Every now and again some political event reveals a deep current of feeling in the American public that you otherwise mightn't know was there. In the early years of his first term, for example, Richard Nixon caused to be designed a preposterous military headgear for his White House guards that would have made them look like something out of a 19th-century operetta. The uproar was immediate, universal and wholly disproportionate to the offense. But some republican nerve had been touched, some profoundly American, residual antiroyalist feeling, and that was the end of the hat.

I thought of this curious moment as the Bork hearings and debate went on. The trigger this time was not some ludicrously ill-considered wearing apparel, but rather the simple word "privacy." At the merest mention of it everyone tensedlike some animal whose turf hadbeen invaded: "Hey, you. Back off. Now."

The sentiment is worth examining, not only because of its intensity, but also because there is much irony here, especially, I am sorry to say, in relation to the press. The incorrigibly acute columnist Murray Kempton has zeroed in on a part of this, declaring a San Andreas fault-size inconsistency between our editorial complaints at The Washington Post about Judge Bork's record on privacy, for example, and the paper's own remorseless pursuit of the personal family embarrassments of Republican presidential contender Pat Robertson. But there is surely more. For in a larger framework it may be seen as positively grotesque that the press all over the nation has made such a thing of Judge Bork's alleged indifference to the right of privacy at a time when we are otherwise occupied hanging upside down from a tree outside your favorite congressman's window, staking out some crash victim's funeral, and/or writing spirited explanations of how this is legitimate journalism -- which, I must say, most of the time I think it is.

But the press is only part of the gloriously comic paradox. For those members of the society who are not out there digging out this stuff, as we are, seem to spend most of their time lusting after it and scarfing it up insatiably when it is printed or aired -- that is, those who are not actually parading up and down before their fellow citizens, all but begging to expose their private secrets, shames and attractions. How shall we talk about privacy in the age of church secretaries like Jessica Hahn? What can account for our ferocious determination to protect this blessing at all costs, in an age in which there seems to be a waiting line of incest victims eager to tromp out on stage on cue on the Donahue show and tell us about it? ("Yes, it was with my father, Phil, and he's here too, and he's going to tell us his side. Hi, Dad!")

In this particular sense there is almost an antiprivacy heartbeat in our culture just now. I don't mean so much the contemporary attitude of the press toward material we used to be skittish about publishing or even the post-Nixon and Lyndon Johnson movement to establish sunshine laws and the rest. I am thinking more of the effects of the popularization, not to say downright debasement, of Freudianism and its various theoretical cousins: all those popular songs and confessional cliche's about facing your problems and talking about them and accepting them and being up front about them and letting it all hang out and that stuff. To be aggressively indiscreet is considered healthy and "together," in command, in touch with your feelings, "well."

So what is so prurient and progressively undressed a society as ours doing carrying on as it has been about threats to its privacy? What can privacy really mean to people who have become, in their fashion, a nation of Ancient Mariners, all walking around tugging on one another's sleeve and begging a chance to tell their whole life story? The Bork affair provides a clue in its focus on the judge's writing on Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's abortion decision. Bork got in trouble for denying the existence of a generalized constitutional right of privacy on which the court had rested its decision that states could not forbid abortion outright. Many jurists agree with him. But the abortion argument in this country is not about privacy at all. It is about whether abortion is murder as those who oppose it claim. No one, on either side, would argue that murder or other serious crimes should be shielded by a right of privacy. Those who do not believe abortion is murder (or that homosexuality is a crime or that the use of contraceptives is wrong) are arguing something else: that there is a right of privacy, whether the lawyers can find it in the Constitution or not, and it is the right to be let alone by the authorities in the conduct of your life.

I think this is pretty much what people had in mind when they got so upset about Bork and privacy. Certainly some of the assault on him on this count was unfair; his positions were deformed beyond recognition in the retelling. I also think he and his advocates never quite got the pitch of the complaint, never quite caught on to the nature of the lamentation they were hearing, so they just kept coming back with lawyers' explanations. Privacy in our shameless society these days has little to do with demureness, discretion, solitude or, for that matter, good taste. It is a generic term for personal freedom from the poking and pawing, the intrusions and prohibitions of government -- federal, state, local or, equally, merely institutional, meaning all those various bureaucracies that are always asking you questions and trying to tell you what to do.

Americans don't like to admit, to themselves or anyone else, that they have asked for some of this. It is the price of borrowing, the price of letting the government take on the burdens that were once assumed by families for, say, the medical and other care of its elders. From our credit-card companies to our Medicare authorities, with many stops between, we are forever having to provide information about ourselves and accept yet someone else's say-so in our affairs. We asked for it, but we hate it. Though liberals and conservatives are generally arguing for freedom to do different things -- own a gun, look at dirty pictures -- this enough-is-enough, leave-us-alone attitude is ecumenical and universal. Its fierce manifestation in the Bork hearings provides a better clue than a lot of polling does to what is going on in the American political psyche today.

1987, Newsweek, Inc. Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved. 'Privacy' has become generic for personal freedom from the poking and pawing of government.