October 17, 2003

Please Touch: Choosing the Private

I took my almost 3-year old daughter to the Franklin Institute Science Museum and the Please Touch Children’s Museum during our fall break this week.

At the Franklin Institute, we found that there were about ten busloads of eight to twelve-year olds from the Philadelphia school system swarming over the exhibits. Anything remotely interactive was totally monopolized by them, often by the same five to six kids. Some of the exhibits they were doing their damnedest to break—there’s an exhibit on sports and physics that has a moving surfboard, for example, with a big warning that only one person should be on it, something that the eight or nine kids gleefully jumping on it together ignored.

We tried patiently waiting to use a few of the exhibits, in vain. One hulking twelve-year old even shoved my daughter out of a mock race car designed to measure reaction time and sneered defiantly at me when I objected.

The kids had adult supervisors, teachers I presume, but with one or two exceptions, they basically parked themselves on a bench and stared blankly into space.

At the Please Touch Museum, whose basic design I really love, there were no school groups, and it was mostly a quiet, pleasant afternoon for us there once we left the Franklin Institute. The children in attendance were younger, almost all accompanied by one or two of their parents. Kids shared, and if they didn’t, their parents intervened to make them share.

There was one interesting exception to this. There’s an area of the museum set up as a mock farm that you have to go through a gate to use, and it’s supposed to be for children 3 and under. Sometimes parents escorting several children where one is older allow the older child to come in, and usually keep a careful rein on the older child so he doesn’t overwhelm the toddlers. This time, there was a young woman with two sons, one of them about eight, who ignored her sons, looking fixedly ahead with a thin-lipped, angry expression. The eight-year old proceeded to round up every single play object in the space and sequester them inside a drum he kept in a corner. The whole room was stripped bare. Then he ran around at top speed a few times, almost knocking over children who were just learning to walk. He yanked violently on the one or two moving parts of the room. When my daughter crawled inside a soft mat that curled up, he ran over and tried to seal it up over her head while he leaned heavily on top of it, stopped only by my forcible intervention. The mother broke out of her reverie and in a bored, indifferent voice, said, “Don’t play too rough”. I took my daughter out of the farm area immediately. Later, we found a plastic saw—there’s a big mock-construction area with tools—and my daughter set out to take it back to the construction tool collection. The eight-year old came running full tilt as we approached and violently wrenched the saw from my daughter’s hand. It turned out that it was literally his saw, that he’d brought some of his own toys (and scattered them all over the museum like it was his room). This seemed like a really fantastically dumb idea to me, given that there’s tons of objects for the kids to play with at the museum, all of them to be shared. The mother said little to her son when he grabbed my daughter’s wrist and ripped the saw from her, and nothing to me.

I was thinking a lot after our day about the two experiences. In one museum, we had a terrible time in general. In the other, we had a pleasant, fun afternoon broken up by a single bad experience. What was it fair for me to expect and demand in either case, as a parent or a citizen?

My first reaction in the Franklin Institute was to want to complain to some authority—to the teachers, to the administrators of the museum, to society--to want the restoration of order and control, to seek the enforcement of rules and codes of behavior. The declension narrative--the story that we all tell sometimes where the world is going to hell in a handbasket, where such things did not happen when we were young—came readily to mind.

The more I thought about it, the less I felt I could demand. Who was at fault, after all? The teachers? Could a small set of adults really keep such a large group of kids under tight control in an environment? The museum? What was I supposing they could do, other than closing the museum entirely to school groups? The parents of the children in question? They weren’t there, and it was clear that what the kids were doing was a collective behavior, that the individual mannerliness of any given child was irrelevant in the maelstrom. Staring the tragedy of the commons in the face, I found it difficult to assign responsibility for it.

I began to wonder at my own reactions. The other children in the Franklin Institute were exuberant, after all, seeking sensation and finding it, enjoying themselves thoroughly, and who knows, maybe even learning a thing or two with the exhibits (though I doubt it). I long ago was given pause by Michael Bowen during an online conversation about loud boom-boxes and loud car stereos in public spaces: for him, they were a sign of the richly vigorous, life-filled exuberance of a healthy urban space; objections to them were only a sign of the narrowly bounded aesthetic of uptight suburban white folks, a waspy preference masquerading as a universal norm.

Maybe that’s all I was being, an uptight white guy unnerved by a mostly (though not entirely) black group of kids enjoying themselves. What was I supposing to be better? A bunch of bored kids being held on a tight leash by controlling authorities, rationed their three minutes of experience with each exhibit and lectured to all the while so that it was kept properly educational?

Here I was preferring a museum that was quiet and peaceful because every kid in it was with (mostly white) middle-class parents who had the economic luxury to take the day off and be with their child. Of course it was better controlled: leave everything else out, a 1-to-1 ratio is going to work better than a 15-to-1 ratio for keeping things in check. The children were younger: that kept things quieter, too. You didn’t need any reference to culture or society or a declension narrative to explain the difference: it was simply a matter of labor power.

Maybe I was just preferring an aesthetic again, a way of life where kids were kept controlled and monitored, where it was more important to restrain them from offending others and intruding on personal space than it was allowing them to play freely. In Please Touch, confronted by bad behavior, I didn’t quietly invoke the local equivalent of the state and imagine the intervention of some system or structure for maintaining order—I just contemplated resolving my dissatisfaction individually, by approaching the mother of the boy and telling her that she was behaving poorly. The solution I imagined (and lacked the nerve to implement) was a private one.

Seen on a larger scale, I think my experience explains a lot of the political and social drift of American society in the last two decades. In the end, I still think I’m right to regard what happened in the Franklin Institute as a tragedy of the commons, not just as a suburban white-guy hangup. I think I had as much right to use those exhibits as anyone else who paid the entrance fee, and that it shouldn’t be up to me to enforce those rights. The school groups may have been having fun, but my daughter and I could not. (I noticed a few other parent-children clusters having the same problem, and not surprisingly, a few of them drifted around the same time as we did to the Please Touch Museum).

If you think of the Franklin Institute as the public sphere and the Please Touch Museum as a private one, look at how the choices shape out. Remain committed to the public sphere as a middle-class person of privilege and you have to accept that you will always lose out, that you may not even get your small fractional equal share of resources or entitlements without the active presence of a strong interventionist state to maintain order, at the cost of cultural flexibility and spontaneity. You will be left at the end of the day accepting a permanent state of loss and possibly rationalizing that way of being as being appropriate or fair or just desserts, as a product of your own cultural shortcomings. That’s just the kind of abnegation that one fraction of the American left indulges itself in.

Or you can buy your way into a private retreat from the public sphere, where you can have as much of a share of the privately bounded always-for-sale commons as you have time and money to claim, and where enforcement of your rights and privileges is a civil, individual matter. A private sphere where it is difficult to tell where your cultural preferences end and some larger democratic norm of behavior begins because you’ve opted into a space that is culturally, racially, economically homogenous, a space that permits your differentially greater resources to return differentially greater returns to yourself and your family. Though at the same time, a world lacking in any enforcement of a common set of rules, where if you are confronted with a person who takes more than their share, you're wholly isolated in dealing with the problem.

Small wonder that the (disproportionately white) American middle-class opts for an increasingly manorial, privatized world. The alternative is a public world that at best gives back an equal share of a small pool of resources shared among a very large group of recipients, but more often than not entails losing on almost every struggle of authentic importance and getting no share at all, leaving the loser to accept such losses and even rationalizing them as justified in terms of the loser’s own culturally bounded shortcomings and hang-ups.

The current mayoral election in Philadelphia is as illustrative of this dilemma as the two museums. For the professional and managerial middle-classes, voting for the incumbent, John Street, is voting for the public world in which they will likely be permanent losers, voting for an acceptance of corruption and cronyism. It doesn’t matter if you vote for Sam Katz, the Republican: he’s not going to win. In fact, his defeat has probably become more certain as a result of the FBI’s probe into corruption around John Street: it’s about sticking it to the Man now. Street and politicians like Street are almost always going to win. They’re not even going to pretend that they’re fighting corruption: Street practically celebrates it. I heard several expert commentators on the local NPR talk show last week saying that it’s no different than Irish or Italian ethnic politics, and that Street’s practices only get talked about differentially because of racial animus. There’s actually some truth to that: I have relatives in a deeply corrupt small city in New England who excuse their own Italian-American or Irish-American leaders misdeeds but not the corruption of leaders like Marion Barry or John Street. But this is also an alibi: it doesn’t make corruption right or appropriate, and it ignores how much it harms urban populations in terms of opportunities lost and good works undone.

So many opt out and choose to retreat into a privatized, suburban world, where even if the local government is corrupt (and it often is: Republican, suburban politics can be just as filthy and mismanaged) it won’t impinge as dramatically on the private social worlds of the inhabitants. At least in that world, you can fantasize that most social struggles can be resolved through meaningful individual connection to or decisive, autonomous action against other individuals.

The American left likes to shrug indifferently at all this, and to view the choice of a private world as a selfish and destructive one. The argument sometimes goes: who cares if you always lose in the public world, if you have the resources to compensate? Most of the school kids in the Franklin Institute don’t have their daddy’s old computer or a television and DVDs or huge numbers of books or tons of toys or a middle-class academic father who has extra time to give. The museum and other public spaces are the only richly satisfying environment they’re going to have. Can’t I be big enough to let them have it all for themselves? Wouldn’t my demand for a local “state” to enforce the even sharing of the commons represent a theft of precious time from the kids who have nothing on behalf of a kid who has almost everything?

Sure, I can be big enough. But then I’m going to pay $36.00 for two tickets and go across to the Please Touch Museum. Don’t ask my daughter and I to stand outside watching the play inside, our noses pressed to the glass, proud of our virtuous losses in the public arena, flagellating ourselves for our white middle-class lack of exuberance and expressiveness.

I think there are a lot of reasons why hostility to the state as an institution has become such a central theme of American political life—and not all of them have to do with these kinds of issues, or originate with the professional and managerial middle-classes who have retreated to the manorial privacy of the suburbs. But this is a big part of it: as long as public life involves a contempt for rules, an acceptance of the tragedy of the commons as inevitable, and a deep tolerance for corruption and cronyism, it is neither rational nor reasonable to expect those who can opt out to opt in.