 more than 27 percent of Americans worked for companies with 10,000 or more employees. For many, the workplace has become soulless.

Occupational specialization also intensified, leading to what has been called “an era of hyperspecialization,” especially in knowledge work. Work once performed by one person fractured into different tasks performed by multiple people with specialized training. Fewer people felt a sense of ownership over the results of their work, so that jobs became dull and meaningless. The opportunity to run your own shop and enjoy work that was varied and interesting—at the price of having to dress a certain way—waned.

In this new environment, home grew in importance as the place where people imagined they could be themselves. But the reality was otherwise. Many people struggled even to get home. Between 1979 and 2007, the average annual hours worked by middle-income households rose by 10 percent. Americans by 1990 were already working an average of nearly a month more per year than they had in 1970. Although the median income of the American middle class increased by 34 percent from 1971 to 2010 (after adjusting for inflation), the income gains were often achieved through more time working. Commutes have lengthened as people seek affordable homes ever farther from city centers. Email and cell phones follow them home. Where both spouses work, home has grown less homey. This assumes that people have spouses, which also has grown less common. Some people have no home at all. The number of homeless people has doubled since 1990.

To keep the peace, a new arrangement was made. The change started in the 1970s and accelerated as the old deal fell apart. People lost control over their work and lost interest in it. Home life was stripped to its bare bones. As if to compensate for these losses, people sought to exercise more control over their bodies.

The new deal accommodated them. At work, people could dress casually. They could wear tattoos or multiple piercings, dye their hair purple, or put on weight (even if they were flight attendants). The sexual revolution accorded people new rights to use their bodies as they saw fit. Cosmetic surgery rates exploded, along with the scope of such surgery. Think of it this way: The new deal substituted the body for the home as a worker’s special zone of control.

Yet this new deal, like the old one, and the one before that, is unraveling. Americans across the political spectrum demand more control over their lives, but the problem rests in the fact that they often disagree over what constitutes the proper zone of control. Transgender activists, for example, want to give young children control over gender identity, while parents, in turn, fear losing control over their children.

These controversies over control—who can do what to what—are treated as “rights” controversies. In a legal framework, that approach makes sense. But it obscures social reality. For lawyers, “rights” may be an abstract notion, but for many average people, “rights” involving the body have become a vital sensation. They are the last bastion against enforced submission to rules dictated from the outside. They are the last way to feel oneself a free human being. The law seizes a man in his cradle, sends him to school, then makes him work at a job that denies him the feeling of control, while turning home itself into a domain full of constraints. Control over his body, the “right” to his body, the right to change his body, the right to sell his body, even the right to destroy his body, as in physician-assisted suicide, is how he forgets his chains. Today we are fighting over bodies. When should they matter? Debates about sexual morality and gay marriage revolve around that question, as do issues such as transgenderism. Who gets to use or modify bodies, and to what extent? Terms such as “sex worker” and practices such as physician-assisted suicide suggest answers to this question.

Our present controversies over bodies arose from the collapse of the work–home divide and the consequent drive to find a new “home” where people could feel in control. The latter effort has led to an entirely new realm of illusion in American politics. For increasingly it is only in illusion that people can fulfill their need for a feeling of control. We know, we feel, that a man who relishes wearing a hoodie to work, despite his work being tiresome and home life nonexistent, has settled on a substitute for action when action has become impossible. The man projects his state of mind onto a piece of clothing and gives it an illusion of significance, to compensate for his powerlessness in other areas. Such turns toward fantasy have contributed to our furious, often seemingly unhinged, politics.

One constant adds energy to the tendency toward illusion: Government keeps chipping away at the sanctity of home. Today our choice among cars stands ready to be limited to electric vehicles; our oven and stove choices may soon be limited; our light bulb choices are already limited. Digital currency may replace paper currency, giving government more control over our wallets. We’re not far from a situation in which we will be compelled to spend rather than hoard cash during deflationary times. When we are not directly controlled, we are nudged—for example, to buy healthier food, by the strategic placement of it in a grocery store’s prominent areas. Home itself has fallen further under government control. In 2005 the Supreme Court added private development to public use as a legitimate reason to invoke eminent domain and take a person’s house.

Having already constrained us at work, large companies chip away at our feelings of control at home. Non-compete clauses that may restrict the ability of workers to move to new jobs used to be rare; now they cover one-half of the private workforce. These clauses often dictate where home will be, for if workers refuse to stay at their jobs they must sometimes move to a new town. Another method of control is the nondisclosure agreement (NDA), which keeps employees from saying anything that might portray the company in a bad light. NDAs expand the definition of secrecy to cover so much information that employees sometimes cannot work in the same field upon leaving the company. They, too, must move. Even when they do not have to move, they must be careful about what they say in private life—at home. NDAs now cover one-third of the U.S. workforce.

The new deal’s provision of freedom to wear tattoos, piercings, funny hairstyles, and offbeat clothes was a ruse. It tricked people for a time into imagining they controlled their lives, even as their control at work and home waned. These activities carried a whiff of danger and adventure, a breath of caprice and a chance to stand out. I’ll admit to feeling psychic satisfaction in those early years when I could safely flout the old deal’s requirement of formal dress for professionals. Body sculpting through gym workouts, diets, and cosmetic surgery had a similar purpose. Controlling your look made you feel like a helmsman rather than someone who passively accepted his fate. But the “body as sanctuary” deal had limits. It gave only the illusion of control; in reality, we were increasingly hemmed in. For those who were being honest with themselves, much of the new freedom was just novelty, or a way to reduce oneself to a curiosity, both for oneself and others.

So another deal followed, a new new deal, the twenty-first-century deal. The arena of personal control shrank again, this time from the body to the mind. The mind became the new substitute for home, a zone where people could feel their humanity, be themselves, and escape control by others.

One aspect of our current deal is the legalization of cannabis. If people lack control at work and home, they should at least be able to control how they feel, the thinking goes. This rationale has conferred fresh respectability on cannabis—unlike cigarettes and even the newer nicotine delivery devices, which, although safer, are treated as problems to suppress. Electronic cigarettes stoke the body’s addiction to nicotine; they symbolize a person’s lack of control in life. Mood-modifying cannabis, ostensibly non-addictive, symbolizes the opposite. It is emblematic of people’s demand to control their cognitive experience.

The same rationale—of control over one’s feelings—prods people to treat depression or everyday unhappiness with powerful mood-modifying drugs, such as ketamine, psilocybin, and ecstasy. These drugs perturb cognition far more than traditional antidepressants do. The number of ketamine clinics in the U.S. increased from practically zero to three hundred over the last decade. Once condemned by respectable opinion, hallucinogens such as ketamine now enjoy widespread respect. The old antidepressants merely helped people feel “less depressed.” The new hallucinogens give people the power to feel happy and “high,” to feel empowered—a word often associated with those who direct and guide their own lives.

Even opioid abuse fits into the new new deal. Your home life or work life may elude your control, but your pain remains subject to it. Stupefaction through opioids becomes a declaration of personal independence.

Today’s new deal is manifest in surprising places. It underlies the relatively hands-off approach to the homeless mentally ill. Behold the new logic: A mentally ill man mutters to himself on the streets. He takes himself for the American president because by doing so he avoids the distressing realization that he is nothing but a poor little fellow. But between the so-called sensible man who escapes his discontent in life by getting involved in politics and the lunatic who imagines he already lives in the White House though he actually lives in a cardboard box, there is supposedly only a difference of degree, not of nature. All of us live in a state of illusion, the new thinking goes; all of us are crazy in a crazy world. The new deal makes no judgment about the worthiness of people’s illusions. It insists on our right to feel secure in our illusions, whatever they may be.

Progressives typically support the new notion that the mind is our last sanctuary of control. Many libertarian conservatives concur. The two groups allied in the past to help people gain more control over their bodies. Both preached freedom in the debates about abortion and sex. Once control over the body proved insufficiently satisfying, control over cognitive experience became the next step. Not surprisingly, many libertarians support drug legalization.

But unforeseen dangers have arisen. When home was the sanctuary, trespassing on another’s property was the threat. When the body was the sanctuary, restrictions on sex and abortion were the threat. But when the mind is the sanctuary, words are the threat. Words can contradict the pleasing ideas people entertain. They threaten to rob people of control over their favorite illusions.

Thus, one must take great care in what one says. Toward the end of my medical career, I sometimes self-censored. Once, to avoid having to tell a morbidly obese patient why I needed to adjust her anesthetic—which would require me to acknowledge her obesity and destroy her illusion of being, as she called it, “a bit weight-challenged”—I decided to tell her that I would adjust the anesthetic because of her “large size.” At the last second, while speaking, I chickened out and skipped the word “large,” mouthing only the word “size.”

Another danger involves a reworking of the traditional power relationships between parents and children. When home was the sanctuary, it included all that went with home, including children. Parenting children, guiding children, and governing one’s own children were the great creative acts when work promised no such opportunity to create. Later, when the sanctuary passed from home to the body, progressives demanded that teenage girls be allowed to get abortions without parental consent. The right to enjoy sex without punishment was a cardinal principle, applicable to all bodies, including teenage bodies. Now, when the sanctuary has passed from body to mind, progressives demand that teenagers be allowed to change their genders without parental consent. The right to think about oneself in a certain way, to imagine one’s gender differently, to live one’s own illusion—for do we not all live an illusion, some academics argue?—is the new principle, one that applies to both adults and children.

Government and business have joined the movement to make the mind the new sanctuary of control. Needless to say, modern advertising has always encouraged illusions. The Marlboro Man taught us that smoking went hand in hand with rugged individualism—a dangerous illusion when practiced. Drink Crown Royal whiskey, and you too can be a sophisticated man. But the new deal has also brought government into play. Today, bureaucrats encourage people to indulge in their illusions. Their job, as they see it, is to give people “safe spaces.” The illusion of having merit when, in reality, one lacks it is fostered by educators who get rid of standardized testing and special programs for the gifted. The illusion of being a victim, despite having committed a serious crime, is encouraged in certain legal circles through weakened policing and prosecutorial enforcement. The illusion of being a homeowner despite, in reality, being a squatter has been encouraged in some states. The underlying conviction is that illusions can enrich our lives and give us the vital feeling of control.

Politicians strive to create illusions. That is their trade. Anyone can become president! (This is simply not true. Some people have a much greater chance of becoming president than others do.) Nowadays, to protect other people’s illusions of identity, some politicians demand speech codes. How can you feel confident and in control of your image if someone calls you “fat”? The Biden administration now refers to illegal immigrants as “newcomers.” To admit the reality of their situation risks imposing a damaging psychological burden. Taken to the extreme, the notion that our mind is our last sanctuary consigns the real world to irrelevance; the true world is the world in our minds, our special zone of control, which we color with our desires, fantasies, and passions. This inner world requires protection.

For defenders of today’s order, illusions are like love, a sentiment that also distorts reality but, despite its occasional disappointments, is still infinitely worth experiencing. The freedom to confect illusions gives people confidence and makes them happy. Nevertheless, there are challenges. When protecting the illusions of some, censorship invalidates the illusions of others. This is where fights over “rights” begin. People can think freely under the new deal, but to protect the thoughts of others—the illusions of others—they can do nothing more; they can think, but they cannot say. Hence, speech is increasingly controlled in the workplace and the home. Almost 80 percent of U.S. employers believe it appropriate to scrutinize what their employees say on social media. More than half have eliminated job candidates on the basis of their social media postings.

The now old deal, which gave people control over their bodies, the one that took hold when I was a young doctor, proved inadequate. Yet the new deal, which gives people control over their minds, invites delirium. Activists try to outrun people’s thoughts; they try to prevent illusion-busting experiences before they occur. Neither to think nor know nor see nor hear things that might violate the last sanctuary of control! On and on goes the protection of illusion into frenzy. Better censorship than the possibility of grief; better an anti-democratic end than a risk without end. Just as a falling rock accelerates as it plunges deeper into the abyss, so government and business act ever more hastily and dictatorially when they can see no end to the vulnerability of our last sanctuary, our last domain in which we can enjoy the feeling of control.

Today we are supposedly the masters of our minds, masters of the space between the dream and the everyday. Believing this to be so gives us the illusion that we lead free and independent lives. Identity politics, in particular, builds on this illusion. The belief that you belong to an identity group makes you happy; you believe more in your own worth; you imagine that you have power though the world controls you in so many ways. The dream-life of identity is all too clearly a substitute for real independence. And it is fragile. A few misspoken words can destroy one’s self-conception. But words can also sustain it. Indeed, to fling words at an opposing group, to demand the incomprehensible from them and therefore the impossible—for example, to demand of white people that they admit their “whiteness”—is more often than not a pretext for a quarrel and a chance to feel power.

Today’s new deal fuels the identity politics fury in other ways. It prods people to live in their minds amid verbiage disconnected from reality. The internet stokes this tendency. We spend a great deal of time online dealing with symbols—words and screen images—rather than with people and things. Over time, we cease to reach conclusions through an instinct based on a profound knowledge of others, and rely instead on abstract reasoning.

For example, people online may readily describe a man they do not know as bigoted, deceptive, and narrow-minded. They analyze his words and ponder his behavior but fail to understand. By contrast, those who have known this man in real life may regard him as open, tolerant, and fair. They don’t reason through words on a screen; they perceive from their actual experience. The same phenomenon occurs on a much larger scale in our politics. People who live in their minds rely on words and images to reach conclusions, then find it impossible to explain to themselves why other people behave differently than they do. Who could possibly vote for Trump? Only ignorance or racism or some other terrible vice can explain it. But those who know such people understand. Their relatives voted for Trump, or their coworkers, or the people they go to church with. Engaged with Trump voters in reality, they can think with them, sense their motives and passions, even while disagreeing. They do not merely reason through words; they know.

People for whom the mind is the last sanctuary imagine themselves into a condition in which symbols, especially words, become facts of nature. Trump is an authoritarian. Biden is a socialist. Through these symbols they craft an illusion, sometimes in the form of a narrative, which gives them what life cannot: a feeling of control, a sense of order, an illusion of victory over the disorder of the world. Often they hate as much as they love, and of those they hate they are ready to believe anything, applying no critical judgment.

There are collective illusions as well. A political group organized around an illusion will scorn or denigrate anything done by its rival, while lauding or adoring anything done by those in the group. It’s not that these people in the grip of their illusions are liars. Instead they have been imposed upon by their own illusions. What is true is what they wish to be true; what they believe is what they wish to believe. They cherish the life they have crafted for themselves in their minds. It makes sense of the complicated reality of living in a vast, fractious country. Or it simplifies the daunting complexity of prudent political judgment. They place signs on their lawns: Hate has no home here. What they say may be false—many who have these signs hate the “haters,” which is to say those who vote differently. But the motivation at the bottom of it all, to feel independent, powerful, and in control, makes it a kind of honorable falsity. Still, it cultivates dangerous vices, for this motivation incites self-justification and self-exculpation.

Ironically, conservative intellectuals who fight progressive extremism risk behaving in the same way. They, too, may fail to see reality; they, too, may spend too much time dealing with symbols—words—rather than with people and things. They, too, may use words to assure themselves that they are part of an intelligible order.

For example, to say, as many conservatives do, that “identity politics destroys the democratic fabric,” is not to reproduce a segment of reality. The assertion places certain ill-defined words in a certain order. True, words, although imperfect, are indispensable. Life and action require rapid decisions. When taking sides, as one often must in competitive politics, one lacks the time to be acquainted with every aspect of either identity politics or democracy, to be familiar with all the individuals who participate in them, or to weigh the intensity of their feelings. The tool of language makes rapid action possible. But it also gives those who traffic in words an illusion of control over the disorder of the world. It can tempt them to live inside the illusion and forgo the effort to gain a solid impression that corresponds to people’s actual behavior.

Sometimes in civic life, one word (or one joke) can have a greater effect than the most carefully designed ideological system. It happens when the word helps people regain contact, behind the curtain of words, with living humanity and leave the realm of illusion. In my estimation, in our political moment the effective word is one that has been around for millennia. It evokes true feeling in everyone: home. Our politics went south when home ceased to be a sanctuary, and the body and mind took its place. Intellectuals might be wise to try to find ways to reverse this process and reestablish home as the zone of control.

Some changes in American society are irreversible, such as hyper-specialization in business. But others are not. Corporate watchdogs can be prevented from surveilling employees at home. Non-compete clauses can be banned, especially when they serve no purpose other than to hold employees hostage. Home can be shielded from the concept of eminent domain for private use. Self-employment and small business can be encouraged.

The path out of our political crisis begins with an intelligence that goes beyond intelligence. It lies not in the verbal juggling prized by well-educated people. Nor will we get out of the present dead end by persuading people to believe in one illusion or another. We need to pierce the veil of symbols and plunge into life itself. Return to reality. Return to simplicity. Take us home. We won’t be able to control everything. But what margin of self-possession and self-command we can attain will be real.

Ronald W. Dworkin is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Image by Burst, public domain. Image cropped.

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