Volume 12, Issue 2, Spring 2002

The New Public Spirit
Bruce J. Schulman

The federal government takes over airline security and asserts new powers to secure the American "homeland." Outgoing New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani pledges that rebuilding plans for the World Trade Center must center around a "soaring monument" to those who perished at the site. Despite heightened security, record crowds fill the streets to cheer on runners in the New York City Marathon and to celebrate First Night in Boston. Meanwhile, plans for a "faith-based" initiative to turn over provision of social services to religious institutions and a fiscal stimulus emphasizing tax reduction stall in the Congress.

Already, just a few months after the attacks of September 11, Americans are renegotiating the social contract, groping toward new understandings of national community. Over the past 25 years, Americans largely stressed the market and the private sphere over collective action, religious commitments over secular community, and individual rights over civic obligation. While it is too soon to draw definitive conclusions, the nation appears to have embarked in a different, more communitarian direction--rethinking the rights and the responsibilities of citizenship.

Trauma as Catalyst

Of course, war and national trauma always redefine American society, often in ways that do not become apparent until years after the crisis has passed. Six years of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal barely relieved the poverty and misery of the Great Depression, but the collective effort altered the fundamental relations between state and society. It established the Social Security system, made organized labor a full partner in American public life, and brought immigrant Catholics and Jews into the counsels of power and the corridors of culture.

World War II similarly reknit the fabric of American life. The stunning success of the top secret Manhattan Project gave science new prestige and authority. It forged an alliance between government, universities, and research laboratories that still defines the scientific enterprise today and that no one could have predicted on the morning of Pearl Harbor.

Even more telling, World War II unleashed the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. Military service created a cadre of activists and leaders--veterans who returned to the segregated South unwilling to accept the injustice they had fought to eradicate on the battlefield. Although not immediately apparent, the war against Fascism thoroughly undermined the idea of racial segregation. After the Final Solution, notions of racial hierarchy, the very idea of fixed racial differences at all, became unacceptable. Before World War II, most Americans, even most liberals, believed racial justice an unrealizable goal and an unnecessary distraction from more serious reform. After World War II, civil rights reached the top of the policy agenda; President Harry Truman felt obliged to take steps, like the desegregation of the armed forces, that his predecessor thought impossible.

Just months after September 11, the implications of the current crisis are beginning to emerge. While it is too soon to know for sure, a number of trends point toward a new vision of community: secular, public-spirited, oriented more toward social responsibility than individual rights.

Public Officials and Public Spaces

First, as many observers have noted, the crisis has arrested the longstanding drift toward smaller government and privatization. Since the late 1960s, Americans have relied more heavily on the market to ensure prosperity and solve social problems. Even though they embraced specific public programs, Americans spoke derisively of government, nearly always referring to it in the third person as a hostile "they," never as the instrument of "our" national purpose. Amid the booming 1990s, Democrat Bill Clinton echoed the pronouncements of Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan that the era of Big Government had ended.

Since September 11, long scorned public institutions--the Congress, the Pentagon, even the Post Office--have become potent symbols of American democracy. Public employees have emerged as heroes while private contractors no longer seem an efficient, reliable alternative to costly government agencies. Few Americans today prefer Argenbright Security to a public agency staffed by civil servants. To be sure, President Bush has only reluctantly embraced the revival of the public sphere. His economic stimulus proposals would strip funds from initiatives not directly connected with the war on terrorism and shrink government's capacity to take collective action in the future. But that program is unlikely to win Congressional approval.

Americans have not only reconsidered the role of public institutions, they have also taken to the nation's streets despite continued concerns about security. Indeed, the outpouring of assemblies in public spaces--vigils, marches, athletic events, concerts, charitable functions, holiday celebrations--goes beyond a defiant response to the terrorist attacks. Rather it suggests a new understanding of the need to build civic community outside the home and the marketplace, to reclaim and rebuild genuine public spaces. Americans seek settings for informal social interaction and democratic exchange.

This vibrant street life suggests a reversal of the nation's dependence on quasi-public spaces, such as privately owned-and-operated shopping malls, hotel atria, and commercial complexes connected by skyways and underground tunnels. Over the past three decades, the United States witnessed a thoroughgoing privatization of everyday life. Corporations and private organizations gradually assumed control over the basic services Americans relied upon, the spaces where they congregated, even the nation's hallowed instruments of self-rule. These facilities served some of the purposes of sidewalks and town squares, parks and community centers, but lacked the openness, spontaneity, and potential for social interaction and community.

As Americans strolled through the overhead skyway or the upscale galleria, actual physical contact between different types of people diminished--between people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, different lifestyles, different tastes and values, different economic status. A sense of togetherness, of shared national identity, slowly atrophied. Malls and other private spaces regulated not only the climate, but the nature, appearance, and business practices of their tenants. They policed common spaces even more strictly, fixing seating and traffic patterns and manipulating music and climate controls to encourage consumption and influence patrons' behavior. Private security forces removed vagrants, quieted boisterous teens, and harassed loiterers. Unlike downtowns or city plazas, enclosed emporia guaranteed that their favored clientele would mix only with the right type of people. Even the newest megamalls, which serve a wide variety of people, began carefully monitoring patronage and segmenting areas of the mall by demographic groups.

Still, a genuine hunger for public space persisted, a craving for the excitement of city streets and the shared experience of the town square. The renewed popularity of farmers' markets and coffee houses, the efforts to design "pedestrian pockets" in suburbs and small towns, the construction of light rail and trolley lines, the efforts of advocacy groups like New York's Project for Public Spaces in trying to revive streets and public parks--all these attested to a continuing desire for public places to walk, talk, eat, drink, garden, exercise, to discover oneself or other people. The privatization of everyday life depleted America's stock of responsive, democratic, meaningful public space, but never entirely erased the nation's desire to rediscover and resuscitate it.

The debate over the rebuilding of lower Manhattan has highlighted a renewed concern about democratic public space. Some voices argued that the World Trade Center site be left to market forces; initially even Rudy Giuliani endorsed this view. But the former mayor and many others have since joined a consensus, one insisting that the site encourage commerce and reflection, that it include memorials and space for social interaction and civic purpose. The site of the demolished towers may suggest a new model of communitarian public space for the country.

Religion and Rights

This revived community will surely be secular, rather than religious. To be sure, the immediate aftermath of September 11 featured overt displays of faith. Churches from St. Paul's across the street from Ground Zero to the National Cathedral in Washington, where President Bush led a prayer service a few days after the attacks, played leading roles in the work of grief, relief, and community endeavor.

Still, the war on terrorism must prompt a rethinking of religion's place in the American public sphere. In past decades, religion has played an increasingly large role in public policy and social life. Public figures, even political leaders, have made open show of their spiritual beliefs and the courts have relaxed the walls between church and state. President Bush's "faith-based initiative" proposed to turn provision of social services over to religious agencies. Even the recent vogue of John Adams, the intensely religious founding father, who has replaced the Deist skeptic Thomas Jefferson in the national pantheon, testifies to a general comfort with overt displays of spirituality and a corresponding suspicion of people who do not avow religious faith.

But the national community, defined more by the flag than the cross since September 11, will likely insist on a more circumspect role for religion. Our war against terrorism--a war waged against a theocratic regime, terrorism inspired by religious beliefs--will necessarily prompt Americans to rethink the social and political influence of religion and perhaps to rebuild the barriers separating church and state. Certainly, the faith-based initiative will not proceed without much stronger safeguards.

Finally, public support for a reasonable middle ground on antiterrorism measures suggests a growing suspicion of excessive claims of individual rights. Despite the efforts of some partisans to frame the debate as a struggle between public safety and civil liberties, most Americans have remained sanguine, sensing the need for greater surveillance and security while remaining sensitive to the rights of minorities and individuals. In the process, many observers have pointed away from adversarial litigation as a vehicle for public policy and toward a more communitarian recognition of the obligations and the benefits of citizenship.

Making his farewell a few blocks from Ground Zero, Mayor Giuliani quoted from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the memorable oration that dedicated a blood-soaked battlefield to those who gave their lives that the nation might live. Lincoln saw in that tragedy the potential for "a new birth of freedom," the reestablishment of a union more generous, more responsible, more perfect than the noble experiment that had preceded it. Perhaps, as he surveyed the wreckage of September 11, the mayor saw it too.

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