Indoor Public Space

is what we make of it.


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Ideas can be erased from public websites, but not from public space.

The moment Trump took office, his minions scrubbed the White House website of all mentions of climate change, LGBTQ issues and civil rights.  This is a clear effort to manage public opinion, not by engaging in discussion, but by erasing certain ideas from public space and consciousness.

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Photo credit: @yayoi_shionoiri

‘Public’ is a funny word.  Habermas has observed that it can refer either to the government and its various appendages OR to precisely that segment of the population which criticizes the government.  When democracy is functioning properly, these two meanings should be synonymous, but when things get out of whack these meanings will drift farther and farther apart.  When the state is functioning democratically, it supports, reflects and encourages our political conversations in the spaces it manages. (Footnote 1)  While the United States, and most other democratic countries, have rarely, if ever, aimed to encourage dissent and discussion, the current President marks an “unpresidented” low in this regard.  The views of the government are publicized through specific channels, but the public itself is everywhere.  If the government is doing a bad job of reflecting your views in the spaces where they ought to be reflected, then it is time to make them heard elsewhere.

If Trump refuses to acknowledge civil rights, then paint your favourite James Baldwin quote on a sign, slap a team logo (other than the Indians) on there and bring it down to the ballpark.  If somebody makes small talk with you on the bus, tell them about the last protest you went to.  Ask your waiter if they vote, and if they do give them a 30% tip and tell them why.  (If they don’t, give them a 20% tip and tell them to consider voting).

If Trump refuses to allow civil servants to discuss and study climate change, then we must move the discussion into those day-to-day spaces that the state cannot police so easily.  If your HR department asks if you have any concerns, tell them you are worried about the company’s carbon footprint.  If you teach a high school physics class, use climate change as a case study.  If a store asks you how you found their service, tell them you were too worried about climate change to buy anything.  If someone asks you if you like their shoes, tell them ‘Climate change is real (and I like your shoes.)’

If Trump refuses to acknowledge the existence of the LGBTQ community through the government, then the LGBTQ community and its allies must be everywhere.  Put a flag up on your porch.  Sew pride patches onto your backpack.  If you have a youtube channel reviewing movies, review Milk.  Steal a tactic from those FHRITP idiots, and yell ‘We’re here.  We’re queer.  And we have human rights’ whenever you see a live TV camera asking for public opinion on any topic whatsoever.

We cannot allow our public representatives to pretend to represent public opinion when they do not.  Trump can erase ideas from public websites, but not from PUBLIC SPACE.  And public space is everywhere that we are.

Footnote 1: For some interesting thoughts on how government officials could design public spaces that encourage dissent and discussion check out this book: Beyond Zucotti Park: Freedom of Expression and the Occupation of Public Space.

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Hobbies let us connect publicly if politics must be kept private

 

I am currently reading Bonds of Civility by Eiko Ikegami.  It is fascinating.  But one claim is particularly timely right now.

In Pre-modern Japan, under the shogunate, political associations were forbidden.  But this was a market economy, leisure and cultural consumption were on the rise and very profitable.  Japanese people at this time connected with each other around poetry, tea ceremony, ikebana (flower arranging), and many other cultural pursuits.  The shogunate allowed this — because entertainment was considered a private concern.  Poets were able to travel across Japan by staying with people they met through these cultural networks.  She compares this with the ‘public sphere’ that Habermas identified as an important factor in the formation of modern democracy.  Importantly, journals from participants in these networks show that while these networks were outwardly and publicly about entertainment, their internal spaces allowed people from different classes and social backgrounds to enjoy these hobbies AND ALSO TALK ABOUT POLITICS.

Freedom of speech is still mostly a reality in America and, for now, people should continue to use social networks to organize politically in explicit and public formations.  However, just in case things get worse, or if you are already concerned about the police tracking activists through social media (which certainly does happen), consider organizing hobby networks with activist and progressive friends which will allow you to use social networks for planning spaces that are publicly cultural, but privately political.  Dinner parties.  Book clubs.  Poker groups.  And while you’re at it.  Make those dinners and read those books and play those board games because we could all use some self-care on the side.

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