05/10/2013 11:33 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

My Hero, Chris Christie

Theologians tell us to hate the sin, but love the sinner. I confess to having those feelings about New Jersey governor Chris Christie. I hate the politics, but love the politician.

As a progressive, I detest most of Christie's political positions -- on unions, education, reproductive rights, you name it, he's on the wrong side of it. I am dismayed at his equivocations on evolution and climate change. I cannot imagine a circumstance in which he would get my vote. (Well, maybe I can -- if for instance he were running against Ted Cruz.)

But there are things about the man himself that I greatly admire. I like the way he gave the president credit for his help after Hurricane Sandy, for which he was scolded by many of his fellow Republicans (and he didn't knuckle under to their browbeating either). I like his size, in part for the way it implicitly sneers at our contemporary demand for thinness at any cost, our understanding of thinness as the consummate virtue; and also because his size and shape is a metaphorical instantiation of his verbal character: he occupies as much space as he needs and wants, he is in your face and cannot be made invisible. He is large.

But above all, I like the way he talks. He says what he means and means what he says (more often than pretty much any other politician, anyway). In particular I am thrilled at his resuscitation on several occasions of a phrase I remember from my childhood -- a phrase that was common and useful then, but has virtually vanished from the language since we became a society dedicated to the pursuit of niceness.

Niceness is nice, but it should never erode selfhood, and in particular what seems to be an increasingly old-fashioned line between the public and the private persona. Once upon a time, the public/private line was drawn firmly in the social sand. A child growing up in the 1940s and '50s learned early and often that you crossed that line at your very real peril. You learned what kinds of behaviors and utterances were suitable only in private, within the family or among close friends, and which could be brought out in public, among strangers or casual acquaintances.

We learned, for instance, that some kinds of information were what sociologists have called "free goods" -- you could ask strangers, for instance, what their names were, what they or their fathers did for a living, what they had done the previous summer. But you could not ask them about their religion, or how much their father made. You could ask a child how old she was or how much he weighed, but never a woman.

You learned that to try to elicit nonfree information constituted a social faux pas, marking you as gauche and oafish. If you persisted you were a "nosybody" and no one would like you. And early in your communicative life, you learned the proper formula for putting nosybodies in their place: None of your business (NOYB). (We kids thought it particularly sophisticated to employ the alternate form, "None of your beeswax.")

This response reminded the nosybody that he or she had crossed the public/private line and had better beat a hasty retreat. It was not nice or polite, but keeping the line sharply drawn was more important than being nice.

Between then and now two things have happened in this society. We have exalted niceness to our number-one virtue, and we have steadily eroded that public-private distinction. These two changes are of course not unrelated. Because we want to look nice, we are very reluctant to deny even strangers a peek into our intimate lives. Then, too, Americans have become increasingly impervious to intrusions, whether because we don't want to interfere with the government's pursuit of terrorists, or because so many of the intrusions we tolerate nowadays arise in venues and forms we don't understand, on our technological devices. But our reluctance to set limits on privacy invasions has meant that the old put-down NOYB has become obsolete. You just don't hear it any more.

Except from the lips of Governor Christie, who has used it on a number of occasions. Most recently he used a version of it to brush back reporters who were asking about his weight-loss surgery: whether, how, and why. And it was absolutely none of their business. It was, as he noted, between him, his own doctors, and his family. In other words, the matter was private: behind the line in the sand. Your typical 21st century American politician would have stammered out an answer or tried to be evasive, in order to be "nice." But Christie doesn't worry about that, and more power to him for that!

On the other hand, it is worth noting that -- as commendable as Christie's restoration of NOYB to common parlance may be -- he doesn't necessarily use it correctly or appropriately. Sometimes he uses it as a way to avoid addressing questions that have to do with public issues, about which it is important to ask questions and get responsive answers from those holding or seeking political office: for instance, he has used NOYB when asked his views on evolution and climate change. Neither Christie nor any other politician should be permitted to use NOYB as a way to dodge their rhetorical responsibilities.

But as long as he uses NOYB to redraw the public-private line in the sand and restore American respect for privacy, I'm in his corner.

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