If the next conservatism is to be the guide the conservative movement needs, it ought to talk about some new issues as well as the old standards. Sometimes, some of these new issues may strike people as unimportant. But it is hard to know what will prove important in the future we are trying to address. In this column, I want to talk about an issue that is not yet on many voters’ radar screens but I think may come to be: the public space.
What is the public space? It is the space outside our homes, schools or offices where people intermingle. It is streets with sidewalks, where people not only walk but stop, talk and listen. It is malls and town commons. It is restaurants and stores, churches and movie theaters, trains and buses and even airports. Essentially, it is anyplace where we do not control who we might meet.
Why is it important? Because if we are to be citizens of a republic and not mere consumers in an administered state, we need to both have and want contact with our fellow-citizens. When life is privatized, lived largely or almost wholly behind walls, doors and security control points, society withers. We come only to care about ourselves and those who share our private space. What happens to the rest of the society is not our concern, so long as we are OK.
There is no question that American life is being privatized this way. If you go to Europe, you will see that people there spend much more of their time in the public space. The same used to be true in this country. Even the front porches of old houses, where families often spent their evenings before air conditioning and television, were part of the public space.
I do not think that the loss of the public space in America is part of any kind of deliberate effort. There are many reasons for it. I already mentioned air conditioning and television. Other causes include the increasing coarseness of dress, manners and behavior; when the public space is filled with people who look bad and often behave badly, people avoid it. Noise is another factor. Blaring boom-boxes were bad enough, but just as that curse seems to have faded somewhat, cell phones have come along. Too often, if you are in the public space, you find yourself having to listen to one-half of a private phone conversation. Many people now dread the prospect of cell phones on airplanes.