October 17, 2003
Choosing the Private
I took my almost
3-year old daughter to the Franklin Institute Science Museum and the Please
Touch Childrens 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 breaktheres
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 didnt, their parents
intervened to make them share.
There was one interesting
exception to this. Theres an area of the museum set up as a mock farm
that you have to go through a gate to use, and its 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 doesnt 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, Dont play too rough.
I took my daughter out of the farm area immediately. Later, we found a plastic
sawtheres a big mock-construction area with toolsand 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 daughters hand. It turned out that it was literally his saw, that hed
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 theres 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 daughters
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 authorityto
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
youngcame 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 werent 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.
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
didnt 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 didnt quietly invoke the local
equivalent of the state and imagine the intervention of some system or structure
for maintaining orderI 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 Im
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
shouldnt 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. Thats 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 youve 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 losers
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 doesnt matter if you vote for Sam Katz, the Republican: hes not going to win. In fact, his defeat has probably become more certain as a result of the FBIs probe into corruption around John Street: its about sticking it to the Man now. Street and politicians like Street are almost always going to win. Theyre not even going to pretend that theyre fighting corruption: Street practically celebrates it. I heard several expert commentators on the local NPR talk show last week saying that its no different than Irish or Italian ethnic politics, and that Streets practices only get talked about differentially because of racial animus. Theres 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 doesnt 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 wont 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 dont have their daddys
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 theyre
going to have. Cant I be big enough to let them have it all for themselves?
Wouldnt 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 Im going to pay $36.00 for two tickets and go across
to the Please Touch Museum. Dont 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 lifeand 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.