On a recent weekend evening graced with unseasonably warm weather, I invited a few friends and family members to spend the twilight hours at the public park near where I live on the south side of Chicago. The park, situated on a tiny promontory that juts into Lake Michigan, is well-used thanks to its beautiful views of the skyline and proximity to the lakefront bicycle path. We brought a picnic dinner and sat on stone benches encircling a fire pit, where we built a small fire and enjoyed the warmth, light and camaraderie offered by the makeshift hearth.
Fires were a catalytic invention in human evolution. Not only did they allow us the physiological benefits of cooked food, but they also brought us together in a shared reliance on common resources, laying the foundation for cooperative social structures. Whenever I sit before a fire, I imagine what our earliest ancestors must have felt as the heat drew them close, providing refuge from the threats of the night in those times before man was the conqueror of all he saw.
As I sat with my loved ones, eating snacks and staring amiably into the fire, I saw a man and a woman watching us from nearby. Hesitantly, the man approached. “Excuse me,” he said, “I was wondering… do you have some kind of permit for this? I mean, did you have to make a reservation or something?”
I swallowed a gulp of lemonade, unsure of where this was headed. “Um, no,” I said, watching his companion nod inquisitively. “We just showed up.”
“Wow,” said the man, taking off his hat. “And did you have to come really early? I mean, for this view and everything?”
“We got here around five, and just sat down.”
His eyes widened. “That’s it? And it’s free?” I nodded. He paused before continuing. “Do you mind if we sit down for a minute? Just to check out the fire?”
So the man and the woman sat down, saying nothing much, just watching the flames move and turning occasionally to grin broadly at the lake. At one point the man took out a camera, and they posed for pictures. After 10 minutes, they left, thanking us. “So wonderful just to sit and see the lake and the fire – and for free,” mused the man in amazement as he walked away.
I found myself wondering: what does it say about our world that the most basic of human comforts – a park, a fire, a place to sit, a view of the lake – are assumed by default to be inaccessible to the average person, or accessible only under the constraints of a special permit or designation? To be, in a word, private?
In Another Kind of Public Education (Beacon Press, 2009), Patricia Hill Collins points out that Americans have come to associate anything “public” with a notion of inferiority. “Ideas about the benefits of privatization encourage the American public to assume that anything public is of lesser quality,” she writes. “The deteriorating schools, health care services, roads, bridges, and public transportation that result from the American public’s unwillingness to fund public institutions speak to the erosion and accompanying devaluation of anything deemed public. In this context, public becomes reconfigured as anything of poor quality, marked by a lack of control and privacy – all characteristics associated with poverty.”
The schema of capitalism – where the pursuit of private profits is sanctified – has turned Americans shamefacedly away from the public life that is the birthright of all citizens in a democracy.
The logic of this mode of thought has skewed roots in the principles of supply and demand, and it goes something like this: if something is scarce, it is desirable and valuable; conversely, if it is abundant and readily available it must be cheap or worthless. This calculus can reduce any and all things into commodities, the relative value of which can be determined by their level of unfettered availability to average people.
How can we undo the prejudice against shared public resources that has settled over America’s discursive landscape? To begin with, we need a compelling argument that the public sphere is worth fighting for. We need to cultivate a richer understanding of what public actually means – or what it ought to mean.
Public does not mean government institutions or government ownership – although government institutions can and should serve the publics that conjure them into being. Public is more than offices in buildings where people’s salaries are paid for by taxes. By bickering over how much salary, whose taxes, and where the offices ought to be constructed, we lose sight of the grander meaning of our commitment to one another as human beings.
These institutions are simply the embodiment of a promise, a social contract, that we make to one another: to be mutually accountable and dependable, to cooperate in pursuit of the common good and to communicate openly and honestly when we can’t easily agree on what the common good is. No matter how uncertain the path, it is our right and obligation to discern it– but the collective fear and disillusionment gripping the nation in the shadow of the economic collapse has made that task seem too difficult or unpalatable. Instead of having the challenging conversations that are requisite for a robust public sphere, governing bodies of all kinds are taking the quick route: shut your eyes tight, privatize, privatize, and privatize some more.
Rather than give in as our libraries, schools, roads, and – a particularly sore point here in the Windy City – parking meters are heedlessly passed into the pockets of shadowy entities over whom we have little to no control, the public needs to make the choice to become the public again. Long before we had any bootstraps to pull ourselves up by, we were fundamentally social creatures. We have depended on one another for survival and joy for thousands of years.
The embodiment of that mutual need – for material support, emotional comfort, intellectual challenge and a sense of belonging – comprises the public. To reject our need for collective support, choosing instead the conceit of solitude, is a false expression of a shallow “liberty”: liberty only from the ties that bind us.
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