The Public Sphere is like a Garden

Quico says: Habermas understands the public sphere as that realm of social life where private individuals come together to discuss public matters collectively. The public sphere is actualized every single day on the pages of newspapers, at university cafeterias, around kitchen tables, in union halls and political party meetings as well as on blogs – whenever and wherever private individuals come together to talk about public affairs.

At its best, deliberation in the public sphere is reasoned, focused on arguments rather than personalities, open to all, and geared towards building common understanding. The health of the public sphere is vital to the viability of democracy. The opinion of the majority is democratically legitimate only to the degree that discussion in the public sphere operates as it’s supposed to. Only then does “public opinion” embody a process of collective deliberation that honors our nature as thinking beings: and that, deep down, is the whole point of democracy.

But there’s no a priori reason to believe the Public Sphere will work properly all or even most of the time. Just the opposite: the habits of mind necessary to sustain critical debate in a democratic public sphere are always fragile, always precarious, always in need of attention. They can’t be mandated or legislated or imposed. They need to be fostered and protected.

I’ve been trying to think of an image, a metaphor to capture what’s happened to our public sphere over the last few years. The other day I tried Alzheimer’s. But maybe this one works better:

A democratic public sphere is like a garden. It needs tending. It needs attention, care, fussing over. It needs somebody to protect it from all kinds of threats: insects, fungi, storms, frosts, rabbits and weeds. Left to its own devices, it will be slowly overrun. It can’t be taken for granted.

Venezuela’s public sphere was never particularly tidy. Since 1958, it was always a bit ramshackle, overgrown here and there, encroached on by the surrounding, wild tropical vegetation and besieged by all kinds of plagues – petrostate clientelism, the mantuano discourse, general ignorance, pervasive disdain. Nobody took the job of tending it very seriously – we treated more like a Conuco, really – but neither did it quite turn back into jungle.

Eight years ago, Hugo Chavez sized up our public sphere and took a flamethrower to it. It’s a heap of smoldering debris by now, just totally wrecked. Worse yet, many in the opposition figured that the way to fight back was to get flamethrowers of their own. They ended up scorching the parts of the garden that had somehow survived the initial onslaught.

Others (a minority) realized all along the need to try to save what could be saved of the garden, to protect it, to shield it from the devastation all around. But it’s a losing battle. Gardening takes time, effort, perseverance. Flamethrowing doesn’t. What takes the gardener a year to build takes the flamethrower a minute to burn down. Does it really make sense to try to garden while we’re surrounded by people determined to burn down whatever we manage to grow?

One thing is clear to me: if we’re going to build a democratic public sphere, winning in December isn’t enough. Even getting Chavez out of Miraflores isn’t enough, because he can keep wrecking any attempt to build a democratic public sphere just as easily from the opposition as he can from the government. We need to wrestle the flamethrower away from him…as well as from the hotheads on “our” side. And then we need to start gardening.

We need to reinvent the way we talk about ourselves to ourselves. We need to craft a new consensus about what is and what isn’t acceptable in public deliberation. We need to enshrine the kind of standards Zapatero was trying (in vain) to explain to Chavez when the King lost his cool (“Se puede estar en las antípodas de una posición ideológica – no seré yo el que esté cerca de las ideas de Aznar – pero el ex presidente Aznar fue elegido por los españoles y exijo ese respeto. Se puede discrepar radicalmente sin irrespetar.“) In Venezuela, getting everyone to accept those norms would require a whole new conception of what it means to “do politics.” It’ll be the work of a generation, or more.

One glimmer of hope: when farmers are looking to clear a field for cultivation, probably the oldest technique to prepare it is to slash-and-burn. It’s just imaginable that if one day, somehow, we manage to get the flamethrowers out of our public sphere, we’ll find the ground is readier for cultivation than now seems quite imaginable.