Our common wealth
by David Benjamin
“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’”
— John 4:7
PARIS — The history of great cities always involves water — how much water the city consumes, where it comes from, what happens if there isn’t enough, who controls the water supply and how do the people get their water.
One of the milestones in Paris’ water saga was in 1609, when the city finished a mighty hydraulic pump at the Pont Neuf, to draw water from the Seine. For 200 years, most poor Parisians depended on this pump, called La Samaritaine. It was marked by a statue of the Samaritan woman who spoke with Jesus at the fountain in Sychar. Ironically, according to John, “La Samaritaine,” a nosy broad with prejudices, never got around to pouring Jesus a drink.
Early in the 19th century, La Samaritaine wore out. Later, many of Paris’ public fountains dried up, when aqueducts were razed in the siege of the city during the Francio-Prussian war. By 1872, Parisians had few sources of clean water. A Francophile British nobleman, Richard Wallace came to the rescue. He underwrote a vast network of graceful “Wallace fountains,” designed by Charles-Auguste Lebourg. Almost 150 years later, they’re still here, still running.
At times in Paris, as in many cities, private interests less benevolent than Sir Richard, gained control of the flow and made water, literally, too expensive for many citizens to drink. Wine was cheaper.
The struggle of Paris, for centuries, to provide this simple necessity to its people got me thinking — from an American angle — about what’s “public” and what isn’t.
Since Roman times in Europe, not much of the turf in what we call Western civilization has been deemed what an American would call “public.” For centuries, every acre of space in the known world “belonged” to various thrones, to the “landed” aristocracy and to a voracious Church fat with private property. For most Europeans, the public space they knew, where they could congregate, court, converse, trade and gossip was a few cobbled meters surrounding a public fountain that was often the community’s only source of water. It was every village’s La Samaritaine.
America was different from the beginning. With vast open spaces and an irrepressible (and often brutal) expansionism, America invented the “public” idea, the right of every citizen to share, enjoy, re-shape and, finally, to preserve great tracts of a continent that had belonged, since the dawn of time, to no one in particular.
America’s founders injected into our seminal documents a concept unthinkable in an Old World where every inch was spoken for and every fungible border stained with the blood of peasant soldiers drafted to perpetuate the dominion of Crown, nobility and clergy. Because we knew the abuses done by these three estates, we invented a secular nation without kings or hereditary elites. We made a government “of the people, by the people and for the people” whose first purpose is to guard the “public trust.”
Of course, the thirst for aristocracy is unquenchable, especially among Americans who believe that personal wealth merits exceptional privilege. We’ve seen the public idea assailed at times by land barons and plantation slavers, oilmen, industrialists, railroad tycoons, financiers, agribusiness, bloated generals and political machines, all ravenous to seize our common wealth and tuck it into their private pockets.
Each time, the people’s government, reminded of its public trust, has fought back. We, the people extended suffrage from property owners (an Old World fallacy) to all men, then to women, and then to fellow Americans whom we had once treated as property.
Horace Mann conceived public education — for everyone — and John Dewey articulated the secular theology of “the American common school.”
Teddy Roosevelt invented the concept of public lands and launched the national park system. FDR lifted up a nation that had been brought to bankruptcy by private greed, conceiving a program of public works that, still today, staggers the imagination. He made care for the aged, halt and helpless an American Commandment. Dwight Eisenhower expanded the public realm to the nation’s highways, Richard Nixon to the nation’s fragile environment. Lyndon Johnson restored black Americans to the public conversation by re-affirming their every stolen right, in particular the right to vote.
Barack Obama took up the cause of public health that had been fostered by both Roosevelts, by Harry Truman, by Johnson, Nixon and Bill Clinton and finally made it happen.
When Woody Guthrie sang, “This land your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York island,” he wasn’t just whistling “Dixie.” He was articulating a concept of nationhood that did not exist anywhere on earth before July Fourth, 1776.
It’s a concept that has had to fight for its life, even in the land of its creation. You hear talk, from our aspiring nobility, about “market solutions” to public problems. They mutter that our “failing” public schools and our great land-grant universities are “government indoctrination centers.” They’ve twisted the public idea into what they call the “deep state.” They want to convince us, the public, that the public idea has been subverted. They propose to replace the public trust with a handful of wise white men — an elite, if you will — who know better than we.
They claim Jefferson, Washington, Madison as their forebears.
“Trust us,” they say.
But, there’s this. A financial empire — immensely powerful and packed with rich, brainy guys — incorporated in the USA, headquartered in Ireland or Barbados, funded by banks in Cyprus and Russia, cosseted by theocrats in the Middle East and married to a dozen mobs in a thousand invisible deals, is accountable to no one, not even to its boards of directors, nor to its clueless shareholders and absolutely not to the public. Catch one of these vast fiefdoms cheating, stealing, lying, destroying an economy and… oops! Poof! Gone, like Alice’s rabbit, into a black hole of tax havens and bankruptcy dodges.
The point of private power is that it’s not public. Nor does it need a republic. It is kings and popes in capitalist raiment. Private power — what FDR called “organized money” — merits no trust, public or otherwise, because its every move is secret.
Better we should trust ourselves. However competent or incompetent our elected representatives, they govern by law, in the open. Our republic is public, accountable to us, the people. If we fail to hold the worse of our chosen delegates to account, the fault is ours.
America, at our best, has been better than La Samaritaine. Here, Jesus, a stranger, could get his drink, a bucket of water, a whole river, with no questions about his alien faith or where he’s from. The motto that always comes to the American mind, especially in hard times, is, “There, but for fortune, go I.”
We have a new potentate, a walking corporation with a million private secrets, who calls our White House “a real dump,” because it has no gold-plated faucets. His motto?
“I’ve got my fortune. Go get yours.”