Writers On The Range 

Laid out bare: The case of the Naked Lady raises a good question

We just finished the Fourth of July in Ashland, Ore. It’s a big deal here, with a long parade past thousands of people, acres of waving flags, a full-blown fireworks extravaganza, a noisy day of music and cotton candy in the city park. You find the cotton candy among booths selling third-eye crystals and DVDs of alien crop circles, with Citizens for Peace and Justice gathering petition signatures just across the way. It’s an eccentric mix that’s become routine. This year the Naked Lady made it less routine.

The Naked Lady just moved to town. In applying to march in the Fourth of July parade, she made it clear that she wouldn’t be wearing anything from the waist up. In response, the Chamber of Commerce made it clear she wouldn’t be marching at all.

The community argument that followed was about what you’d expect. I happen to come down with those who still haven’t figured out what’s shameful or wrong about the human body—even within eyesight of young children. But a letter to the editor of the local paper slowed me down: “…the ‘Naked Lady,’” it said, “is the uber-American. She is obnoxiously all about her personal rights unleavened by any sense of responsibility towards the commonweal. All her, all the time… The thought [that people like her] might actually be an invasive species destructive to the natural surroundings never enters their minds.”

The letter reminded me of the old folk principle that your freedom ends where my nose begins. But that doesn’t help much when we can’t agree over the location of the nose. I don’t see that a topless woman in the parade hurts anyone, but I have slowly figured out that there are ways other than mine to see the world. I can forget that when I get as stirred up as I am about the barely challenged threat to civil liberties these days. At the same time, I’d like my town to be a place where the sensitivities of people I don’t agree with carry weight, too.

While there’s no basic right not to be offended in the public square—a good thing, since almost everything is offensive to somebody—I’m not fired up enough to say to a neighbor who’s offended by public nudity, “Sorry, pal, this is your problem, not mine.”

I think that’s what the letter-writer meant by a “sense of responsibility towards the commonweal.” He introduces a shade of gray into the picture. After letting it settle in, there’s something I want to ask him and anyone else who wants to make sure that clothing’s not optional in the public square.

Do you support anyone’s right to buy a Hummer or mega-SUV and drive it anyplace and anytime at all? Probably so. But in a time of dwindling access to oil, a war to keep our IV plugged into remaining reserves and the onset of climate chaos, could it be that these drivers, in the words of the Naked Lady letter, are “all about their personal rights unleavened by any sense of responsibility towards the commonweal?”

In recent land-use battles around the West, have you sided with those who think rural landowners should be able to divide and develop property pretty much however they want? If so, how are you looking out for the community’s need to stretch road-building dollars, to conserve fuel and maintain shrinking groundwater supplies? Is there the least bit of responsibility towards neighbors who thought they were settling into quiet rural surroundings?

What about CEOs who earn more before lunch each day than their front-line employees earn in a year? Few would question that companies have a right to set their own pay schedules. But if a healthy stable society depends on its hard-working members having a stake in the future—and some minimally fair linkage between effort expended and reward received—how well are we looking out for the commonweal here?

The Naked Lady didn’t invent being “obnoxiously all about her personal rights.” But maybe she points the way to a new possibility. If people who disagree about public nudity decided to push tenaciously for “responsibility towards the commonweal” across the board, just think what we might be able to get done together.

Jeff Golden is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Ashland, Oregon, and is the author of As If We Were Grownups and Forest Blood.
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