Monday, December 22, 2008

London Calling, Again

Winding up my visit here with a few more observations:

Over the last 10-15 years, London has been blanketed by CCTV cameras. They are almost literally everywhere, and thus it is nearly impossible to walk, or to take the Tube, or to drive without being spied on camera at least once during your journey.

It is a level of surveillance that makes many Americans (including this one) uncomfortable. But it also underscores a real difference between American and Europeans about how the best social order is to be achieved.

Americans profess - Dick Cheney notwithstanding - a deep commitment to individual rights. The rights of individuals trump, in the minds of many Americans, any notion of collective rights, or collective responsibilities. Europeans, on the other hand, have had a more highly developed sense of the common good, and individual liberties have often been asked to take a back seat to it.

The notion of individual freedom hardly needs defending, but perhaps we ought to look at the costs we pay for our commitment to those freedoms. Economically, we view ourselves purely as individuals operating in the market place. When any one of us doesn't succeed in that market, we have always viewed the failure as individual rather than structural: it's my fault that I can't find a job. Government policies for the unemployed and poor have tended to agree.

Likewise, we treat health care as an individual proposition rather than a collective right. The notion that in America one's health is tied so directly to one's employment (and wealth) strikes Europeans as just short of barbaric.

Most absurdly, the Supreme Court has ruled - willfully ignoring all the historical evidence to the contrary - that gun ownership is an individual right, just like the right to speech, not a collective right that can be effectively regulated through the political process. (For more on the history of the 2nd amendment see my colleague Saul Cornell's book A Well Regulated Militia).

In Europe, where collective responsibilities compete more equally with individual rights, the result has been a more lively urban realm - measured by the life on the streets and in the parks and in cultural venues of all sorts. It can't simply be a coincidence that as Americans venerate individual rights, we have retreated further and further from public life - into "gated communities," private transportation, and on and on. We are scared of each other to a dispiriting extent, and for a generation have not been able even to discuss the idea of a commonweal.

Massaging the balance between public and private, between the individual and the group is the very essence of what urbanism means. Cities, after all, are where people come together to pursue their private dreams, but in a way which makes it possible for others to pursue theirs as well. No one in a city gets to do anything s/he wants at whatever time s/he wants precisely in order that we can all do much of what we want to do most of the time.

Londoners have given up some measure of their individual freedom as CCTV cameras have proliferated across the city. The thousands of them that crowd the streets and shops and parks and paths, making this one of the most energetic urban spaces on the planet, don't seem to mind too much.


drip said...

You've seen this, right?

Cappy said...

If by lively urban environment you mean Detroit, I'll keep my gun rights as individual rights, thank you very much.

Nancy said...

Yes, community and commonwealth are concepts that are poorly understood and applied in the U.S. And we are encouraged, it seems to me, to be afraid of one another! For example, if my husband knew that I pick up hitchhikers and give to street beggars, he would be afraid for my safety--but I have some discernment about this, and feel OK doing it, selectively.

I teach psychology classes online, and I convinced my entire (mainly politically conservative and religiously fundamentalist) class this semester that socialized medicine, European style, is a very good thing.

Poycer said...

When I was in graduate school I often had conversations with European students in our program about the differences between the US and Europe. What you have described was generally one of the first things they noticed.

Steve Conn said...


What point, exactly, are you trying to make? By "lively urban environment" I did NOT mean Detroit. In fact, I never mentioned Detroit in this post. I was talking about London. That's in England, in case you missed the reference.

But you make my point anyway: In London, virually no guns and virtually no gun violence. In Detroit, guns aplently and plenty of gun violence. Even you can see the correlation right?

And while we're at it, ever wonder why all those gun nut NRA shills who tell us that more guns make us safer never live in any of the most heavily armed places? Like Detroit, or Watts?

Steve said...

I'm not sure if this piece by graffiti artist Banksy is still up on Newman Street near Oxford Circus, but if so, it's worth seeing in person.

likwidshoe said...

It's hard to take seriously someone who can't understand the plain language of the 2nd Amendment.

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