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“The Public” Disappears

Private (photo: Holster(R))

“There is no such thing as society.”

— Margaret Thatcher

The word public, as in public schools or public option, has become a dirty word in, uh, public life. The question is, can a nation survive once it has abandoned not just moral notions of the public good but the positive notion that there is a public?

Authorities in Fort Worth, Texas, apparently at the urging of their oil industry benefactors, removed the word “public” from the name of the city library. It’s now the Fort Worth Library, not the Fort Worth Public Library. Why? They explain the reason in their press release: the word “public” has “negative connotations.”

Chisara N. Asomugha, a Connecticut physician and ordained minister, wrote in the Washington Post:

Have you ever noticed that when “public” is used descriptively in conversation — public school, public transportation, public (or county) hospital — the quality of the item is called into question? Change the word “public” to “private” and the perception is that the product is superior. It begs the question whether the public option is concerning not because it is a public option, but because the concept of a “public” anything brings to mind images of inferior or bureaucracy-laden goods.

Mary Newsom, associate editor of the Charlotte Observer, worries that America has “given up on the idea of the public.”

Today, wealthy people are getting wealthier. They buy custom suits and their assistants battle voice-mail hell. They get enviable pensions. They don’t need nice parks or public schools; their country clubs and private schools boast handsome buildings and manicured grounds.

But why have so many other people given up on the idea that the larger community – all of us – deserve sound government services and jobs you can live on? When did we stop believing we deserve pretty parks, well-kept schools, decent pay, job benefits and a pension when we retire – and that it’s OK to pay for those things, because we value them?

In America today, “success” is measured in terms of distance from others. The public is nothing more than what the successful leave behind. They seek insulated, isolated homes in gated communities. They send their kids to exclusive private schools. They have to go out, so they soundproof their opaque-windowed cars. In most cities, only the unwashed and untouchable use public transportation.

Distance – economic, geographical, political – can provide dangerous illusions of total self-sufficiency. No matter that the fruit eaten by the wealthy escapees is picked by people they’ve worked all their lives to stay away from. No matter that the men and women who fight their wars could not get past the guards at the gates to visit them in their homes.

Many seem to be engaged in a crusade intended to prove John Donne politically and ontologically wrong. Every person can be an island, they dream, and off they go, swimming for a distant island shore that’s really not there.

Donne, by the way, was offering fairly explicit political advice to the English rulers of his day. As Dave Gray and Jeanne Shami have written:

Whatever the spiritual implications of Donne’s statement that no man is an island, then, the political implication is that the heir apparent [Prince Charles] and his advisers have a responsibility not to act merely as private persons.

Translated into democratic terms, that means that all citizens have a responsibility not to act merely as private persons. What, then, becomes of democracy when status as a private person unconnected to and unaccountable to the larger community becomes the dominant goal? What happens when “to act merely as private persons” becomes our moral grail? Morality and democracy are plural terms, of course. In the singular, they are meaningless. And so is the life of the merely private person, although the destruction caused can have great and painful meaning for the public persons left behind.

The Right’s war on public education, its efforts to privatize Social Security and its move to abolish Medicaid and Medicare are premised on the abandonment of the concept of the public.  Make no mistake, the Right’s goal for public education is not to perfect it, but to abolish it. The late conservative titan, Richard Weaver, confessed as much when he wrote, in “The Role of Education in Shaping Society”:

Public education has today become such a shibboleth that to say anything against it is often to invite incomprehension or to provoke the most violent denunciation, as if one had attacked religion. But I will declare my belief on this subject, which is that our situations would be better if not only a considerable part but even a majority of our education were conducted under private auspices.

It should come as no surprise that Weaver was also a defender of the Old South’s pre-Civil War feudalism. No wonder he’s threatened by truly public education.

The conservative God has no room for the public or the public good. For today’s Right, the streets of Heaven are paved with exclusive, private interests, which must make of it something very much like Hell.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith