A City Turned Inside Out

I am haunted by a line a student said in a class last spring.  We were trying to make sense of the concept of civic life, of democratic space as something that occurs as relations among people, as something that could be a resource for change. This is the kind of power that Hannah Arendt noted arises when people speak and act together on some matter of common concern. We talked about how this often invisible kind of power is created in one community after another.  Then  a young woman from Haiti spoke up. She said there was nothing like this in her country because “no one goes outside.” Her meaning was clear.  Life outside was frightful, but inside was safe. Poverty and corruption had created a cycle of fear and powerlessness. When a country is so dysfunctional that people are afraid for their safety in public, then they lack the opportunity to create collective relationships that could change the dynamic. In communities throughout the world, meaningful and real change has come from the bottom up when people have stopped waiting for government to fix things and begun to find ways to address matters themselves. (And then ultimately demanded a better government.) But Haiti’s condition was so impoverished that not even that seemed possible, so people closed themselves off inside.

But now horrifically the earthquake that rocked Haiti Tuesday afternoon has turned its capital, Port-au-Prince, inside out. No one is safe inside anymore.  Families are camping out in public parks. As the Washington Post reports, survivors are using their bare hands and sheets of glass to try to dig out those trapped under heaps of rubble and concrete. The immediate task is to free the living; then to provide care for the wounded, hungry, and thirsty.

But ultimately the task is to rebuild the city, not just with more resilient buildings but with conditions that could allow people to step outside and start to create civic relationships and a social fabric. Civic life alone is no substitute for food and shelter, but without it food and shelter will always be precarious. It all seems so hopeless now, but I’m confident that a people who freed themselves from slavery have it in their DNA to free themselves from abjection.

In the meantime, I’m helping out as best I can.  Go here to see how you can do the same.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.