Thursday, March 10, 2005

Public vs. Private

March 3, 2005

I've been thinking more and more about this whole notion of a common life, of a "public life" in Paris. Well, to be truthful, I've been thinking about this for years, wondering why more people in the US aren't making the connection between a lack of public space -- a lack of public life -- and the decline of participatory democracy. This first came home to me the first time I was in Prague, in the early 1990's, not long after the "Velvet Revolution" there. I stood in Wenceslaus Square, which had been the site, which had been the site of so many demonstrations, and of the triumph of the people over their totalitarian communist dictators. The day I was there, elderly people were in the square feeding pigeons, young people were listening to boomboxes and smoking and talking, kids were playing, business people on their lunch breaks were eating sandwiches. I thought, of course a revolution started here! Everyone was here, already, out in public, together.

Does the shopping mall in America provide the same kind of space for collective action? Or are people too consumed with consuming to notice what's going on around them? In any case, a shopping mall is PRIVATE space, privately owned by the merchants. When people have tried to stage demonstrations in malls in America, they've been told they don't have the right to demonstrate there because it's "private property." And "private property" in America is so sacrosanct that there's almost no public property left. And where public space still exists, there's no sense of it actually belonging to the public. (Think of the Bush administration's give-aways to mining companies and timber companies in our national parks and forests.) If we were to stage a revolution, where would we stage it? At the Super Walmart? (Where workers are locked in at night to prevent them from avoiding working overtime?)

There's not even any sense that our streets and parks still belong to us. Last year, when I was living in Atlanta near the King memorial, George W. came to town for a fundraising dinner. He wanted to hold a "photo op" at the tomb of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which is part of a NATIONAL PARK in the heart of Black Atlanta. Well, what W told the press was that he wanted to lay a wreath on King's tomb. A sacrilege if I've ever heard of one. But Coretta Scott King didn't see fit to bar W -- in spite of the fact that his administration's policies have gone, and continue to go, against everything that her husband fought and died for. One can't really argue with her open-heartedness and her diplomacy. But the real obscenity was that MARTA (public!) buses were used to create a blockade around the King Center, so that the protestors -- and there were plenty of protestors -- wouldn't be visible to W or to the news cameras. They were "disappeared" behind the very symbol of the beginning of the civil rights movement in America. Karl Rove must have been pissing his pants in glee.

This has proven to be a very effective tactic for the Bush machine: if there's a public protest, the protestors are herded into an area "designated" for demonstrations, well out of the line of sight of television cameras and "public" (let's use the term loosely) officials. It's working, people.

I can't count the number of times over the years that I've found myself in the midst of a massive "manifestation" in the streets of Paris -- or stuck in traffic because the streets had been closed for a demonstration. Oh it can be an inconvenience, but no one seems to mind too much. People have a right to demonstrate, after all, seems to be the attitude; after all, the streets belong to the people. (What a radical concept!) It's just part of life in the city. When there's a "greve," here, a strike by workers that slows down or shuts down public transport, no one bitches about the workers not having a right to strike. Of course they have the right! And the inconvenience caused by the strike seems to serve to remind people how essential those workers are. Et voila. I remember reading in the English-language press, during the big public transport strike of 1996, how astounded American reporters were that the people weren't incensed, even though the country had practically ground to a halt, but instead SUPPORTED the striking workers.

And thus "the people" actually have a voice in how "the system" is run. They have a stake. And there's common ground. But there has to be a shared life, a life in common, and common space in order for that kind of democracy -- the kind we're supposed to have in America, a country founded by revolutionaries -- to work. And I don't think it's working anymore in America.

The other day, a little promotional magazine called "Centre Ville," with news of the 4th arrondissment -- which includes the Marais -- arrived in the mail. It opens with a brief editorial by the "maire" (mayor) of the 4th, a woman named Dominique Bertinotti. In her editorial, she congratulates local residents for having come together to oppose the "museumification" of their neighborhood. She says that, if one wants to live in a living city, dynamic and vibrant, it's necessary that young and old, rich and poor, are able to continue to live there -- try that philosophy out in the vast suburban mausoleums of America -- and for there to be public space, schools, hospitals, etc..., in close proximity and accessible to all.

Even the cafes in Paris, which are privately owned, are regarded as public spaces. You buy a cup of coffee and that table belongs to you for as long as you care to sit there. Last Tuesday evening Heather Hartley and I sat in the cafe des Philosophes until our eyes stung from the smoke. While we talked -- for 2-1/2 hours -- we consumed one beverage each. Of course we were never asked to pay and leave until we were ready to go, and signaled the waiter, and it was only then that I noticed that every other table in the place had filled up with diners.

I sometimes wonder if it has to do with spaces being smaller, here, and tighter; if the necessity of sharing makes for a less selfish populace.

Last Wednesday evening, my dear friends Michele Quence and Alain Doignon came to Paris from Colombes to have dinner with me at le Coude Fou. We had an aperitif here in the apartment and, once we'd caught up on personal news -- Michele will have the first Paris exhibition of her paintings on silk and her pastels beginning March 14 -- the talk turned to politics. Alain doesn't speak any English -- though I suspect he understands more than a little --so he's very indulgent about my French. And normally I find it easier to talk about politics in French than about almost anything else. But when the subject of Bush's "re-election" came up, and the war in Iraq, I literally found myself at a loss for words in any language, and suddenly all conversation stopped. I looked at my friends and said simply, "Je suis desolee." I'm sorry. I'm sorry for my country. "But it's not your fault," Alain said. Then Michele added, "And the whole world is sorry."

Then we shared a beautiful meal, and a truly spectacular bottle of white wine that Alain was delighted to find on the menu. I had a crottin de chevre that I'm still dreaming about; it was like eating warm velvet. Afterwards, we made plans for a "family" dinner in Colombes on Tuesday then kissed each other goodnight in the street.


Blogger lindell said...


You raise some interesting concerns and points reguarding the decline of participatory democracy as evident by the lack of public space and public life. I think we can look at the issue in a number of ways' one the comfort level of Americans has left them not eager to fight the injustices around then-some thing a kind to being the victim of your own success. Even breaking it down to a personal level how likely is it for the kids to take on the feared head of the family. I know in my family what my father said was law, and no one would even dare even think of challenging his rule. So in other words Americans are losing the stomach to take on 400 hundred pound gorillas anymore.
Also america isn't really a democracy herself, accept for white males, its an ideal that thank god we are much further alone to reaching now than the rest of the world; but I think trying to conquer other nations and convince them to convert to our way of life is nothing but a pretense to get control of their natural resources.

So until enough people are denied here like in many part of the world a mininal existance things things will continue status quote.
In the final irony you must a lot of the times work within the system so that you can live outside of it and enjoy the comfortable life like dinning in a cafe in paris.

7:24 AM  
Blogger plnelson said...

Returning to the US from Italy recently, my wife and I had the same sensation that US "communities" have no center. Much of Italy is open farmland surrounding small, densely-packed cities or towns, often dating back to medieval times. And there is always a central piazza, which is filled with people and activity.

A US mall, as you say, is no substitute. Not only is it private, and designed just for commerce, but to be commercially viable it has to attract people from dozens of surrounding towns. They are all strangers with little in common who will never see each other again. Scant basis for community.

I've attended street demonstrations in Paris and Boston and Washington. The demonstrations aren't so different - except that in Paris the municipal street sweepers efficiently followed at the end of the demonstration, cleaning up for the next one, I suppose. But the big difference was that afterwards the Americans got back in their cars and drove home to the suburbs. People don't seem to live in American cities if they can help it. That is, unless they're rich and can insulate themselves from the street, or so poor they have no choice. Europeans know how to make a livable city - Americans don't.

6:02 PM  

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