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.