The Hole in the Stuffed Shirt

by Glen

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DESPITE THE FACT THAT MUCH HAS BEEN SPOKEN AND WRITTEN about it, I often find myself wondering if we really know what the public space is. Those fighting for their communities talk about it all the time, as do those who vigilantly hold to free speech. Is it shared transportation, parks, open concepts, shared venues, tax dollars at work, arts enthusiasts, or Internet freedom?

I spent much of yesterday asking people to define the public space for me and heard a hundred answers. People love the concept but have trouble landing on its substance. Toronto has its own Public Space Committee. Good on them, but that’s a rare thing in most of our communities. Instead what we have is an idea, a kind of aspirational place of the mind where people go to define what they want together.

I have a word for it, but some likely won’t take to it: democracy. With all the power brokers out there in the world, it is nice to know that there’s a mechanism where we can fight back against the usurpers, cooperate with the dreamers, and hopefully select people who can represent us in legislative arenas. But even the term “democracy” itself conjures up lots of opinions.

Today the City of London unveils ReThink London, in what has been termed, “Canada’s largest citizen engagement exercise in its history.” It has been exciting, arduous, hard work and inspiring. Some of us have fought for it from the beginning, but others who hold to certain advantages see it as a threat to their holdings. Average citizens have come together to say that a shared dream is more vital than a lucrative one and that we have reached the stage where our future matters more than our present.

So, for the sake of all of us, here is a definition of democracy that holds the public space in mind. It was written on the July 3, 1943 edition of The New Yorker by E. B. White. I submit this wonderful reflection as a wish and a context for ReThink and a citizen’s desire to burst the bubble of exclusivism and usher in a new age of shared community and humanity:

“We received a letter from the Writers’ War Board the other day asking for a statement on ‘The Meaning of Democracy.’ It presumably is our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure.

“Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the ‘don’t’ in ‘don’t shove.’ It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth inning. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.”