Breathing the Free Air

When I was a kid, ten or eleven or even younger, my friends and I used to walk the two miles from our Madison, Wisconsin residential neighborhood (“Sector One” as one or other of us named it) to the downtown, to walk in and out of the shops and video arcades and university buildings, and sometimes into the huge neo-classical state capitol building, where we’d play hide and seek around the marble halls. On one occasion, I recall it getting dark and not having a quarter or a ride home, accosting a series of men and women in suits- probably state senators or something else unimportant- until one of them gave us some change to make a call on the pay phone in the central atrium and get one of our parents to come pick us up.

Unlike the university, none of us had any family or personal connection with the state government; the state capitol was simply one of a number of public spaces that we assumed demesnes over whenever we had free time, like the streets we rode our bikes around or the parks and playgrounds we went much more often than downtown. I introduce this story not merely to bask in my privilege- we were after all middle class white boys in an unusually safe town at a time of unusually free and easy expectations for how parents would let their kids live their lives, not least because the expectations of our schools were equally lax- but to make a simple point about the relationship of freedom to ownership of public space, and to the expectation that public space is owned by the public and not whatever mobs or paragovernmental entities decide to monopolize the space and tell other people what to do. On a lesser scale, when I was teaching in New York City, I would take groups of kids during and after school fairly regularly to the American Museum of Natural History, not solely for the pedagogical value of seeing meteorites and mammoth skeletons, but because it was free for us to take the subway and to get into the museum with the right Board of Ed documents, and once inside, especially early on weekday mornings or late on ordinary weekday afternoons, the museum was uncrowded enough that we could walk around freely without having to stay in a tight group constantly calling out the roll.

Famously, the Lady Forward statue outside the state capitol building, symbol of Wisconsin progressivism, was knocked down this summer during one of the riots; the Teddy Roosevelt statue outside the American Museum of Natural History was determined to be racist after a series of attacks and will be removed. That the statue pays tribute to Teddy’s conquest of space, guided one one side by an unclothed African (symbolic of his African expeditions) on on the other by an shirtless and head-dressed American Indian (symbolic of his American travels) is not separable from its racism, we are told, and perhaps it is correct. That Teddy’s two guides are grave and impressive figures themselves cannot be distinguished from that he looms over them, colossal on horseback while they walk along subsidiary on either side, or that a few steps up from the statue, in the museum itself, in the enormous entry hall with the towering long-necked barosaurus set upon by predatory allosauri, every wall is covered with murals to his greatness as (as the side of the statue reads), SOLDIER STATESMAN, HISTORIAN, CONSERVATIONIST, and NATURALIST.

The most serious claim thus far that the summer protests did not cause a surge in coronavirus infections was that they simply discouraged other, nonparticipating people from using and enjoying the public space that appeared dangerous or uncertain thanks to the protests. “Event-study analyses provide strong evidence that net stay-at-home behavior increased following protest onset, consistent with the hypothesis that non-protesters’ behavior was substantially affected by urban protests.

This claim does not appear to me to be true in Madison, itself, where there was an inarguable surge in infections immediately after the protests.

But quibbles aside, maybe there is a deeper truth to both the National Bureau of Economic Research and the protesters’ own claims, that the presumption of free movement in and ownership over American public space is a relic of a bygone age. For both children and grown people, this year has seen unprecedented restrictions on movement, action, and ordinary life, except in a few cases of paying homage to a new and dominant civic religion. Democratic man’s conquest of physical space, the demarcation of all the nation, all the world as open to free movement, exploration, enjoyment by a free people was perhaps just a temporary thing, tied to a particular moment, culture, and set of prejudices and privileges, and as likely to fade with time as the expectation that you’d let ten year olds bike downtown and run around wild in the state capitol.

2 thoughts on “Breathing the Free Air

  1. This is so sad… It is often said we don’t value what we had until we not longer have it. It’s often easiest to see it in relationships, whether with a lover or an elderly parent. Now we see this more about the respect we were willingly extending each other.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Does ‘freedom’ (or “free air”, whatever) include not having COVID propaganda thrown in your face 24/7, followed by (seemingly inevitably) mandatory vaccination? — asking for a friend.

    If Madison had cops who weren’t afraid to fulfill their moral responsibility to do their job despite the race and/or ostensible political motivation of the perpetrators those statues would still be up.

    Liked by 1 person

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