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OWS, Egypt Expose Limits of Town Square Test

Central plazas were key places for political action in 2011, but historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom says the Town Square Test fails as a method for assessing the divide between democracy and authoritarian.

Many of last year’s most dramatic photographs showed people packing public places to sound off. We saw memorable images of crowds gathering at Tahrir Square to lambast one government then castigate its successor, protesters at Zuccotti Park to voice outrage at Wall Street, and public outcry on the grounds of the Mazu Temple in the South China village of Wukan in December to denounce government land grabs. We saw gatherings in Syria, in Tunisia, in Greece, even in North Korea.

If, as TIME magazine declares, 2011’s Person of the Year was “The Protester,” then 2011’s Place of the Year was the town square. This makes the start of 2012 an ideal time to revisit the “Town Square Test,” which was first spelled out by the former Soviet dissident turned Israeli politician Natan Sharansky in his 2004 book, The Case for Democracy.

Soviet specialist Condoleezza Rice gave the test a boost in 2005 when she praised it in her opening statement during her Senate confirmation hearings to be U.S. Secretary of State; her boss, George W. Bush, extolled it as well.

At the heart of the Town Square Test is the notion that the difference between living in a “free” state and living in a “fear” state is clear and comes down to whether a person can go to the town square and “express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm.”

At first glance, it would seem both an attractive idea and one whose value and wisdom was confirmed by the dramatic events of 2011. Sharansky is clearly onto something when he says we can learn a lot about any country by what people are, and are not, allowed to say and do in public spaces.

On closer inspection, however, a survey of last year’s gatherings in public places around the world actually reveals the fundamental problems with the Town Square Test — despite its superficial appeal, it’s always been far too blunt an instrument to be very useful. And 2011’s events remind us that embracing the test’s simple vision of a world divided neatly into “fear” states and “free” states can lead to a distorted view of political life.

For Bush, Rice, and Sharansky, the Town Square Test fits in with a specific vision of human nature and a specific vision of recent history. They assume that there is a universal desire among people living in “fear” countries to want their nations to become “free” ones.  They celebrate the European revolutions of 1989, which often involved mass gatherings in town squares, as having transformed totalitarian countries into democracies.

Washington, Rice said, should use the test to increase the odds that the first decades of the 21stcentury would return the 1989 tide, changing more “fear” states into “free” ones. The White House should identify nations that fail the Town Square Test, then encourage and support efforts by the citizens of those countries to liberate themselves.

How do the events of 2011 fit into this picture? News stories from that dramatic year provided plenty of fresh evidence that people in many parts of the world thirst for a greater degree of freedom and often are willing to take great risks in pursuit of this goal, but in many other ways, the year’s events challenged, rather than reinforced, the Town Square Test worldview.

Consider these five points:

1) The year reminded us that even in liberal democratic states, limits always exist on what one can say and do in the town square. Thanks to American laws against hate speech, for example, and German ones that make expressing pro-Nazi sentiments a crime, there are no countries where people are completely free to say anything they want in public without fear of negative consequences. In addition, as the Occupy Wall Street movement showed, there are often limits to how long one can stay in the town square of a “free” state to express one’s opinion. The best known proponents of the Town Square Test have always taken it for granted that the United States passes it with flying colors; but in 2011 when those in authority thought specific Occupiers tarried a bit too long, force of varying kinds, including most infamously pepper spraying (which became to Occupy what fire hoses had been to civil rights protests), was used to get people out of public spaces, from New York’s Zuccotti Park to University of California campuses at Berkeley and Davis. This was done even though the people cleared from those locales were not engaging in taboo forms of speech.

2) Town Square Test thinking tends to assume that within any country all public spaces are created equal, with similar rules governing their use. This makes it a fairly simple matter to say which nations pass and which fail the test. But in 2011 as always, it was much safer speaking out in some regions than others. In his December 17 New Yorker report on Russian protests in Moscow public spaces, for example, David Remnick makes it clear from interviews with human rights activists and crusading journalists that doing anything seen as challenging the authorities is riskier in Chechnya than in Russia’s capital city, suggesting that there is not just one kind of town square in that country.

This is definitely the case in the People’s Republic of China. For example, it is possible to gather in a Hong Kong park to mourn the victims of the June 4 Massacre of 1989 (that took place near and put an end to the protests in Tiananmen Square) without risking arrest, but arrest is certain if you do the same thing in Tiananmen Square or indeed any public space in Beijing or Shanghai. Yet it is possible to go to parks in Beijing or Shanghai and talk loudly about your disgust with local officials and not get into trouble, while doing the exact same thing in a park in Xinjiang or Tibet would be exponentially riskier.

3) Just as not all town squares in a country are necessarily the same, different rules of town-square freedom may apply to different residents thanks to variables such as race, class, and gender. Historical examples abound, including the limited access to town-square rights that African Americans had in the American South in the Jim Crow era. That the issue is not just of historical significance was driven home by the changing nature of Tahrir Square protests, which by late in the year focused at times on the danger that women faced in expressing opinions in public in a post-Mubarak Egypt.The same country provides evidence of religion as a variable, since the ease with which Egyptian Christians could express grievances without fear in public spaces changed dramatically between early in 2011 and October of that year.

4) Other metrics can tell us about a society’s zones of freedom and zones of fear, such as how communications pass through the virtual town square of the Internet. Take the case of Thailand. In 2011, as in many previous years, the country had its share of demonstrations in public spaces. Yet, in the balance between freedom and fear in that country, what happened during those large-scale events was not necessarily as important as a man being arrested on the charge of lèse majesté because of a link he posted on a blog.

5) Last but not least, consider the implications of a set of powerful late 2011 photographs of North Korean public spaces where people gathered to engage in rituals of mourning rather than of protest.  The Town Square Test treats the inability to engage in public acts of dissent as the ultimate sign of totalitarian control. That proves to be one of its limitations as the most tyrannical settings are not ones in which people solely are prohibited from speaking out, but those in which they also are compelled to engage in expressions of loyalty and fear the consequences of being seen as insufficiently fervent in their support of the regime. The freedom to be apolitical and simply go about one’s business without thinking too much about top leaders is something that Chinese citizens did not have in Mao’s last years, and still did not have in the immediate wake of his death. While some were genuinely saddened by his demise, the sense that it was crucial to show an appropriate degree of grief was also there.  Many posts on the Chinese Internet after Kim Jung Il’s death remarked on the parallels between China in 1976 and North Korea today, and what people had in mind was not just how much poorer their country had been then, but how much more dangerous it was in 1976 than in 2011 to stay away from the town square when a show of loyalty was required.

Despite all this, it might be tempting to see the Town Square Test as having some use as policy tool. The temptation, though, is well worth resisting.

Those who have claimed to use it as rule of thumb for judging governments, as George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice claimed to do during the former’s presidency, are likely to find that it has pragmatic drawbacks, in the form of needing to make alliances or at least do business with countries that fail the test. For all the talk of the test guiding their policies, for instance, Bush and Rice’s “Coalition of the Willing” was not made up exclusively of nations that passed it.

Equally or more important are the simplifications embedded within the very construction of the test. As the events of last year remind us, there are various ways that societies can become freer or more fearful over time, and those who craft policy need to be sensitive to these shifts as well as the impact such changes have on specific populations within a country. Sharansky’s model, with its deep indebtedness to the always distorting and now outdated Cold War-era binaries, just doesn’t do justice to the contours of the confusing and complex world of the 21st century.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chair of the History Department at the University of California, Irvine, and the author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (2010).

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