Friday, May 06, 2005

"The evil that men do" and Public Space

Recently, via some comments on Ralph Ellison's work, I noted that Ellison notes that a central theme of American discourse--one that, from the end of Reconstruction to the end of the Korean War, had been repressed in various ways--is ethnicity in general and the incorporation of African-Americans into American culture in particular. It struck me recently, as I was rethinking the general tone of some things I'd written here about the idea of public space, that, seeing as I imagine that space as civil in every sense of that word, that some may contend that in that space there is no room for outrage, that civility could easily slip into complacency. Little slights, if ignored, can gather force and undermine that space in such a way that civil order becomes threatened and difficult to restore.
Then comes yesterday's story on NPR's Morning Edition about the decision to exhume the body of Emmitt Till so as to gather evidence in anticipation of future legal action against still-living accomplices in his murder. I cannot imagine what the impact of seeing his open-casket photographs in Jet must have been like. It had to have been not even shocking but searing, the effect of having that mutilated, bloated body of that 11-year-old-boy land on the collective doorstep of anyone who cared to look, asking us to see what comes of Go-Slow-ism, of benign indifference, of Looking the Other Way.
Public space requires affirmations of public good will, but it also requires such disruptions of civility in order to retain their health and vigor as space for all its citizens. It needs to see police dogs attacking unarmed people, the rubble of a bombed church, children escorted by National Guardsmen to the doorways of schools . . . yes, and even flag-draped coffins of soldiers and naked prisoners stacked in pyramids in places physically far away from us but very much under our control, however indirect. It needs to know these things happen and its members need not be afraid to admit that they are afraid to talk about such things as they talk about such things. INcivility and violence, the myriad costs of war and prejudice, those too should be part of the discourse of public space, serving as a check and balance in the constantly-evolving search for and achievement of the public welfare.

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