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Benjamin R. Barber Headshot

Turning Off the Lights: Democracy in the Dark

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The front-runners in the Iowa caucuses and now in the New Hampshire primary, seem to detest one another, but they agree on one thing: that the Democrats want unlimited government pushing unearned "entitlements" and Obama style "socialism," while Republicans seek an "opportunity society" which means, well, no government at all. The Republican Party is effectively at war with the public sphere.

What this means in practice is evident in Highland Park, Michigan and other cities that have been pulling the plug on street lamps. There is no more dismal metaphor for America's abandonment of the public sphere than the decision by Highland Park to rip up a swath of its street lights in the name of public parsimony. Whether in Asia, Africa or Latin America, the first thing any township aspiring to civility and modernity does is put up street lights. Why? Because doing so keeps the emerging public square illuminated 24 hours a day, because it pushes private violence out of town into the shadows beyond, because it symbolizes the coming of civilized daily life where the right to safe public spaces is an essential priority of what it means to live in civility -- and in time, under democracy.

When I was barely a teenager in the early 50's, I remember attending my first "town meeting" in Stockbridge, Massachusetts before its glory days as a tourist mecca, where a debate was raging over whether this quaint New England town could afford to put up a new light on a side street. Nathan Horowitt, a Berkshire Country sage (and a contributor to the founding of modern Israel as well as the designer of the famous no-numerals Movado watch) spoke at the meeting. His words were simple and compelling -- idealism as an argument for public policy: "Do we want Stockbridge to become part of our growing cosmopolitan civilization? To offer illumination to our neighbors currently on the dark edge of town and locked in the 19th century?" When budget cutting predecessors of the Santorum/ Romney/ Ron Paul gang said the town couldn't afford it, Horowitt insisted that the street light was a token of our modernity, our egalitarianism, our public life. If we couldn't afford a street light, we couldn't afford our democracy. His inspiration carried the day and the meeting voted the funds and put in the street light.

Here we are now sixty years later, and in a new Millennium, living in what we now boast is "the greatest country in the world" -- being pushed enthusiastically in the wrong direction by politicians who hate politics and disdain the public sphere. Not turning on but turning off the lights. Leaving citizens to live half their lives in darkened outdoor spaces that, as a consequence, no longer really can qualify as public. "Light your own streets!" the penny pinchers say, rehearsing the mantra of the "dismantle government" crowd who think the inegalitarian private sector can do all the public sector once did -- but on the basis of who can afford to pay rather than on the basis of its obligation to nurture the public good. The opportunity society is really the "opportunity for those who can afford it" society, while the Democratic alternative they deride as the "Entitlement Society" is really the "Equal Opportunity for All Society." Entitlements are grounded in rights: street lights are not a privilege of the rich but the of right of town-dwellers to safe public space.

What Highland Park is doing is extending the gated community concept with its own security and garbage collection facilities to a "gated illumination" zone in which lighted thoroughfares are the privilege of the wealthy. To those who can afford it, light! And to those who can't afford it, darkness after dusk with enforced house arrest night after night for the rest of their lives. Let civility and public space fend for themselves.

When TVA and the great projects of the New Deal brought electricity to America's public streets and private homes in less privileged parts of the country, it was properly greeted as a victory not just for progress but for civilization, for equality, and thus for democracy. In America, everyone had the right to -- yes, was entitled to! -- a lit public square. A streetlight was not just a street light, but a token of civility and civilization, a proof of democratic government's commitment to equal public access for all, to public space that was truly public.

When Highland Park, Michigan turns off its street lights, America turns around and heads back into a Dark Age in which our finest ideals are once again shrouded in the obscurity of night. America's celebrated beacon of liberty about which Republicans talk incessantly is not an abstraction. It comprises all those tiny beams of freedom that liberate us from shadows and the night. Santorum and Gingrich and Paul and Romney take note: turn off the street lights and the beacon goes out.

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