The Secret Lives Of Citizens

Jason Zengerle reviews 'The Secret Lives Of Citizens: Pursuing the Promise of American Life' by Thomas Geoghegan.


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Jason Zengerle
February 9, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

| About a third of the way through his new book, "The Secret Lives of Citizens: Pursuing the Promise of American Life," Thomas Geoghegan alludes to Nietzsche's observation that every philosophy is disguised autobiography. Nietzsche, of course, was rebuking philosophers who claim to construct objective theories of the world when in truth they are merely addressing their own experience. Geoghegan, it seems, has taken that rebuke to heart. In "The Secret Lives of Citizens," he spins a political tract out of a memoir, dropping the disguise of objectivity altogether.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, for a work of political theory, "The Secret Lives of Citizens" is eminently readable, and Geoghegan has some insights that are well worth reading. In recounting his professional life -- from his internship at the New Republic to a stint in Jimmy Carter's Department of Energy to his past 20 years as a political activist and public-interest lawyer in Chicago -- he wrestles with the question of what it means to be a good citizen in late-20th century America. Or, as he puts it: "Under FDR? I could start a union. Under JFK? I could join the Peace Corps. Under LBJ? Go to the inner city and teach a child. But under Carter and Clinton, the two Democrats of my adult life? They didn't give us anything to do."

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So Geoghegan goes out on his own. He serves as one of the few white volunteers on the campaign of Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington. He attempts to force the municipal government to do something about a tuberculosis outbreak afflicting the poor by digging up a 19th century public health law and filing suit against the city. He writes a play and tries to stage it, in the vain hope of creating a civic experience. He pushes a vague proposal for redefining the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act to combat poverty. If these efforts seem small and futile -- well, they are. But at a time when Americans lead remarkably atomized lives, at least Geoghegan is still trying to connect.

That said, "The Secret Lives of Citizens" ultimately suffers from its efforts to connect with the reader. Geoghegan's autobiographical approach to political ideas is frustrating. Instead of just saying what he means, he plugs his politics into the story of his life. He presents every argument in the form of a pithy conversation with a friend (frequently identified by a lone initial). He accompanies every citation of an authoritative source, be it Herbert Croly's "The Promise of American Life" or Michel Foucault's "Madness and Civilization," with the information that he himself struggled to understand it. And he relates every fact, no matter how dry and mundane, to himself. For example, when he wants to point out that in 1993 more Poles than Mexicans emigrated to Chicago, he frames the statistic in the context of "a question I toss out at parties." He must go to some really dull parties.

Not that his personal experience shouldn't have a bearing on his politics. Indeed, in some ways it's refreshing that Geoghegan can be so candid about the ways his own situation -- whether it's his fears about being single for the rest of his life or his inability to find a parking space on his block -- has played a role in his political development. But in the end his arguments have to resonate with more people than just himself. And unfortunately, by writing his political manifesto as an undisguised memoir, Geoghegan has cast his appeal to an audience of one.


Jason Zengerle

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