Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Violence as Enclosure

When something in the commons is threatened with privatization, we call that the threat of enclosure. The idea is that the commons is open, in all meanings of that word, and that private space is enclosed. For those who want to understand this concept in all its dimensions, I recommend David Bollier’s excellent and very readable book, Silent Theft: the Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth.

How is violence and the threat of violence part of enclosure and a threat to the commons? Michael Adams, in his very interesting sociological comparison of the United States and Canada called Fire and Ice: the United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values describes the difference between Americans and Canadians in response to dozens of questions. He concludes:

"Attitudes towards violence are, in fact, among the features that most markedly differentiate Canadians from Americans. In the year 2000, 50% of Canadians told us they felt violence to be all around them…but 76% of Americans felt the same way."

He goes on to look at how these attitudes have changed over almost a decade from 1992-2000. In 1992, when asked if violence is a “normal part of life,” 9% of Canadians and 10% of Americans said yes. In 1996, 9% of Canadians still said yes, but 18% of Americans said yes. By 2000, the Canadian percentage had crept up to 12% and the American percentage was almost one in four—24%. To understand it in sheer numbers, 70 million Americans see violence as a normal part of one’s daily life. An even more scary response was when Americans were asked to agree or disagree that when you are extremely frustrated, violence can offer relief and is “no big deal.” In 2000, 14% of Canadians agreed with that, and 31% (one out of three) Americans.

About 6% of American households, possibly trying to get away from the people who think violence is “no big deal,” have chosen to live in gated communities, a phenomenon that crosses class and race lines. According to USA Today, renters are 2 ½ times as more likely than homeowners to live behind gates or walls. To be sure, these people are not just trying to escape from violence, and there is the same amount of domestic violence inside as outside the gated community. But people do often name “safety” as a factor in choosing a gated, enclosed community.

Domestic violence, street violence, police violence, and war are all part of a profound enclosure of our physical selves, our freedom and our creativity. Feminists have long organized around anti-violence issues, from “take back the night” marches to sexual assault programs to self-defense training and more. If we are to really enjoy our physical commons—sidewalks, parks, subways—we first have to feel safe in them.

In very significant ways, Americans are enclosed by violence and Canadians are not. What can we learn from each other—for Americans, how to reverse our trends, and for Canadians, how to avoid becoming like us?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Right To…

I am living in Montreal for six months, working at Concordia University’s Institute in Management and Community Development. Primarily I came here to develop workshops, essays, speeches, trainings and conversations on tax policy since I have come to believe that poor tax policy is the root and/or the result of much of what is wrong in the United States.

Taxes are supposed to do two things: redistribute wealth so that roughly speaking, everyone has access to the same quality of life; and to finance institutions and systems that protect and enhance that life. So of course a key question in all tax discussion is what does that mean? It is fascinating to look at what Canadians think creates a quality of life (insofar as one can generalize across a whole country), and I have discovered some deep differences which can be explained in the philosophies of the founders of both our countries.

Whereas Jefferson declared on behalf of our founding fathers, that the USA would give “all men (sic) the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the founders of the Canadian Confederation dedicated their country to “peace, order and good government.” (I do not need to be reminded that by “all men,” Jefferson actually meant “some white men” and which is a major problem in itself but which I will not discuss here.)

A country that places peace, order and good government as its foundation is bound to develop differently than one that focuses on the rights of the individual. The good of all the people will take precedence over the good of any one person. Authority, the need for authority, and respect for authority will play out very differently, with Americans far more likely to question and even flout authority and Canadians much more likely to defer to it. I have always loved “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and find “peace, order and good government” to not have the same panache, but some 200 years into our respective experiments, it is time to examine carefully what quality of life arises out of these divergent founding statements and what course corrections the United States and Canada might need to make to keep what we value about the vision of our respective founders, and shed that which is not serving us at all.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Commons and Hospitality

Last week, we had a meeting of our whole Building Movement team in Detroit. These meetings are always intense, interesting, fun, stimulating and exhausting in equal portions. We often meet all day and then do something fun together at night. A giant snowstorm meant that the fun had to be found in our hotel, but that was easy because the restaurant/bar was having their every-other-week karaoke night. So, we all settled in, ordered fattening food and cold drinks and took turns singing.

I had never actually gotten up and sung at a karaoke bar and was amazed at how fun it was. I actually did three numbers before the evening was out, although always with a more highly skilled member of the team (i.e. someone who can actually carry a tune.) What struck me most about this evening was how, in the bar of a corporate for-profit chain hotel, we all had an amazing experience of an important and often overlooked element of the commons, which is hospitality.

First of all, anyone could come into the bar and participate. Although most of us ordered food and drinks, there was no minimum and several tables were full of people where only one or two were drinking. The DJ radiated enjoyment of the whole scene. As he called each name to come up and sing, you felt you could be going out on a grand stage in front of thousands of adoring fans. People cheered your entrance and your exit, and cheered all the way through your song.

Second, we could choose among hundreds of songs which we personally did not pay a royalty in order to sing. (The restaurant or possibly the hotel hopefully has a license from ASCAP—the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers to use the works that are in the karaoke catalog).

Third, there was no talent required to get up and sing, although, in fact, many of the singers were quite talented. It being a slow night, the kitchen staff came out and sang, as did the bartender in addition to the customers. But talent didn’t seem to matter—we all rooted for each other and slapped each other’s backs and high-fived each performer. Being the least talented of the entire bar scene, I appreciated the genuine encouragement I felt from all the patrons.

Is a bi-weekly karaoke bar really an important part of the commons? Compared to clean water and air, or protecting wilderness, or keeping the human genome from being patented, probably not. But for understanding what the commons is supposed to do for the people, it is.

I contrast this experience with a visit I made some time ago to a public park with my dog. Both of us looked very scruffy—I had been gardening and was hot and sweaty and my dog had been rolling in dirt and needed a haircut. I saw one very coiffed and well dressed woman with her equally coiffed purebred corgi pull her dog in close to her as we passed, so my dog wouldn’t get dirt on her dog. My dog, a mutt, didn’t notice, but I was suddenly aware that everyone in that park on that day was well dressed and groomed. I felt out of place in my neighborhood public park.

As I watched the singers that night in Detroit, I thought that all of us need more of this kind of experience: the experience that you are welcome in this space, and a feeling that who you are and what you can do is enough. That people around you are proud of you and glad to be in your company, and that you feel the same way about them. Our commons needs these spaces, and these are the spaces people will work hard to protect.