A while back, as part of its support for the 1 For All initiative WordPress encouraged all bloggers to reflect on the First Amendment to the US Constitution.  I was a little preoccupied with other things (an article, class prep, Ironman training. . .) so I dithered for a bit.  But the recent manufactured folderol over New York’s Ground Zero has made this issue a more pressing one for me.


Freedom Plaza lies close to the geographic heart of Washington DC.  It straddles the governmental axis of the nation’s capital, Pennsylvania Avenue, only a couple of blocks from the White House with a clear view up the avenue to the Capitol building.  DC is a city filled with representational spaces, each of them designed with explicit symbolism in mind that is often coupled with historically layered meanings and sometimes with downright unintentional references.  In this regard, Freedom Plaza may be the most representative of DC spaces because of the strange and often contradictory symbolism that surrounds the plaza.

The plaza acquired its current name in 1980.  It features a large inlaid stone map of what every red-blooded American thinks of when they hear the word Freedom: Pierre L’Enfant’s street plan for DC.  Wait. . .what?  Then there is the obligatory inoffensive fountain, and a statue of some Polish guy who helped out in the Revolutionary War.  The site also hosts a time capsule containing several relics from Martin Luther King, Jr. who wrote his “I Have a Dream” speech in a nearby hotel.  Therefore the plaza has some pretty typical elements of traditional US celebrations of freedom: conspicuous wastage of water, praise of those specific foreigners (distinguished from foreigners in general) who have thought that we were the shit, and a shameless attempt to piggyback on an event that didn’t happen there.  In addition. . .nope, sorry, still got nothing to explain the L’Enfant map thing.  (It is just so weirdly self-referential: you can stand at the heart of DC on a map that is located in the heart of a DC laid out according to the map that you are standing on. . .maybe it is some kind of comment about DC navel-gazing?).

All kidding aside, however, Freedom Plaza has played an important role in the civic and political life of the city.  It serves as the starting point for events like the annual St. Patrick’s Day 8K and has hosted numerous political protests and rallies.  It is a key location for celebration and dissent, civics and politics.  But what makes it even more of a quintessential DC (and, I would say, US) space is its relationship to the city immediately around it.  It is hemmed in on just about every side by a representative sprinkling of Federal government buildings (Commerce Department, US Customs), local government (the DC council chambers), places where the pampered and powerful plot and play (a variety of hotels), entertainment landmarks (the National Theatre), banks, and US retail at its best (Five Guys) and worst (Sbarro’s).

In metaphorical but also some very real ways, Freedom Plaza offers a cautionary tale concerning the first amendment.

Article the First

In my experience, most US Citizens know next to nothing about the first amendment; what they do know is often highly selective in nature.  I’m guessing (well, OK, praying really) that most people would tell you that the first amendment has something to do with freedom of speech.  The first amendment actually does several things.  It prevents the Government from doing any of the following:

  • establishing a state religion
  • telling individuals how or what or whom to worship
  • “abridging” free speech
  • interfering with freedom of the press
  • preventing people from gathering together peaceably
  • stopping people “petitioning” their government to redress wrongs

What I still find so breathtaking about the first amendment, especially when understood according to the context of the time in which it was written, is its sweeping confidence.  It just flat out declares that there is freedom of speech, freedom of the press; freedoms which certainly didn’t exist in any categorical sense at the time.  It doesn’t bother to define them, it just blithely asserts that they exist and then moves on.  It is also one of the places in the Constitution where, for me at least, the responsibility of government to its citizens is most pointedly articulated.  The people have the right to petition their government not just to “acknowledge” their grievances, or to launch yet another pointless Senate Committee Investigation, or to undertake another Federal Study, but to “redress” those grievances, a word that implies both fixing the problem and compensating in some way those who are affected.

I’m also often struck by how fragile this amendment is.  Certainly most, or sometimes all, of its provisions have been violated during wartime, often with the cheerful acquiescence of the populace as a whole.  For a people that prides itself on its spirit of resistance to arbitrary authority–Don’t Tread on Me, Live Free or Die–US citizens sure do love to throw in their lot with Big Brother when they feel threatened.  Individual elements of the amendment also seem flimsy in the extreme.  The people have a right to assemble, but that right has over the years been constrained by the legal modifier “peaceably.”  Peaceable assemblies are then, by definition, legal assemblies.  When faced with an assembly of people that one doesn’t like, all one has to do is to declare it a “violent” assembly, or even, simply, cut straight to the chase and declare it illegal, a tactic employed to brilliant effect in the 1960s, but more recently in the protests against the IMF and World Bank in Seattle and DC, among other places.

However, the most interesting thing about the first amendment is the thing about it that is most often ignored: all these various freedoms are included under the same amendment.  Each of them on its own–and especially given the vexed status of issues of assembly and religion at the time of writing–was arguably deserving of its own amendment.  But what has given the Bill of Rights its enduring power is that the framers eschewed an overly legalistic notion of rights, and instead organized those rights under a variety of conceptual categories.  All those freedoms in the first amendment, therefore, cannot be understood in isolation from one another, but must be seen as interrelated.  The amendment is not simply a grocery list of things to be plucked from the shelves of the Constitutional Piggly Wiggly as needed, but instead  has to be understood as the integral components necessary for civic participation, each of which supports, shapes, and also constrains the others.

For example, if you are making laws about approved forms of religious observance you are obviously going to impinge upon a people’s right to assemble as, when, and where they see fit.  A State-sponsored religion is obviously at odds with freedom of speech and–sadly we have no fewer precedents before us now than the framers did in their own time–freedom of the press.  At the same time, freedom of conscience is indissolubly bound to the freedom of speech and of the press and their ability to articulate and promulgate dissent and debate.  Ironically, the one element here that tends to disappear from the equation is that final freedom: the freedom to petition our government for redress.  I say “ironically” because the other freedoms (well, with the exception of the freedom from State-sponsored religion) are routinely trumpeted by Libertarians, Teabaggers, and the simply ignorant (interesting how much of an overlap there is between those three groups).  Yet the freedoms are often presented in opposition to the idea of an interventionist government.  This, however, is selective reasoning of the first order: “You betcha, we love those patriotic Founding Father fellas and think that 4/5 of the first amendment is just a swell idea!”  All of these freedoms, however, are dependent upon the freedom of citizens to ask their government to intervene to help them out; likewise, freedom of conscience, press, speech, and assembly, are all necessary components of a citizenry capably of meaningfully petitioning its government for redress.

None of this, of course, guarantees that the US won’t end up with, for example, a de facto State religion, as in fact has happened.  When our President says “God Bless America” or legions of impressionable youth are forced to recite “one nation, under God” or we look at the slogans on our money (“In God We Trust:” although this could simply be a statement of faith in the ultimate Invisible Hand of the Market!) we know that we’re not talking about Pagan theology, the Hindu Pantheon, Buddhism, etc.  Likewise, the compulsive need to invoke God on the part of politicians especially is evidence that–Palinistic paranoia notwithstanding–we don’t live in a secular, atheistic society.  There is, however, no violation of the first amendment here except in spirit, although it is precisely spiritual violations that are the most damaging.  The amendment simply says that the government shall make no law concerning these things and by and large it hasn’t.

Article the Second

We live in an age where the forms of expression available to us are proliferating at an astonishing rate.  The capacity of people to find and communicate with one another and to share myriad experiences in ways unanticipated even by the makers of our communication tools continues to expand.  Yet arguably our freedom of expression has never been under greater threat.  Certainly this is true of meaningful expression, as the number of digeratti twittering about their breakfast and blogging about Lindsay Lohan indicates.  But it is true of freedom of expression in general.

Think for a moment about the first amendment not just as a list of freedoms, but a set of integrated components necessary to a larger freedom.  Freedom of expression involves the interrelationship of (to use a slightly different terminology) communication, mediation, space, conscience and civic engagement.

All too often debates about the first amendment and about censorship, press freedom, freedom of expression, etc., treat these things as if they were solely issues involving communication practices and defending against various forms of interference with those practices (hence debates about Janet Jackson’s breast and FCC regulation).  But these debates about freedom of expression are vitally dependent upon an understanding of the expression taking place in specific spaces and places.  That is why the “freedom of assembly” component is built into the same amendment as the “freedom of speech” component.

If people are to meaningfully exercise freedom of expression, religious observance, their press freedoms, and to petition their government, they need spaces where they can assemble to exercise those rights.  What kinds of spaces these need to be are never articulated in the Constitution, probably because it seemed so self-evident to the framers that these would need to be public spaces.

One of the biggest threats to first amendment freedoms is the degree to which legal definitions of public space are increasingly at odds with people’s everyday conception of what counts as being in public.  The most obvious example here is the shopping mall.  When we go to these spaces they feel like public spaces: lots of people milling around, doing their own thing, coming together in small groups and then dispersing once again.  However, they are not public spaces: they are private spaces, controlled by mall ownership companies and (depending on the Mall) to a lesser degree by the individual stores (who may, for example, have a claim on a space of the mall immediately in front of their establishment).  Shopping malls, in other words, are not the Mall in DC; try exercising your first amendment right to peaceably protest in one and see how far you get.

The more disturbing example is that which is in many ways a step forward: the new open air malls.  These are springing up all over the country as a reaction to the enclosed, isolated mega mall.  They are designed to mimic the feel of the same street-based retailing that the rise of the suburban mall all but destroyed.  The more enlightened of them are designed to function like the traditional mixed use cities of yesteryear, with offices, apartments, entertainment and retail all mingling promiscuously.  There are actual streets, and they look like the kind of place where you could, well, take it to the street.  In a large number of these places, however, that would be a quick road to an arrest record.  While some local municipalities own the streets in these malls (and therefore they are in effect public) in others the streets themselves are the property of the mall developer.  You are attempting to protest on private property and therefore can legally be carted away.

Moreover, the precedent set by these large scale developments gradually bleeds over into restrictions on other uses of public space.  One of the ironies inherent in Freedom Plaza as a public space lies in its status as the starting point of the annual St. Patrick’s Day 8k.  This race in fact used to be a 10K, and had been so for 18 years.  Then, in 2006, only a week and a half before the race, it was abruptly changed to an 8K and has remained that way ever since.  The reasons for the change remain unclear.  Undoubtedly the all-encompassing general purpose excuse of “security concerns” played a part, although there seems no reason why these “concerns” shouldn’t have manifested themselves sometimes in the period 2002-2005.  Rumor, however, has it that a local land developer and owner of a prominent downtown hotel objected to the disruption created by the race going past their front door and the DC government bowed to pressure in granting the race permit.  If so, this exercise of privileged outrage would be in line with protests from residents that led to the demise of the Georgetown 10K.

DC is associated in the minds of people who don’t live here with open and accessible public spaces; the Mall, after all, isn’t simply the DC Mall, but the National Mall.  Those who live in this area know that despite some of the most horrific traffic in the nation DC is also a running city.  Freedom Plaza and the St. Patrick’s Day 10K (whoops, sorry, 8K) stand as reminders of the way both of those things are threatened not just by our ongoing security paranoia but the ever-growing role of corporate developer control in the District.

Article the Third

The problem of who controls space and how that intersects with issues such as freedom of expression is why these concerns are relevant to the world of videogames.  (This being a game-related blog, after all!).

The explosive popularity of electronic games seems to participate in the expansion of forms of media access, consumption and expression that I highlighted above.  As such, it seems as if we are in the Golden Age of freedom of expression.  There are more ways in which you can express yourself than ever before.  Such forms of expression seem to be so prolific and varied that they are beyond the control of the Man.

It is now pretty well established, I think, that we regard many of our media experiences according to a spatial logic.  We talking about “going online” in the same way we would talk about going to France, or going to Amazon in the same way we would go to the local supermarket; we go “to” Facebook.  We see these sites and forms as places.  This is even more true of phenomena like massively multiplayer games where the worlds are fully realized spaces with their own laws, customs, and characters.  Play one of these games for any length of time, and at some point in the future you will find yourself thinking back on those spaces in the same way you do real-world spaces that you have visited.

We also carry on all kinds of activities in these spaces (whether we are talking about Facebook or the latest MMORPG) that are the kinds of things we would do in real-world public spaces.  In the same way that the shopping mall feels intuitively to us like a public space (and, I would argue, should legally be established as such for our societal health) a game, the forum associated with a game, or social networks like Facebook, feel like a “public” space.

The problem is, of course, that they aren’t.  These are privately-owned enterprises.  They are the shopping malls of the online world whether or not they are actually selling anything.

In other words, the problem with cyberspace (the libertarian/hacker perspective notwithstanding) is that there are no real public spaces.  Everything is owned.  This isn’t to say that some spaces haven’t functioned as sites for dedicated protest, organization, citizens petitioning their government, etc.  But what has allowed these activities to flourish is the relative youth of the Internet, the rather anarchic character of its growth, and the tentative and haphazard attempts at governmental regulation.  Of course our real-world public spaces are owned as well.  Public streets and plazas are “owned” by the local and federal government.  But inasmuch as they are funded by public taxes it is more accurate to say that local governments hold them in trust to be used for public purposes.  These spaces are then able to be used by the public even if such activities disrupt the normal flow of events (protests, running races, etc.)

Facebook doesn’t hold anything in trust.  Everquest doesn’t hold anything in trust.  Each permits your participation in order to make money.  Games in particular feature all kinds of behaviors that individual gamers and even the company itself might describe as disruptive.  But if your behavior ever rises to the level of a disruption of profit-making, you can be made, virtually, to disappear.

Moreover, a key characteristic of real-world public spaces is that citizens are capable of re-purposing space to their own ends and resisting attempts by others to re-purpose this space.  We have seen some successful attempts at this kind of activity with online spaces; there was, for example, the massive user-resistance to Facebook’s stealth-pimping business practices.  Such exceptions however prove the rule: the Facebook protests succeeded because Facebook at this point in its evolution has a relatively weak profit model and is still searching for what that will be.  Once it locks it in, you can expect that dissent will be dealt with much more harshly.

All of this matters because we are increasingly going to be living our lives in these online places.  Large numbers of gamers already do spend a lot of their time there.  The real-world spaces we need to sustain freedom of expression are increasingly under threat.  In cyberspace, however, they are nonexistent in any meaningful sense.  The forum to which you contribute is owned by someone.  This blog space that I am using now is owned by someone.  The game you play is owned by someone.  Behind the scenes, the virtual places reside on real ones: servers and drives that exist in real places and are owned by someone.

In cyberspace, we as citizens lack a public place to stand.

Article the Fourth

This, then, is what makes the debate over the Islamic Cultural Center in New York so important.  This spectacle of overblown ranting on the one side and cringing qualification on the other has been described as a debate about freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  However–and as an understanding of the first amendment as a package might lead us to expect–all of this is intimately bound up with debates about public space and who gets to define it.

The specifics of the charges leveled by the Beckophiles and Gingrinches are not really important.  As Ian Bogost points out repeatedly in his fine book Persuasive Games, the actual content of modern political discourse ranges from the vacuous to the ridiculous.  The goal of much political discourse, however, is actually to create, reaffirm and distribute particular conceptual frames: i.e., a way of viewing the world that will operate beyond the specific issue that is being used to invoke it.  What is being invoked in the Ground Zero controversy is a very specific right wing conceptual frame governing the connection between place, religion, war, and culture.  What is at stake is who gets to define public space in the US, to define a space as public, and to define the space of the US itself.

An important tool in the arsenal of the ranting right in this issue is the idea that Ground Zero is “hallowed ground.”  This is, of course, a canny rhetorical pre-emptive strike.  Once you declare a space “hallowed” it immediately forecloses in people’s mind a whole range of possible uses to which that space might be put.  Only those uses that pay due respect to the “hallowed” nature of the space can be permitted.

As several commentators have pointed out, if the vicinity of Ground Zero in New York is held to be “hallowed” ground it begs a pretty strange definition of the term: one that would include strip clubs, fast-food carts, and pawn brokers.  But the Right’s use of the term has little to do with reality on the ground in New York City.  Instead, it is designed to play on all the connotations of that word in US culture.  It is, first of all, a religious term: a place that is both sacrosanct (holy, yes, but also dedicated to a recognition/celebration of that holiness) and consecrated (rendered sacrosanct by some action, via priestly blessing, for example).  More importantly, the term draws on a specifically Christian framework.  It doesn’t have to, of course; ground could be hallowed through the blessing of a shaman, for example.  But given the default Christianity that is the US state religion such an interpretation is almost literally unthinkable.

In US culture, however, “hallowed” has acquired another resonant set of meanings, connected with the religious framework but extending them in powerful ways.  “Hallowed” ground is a place consecrated and rendered sacrosanct by death (usually large numbers of deaths) in battle.  The most famous US example, of course, is the Gettysburg battlefield, its hallowed status enacted in Lincoln’s ceremonial dedication of the Soldiers’ Cemetery: “in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”  (Cultural recognition is, unfortunately, a fickle beast: in attaining the status of “hallowed ground” it helps to be a celebrity battlefield.  If you are a lesser known battleground like the Wilderness and Walmart wants to slap a retail megaplex down next to you, you are pretty much SOL).  This idea of ground hallowed through battle is itself tightly bound to the Christian version of the term, carrying as it does notions of redemptive sacrifice and martyrdom.

In practice, the idea of a place hallowed through battle has been restricted to the notion of a conventional battlefield.  Large numbers of deaths as the result of military action are not in themselves significant.  Few people in the US, especially, would regard Hamburg as hallowed ground despite the fact that at least eight times as many people were killed there as at Gettysburg.  Or, since it is August, we might remember how unhallowed (at least in the US mind) is the ground at the original Ground Zeros: Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Certainly there is political expediency here, in that the absence of hallowed ground status is a nifty way of avoiding responsibility for your actions.  However, it has to a degree, also been based on the tacit recognition of the role of intentionality in hallowing ground through battle.  In other words, notions of sacrifice only make sense if participants are aware that they are engaged in battle, that they are willing (although we could debate that term to some degree) participants who are fighting for a cause.

The people who died in the WTC on 9/11 were not in any sense willing participants who died while participating with declared and acknowledged intent in a battle.  But this is where the evil genius of the Right’s framing of the Ground Zero controversy starts to become apparent: it treats them as if they were.

According to the Right’s conceptual frame, we can speak of Ground Zero as hallowed ground because the people who died that day were not ordinary citizens going about their business (as they, in their own minds, undoubtedly were), but noble warriors who sacrificed themselves in battle for a cause.  There is a terrible irony here, of course.  Many will remember that it was these same right wing ideologues who jumped up and down at Ward Churchill’s (admittedly reprehensible) characterization of the WTC victims as “Little Eichmanns;” as, in other words, people who were not simply innocent civilians.  Hypocrisy?  You betcha, but such a charge only makes sense if we consider that it is the content of the discourse that is important.  We need to keep our eyes on the ball: it is the coherence of the overall conceptual framework that is vital.

Treating the dead from 9/11 as if they died in battle is not simply a retrospective justification of the amorphous monstrosity that is the War on Terror, although this is the most obvious use of the conceptual frame.  Rather, the important effect of the “hallowed ground” label is to clarify who it is with whom we are at war.  In the minds (such as they are) of the Becks, Palins, Gingrichs, Limbaughs and their supporters, the War on Terror is not a war against Aryan militias, or Christian survivalists fervently praying for the End of Days: it is a war against Islam.  More fundamentally, declaring Ground Zero in New York City to be hallowed ground establishes, according to this frame, that war didn’t begin on that day, but was already ongoing.

In the mind of the Right, the War on Terror is simply a continuation of a much older war, that between Christianity and Islam, and the dead from 9/11 are casualties on a new, modern battlefield in that war.

The power of this conceptual frame, however, lies in the act of naming in itself.  If, according to the logic I’ve outlined above, we are engaged in a Holy War, then what the Right wants out of this whole debate about the Islamic Cultural Center is not simply for the center not to be built, or to undermine Obama; those are transient goals.  What they want is not simply for Ground Zero to be regarded as hallowed ground, but the whole of New York City, in fact, the whole of the US.  In other words, the act of re-naming this one space is an attempt to re-frame the space of the entire US as a society organized around Christian values of devotion and sacrifice and dedicated to triumph in a Holy War against the “Islamo-Fascists” (which is to say, all Muslims, in the mind of the Palibeckinchs).  Indeed, it may be that some on the Right want to extend this conception of space to the international stage.  In a Holy War it makes perfect sense to bring up, as Gingrich did, the idea of Christian churches in Saudi Arabia; this has been the traditional goal of every crusade to the Holy Land.  It is very tempting to dismiss remarks such as those by Gingrich simply as lunacy or slipshod thinking; on the contrary, they are representative of a coherent and apparently popular worldview.

The fight over Ground Zero, then, is an attempt to take a public space and convert it to a private one with a very specific set of cultural meanings. . .and then to expand that privatized, restrictive notion of public space to encompass the whole of the US.  What the Right really wants out of this, in other words, is a Christianized definition of public space that in effect renders the first amendment meaningless.

Article the Fifth

This brings us back, finally, to lil ol Freedom Plaza, locked there in the heart of DC, surrounded by the forces of government, commerce, power and privilege.  It is a space that is designed to honor freedom, to represent freedom, and to be a place where our freedoms can be exercised.  But its most powerful symbolism may be simply what it represents as a tiny enclave in an urban center.

It is a reminder that true freedom is a tiny thing, fragile, often overlooked completely by those distracted by more obvious patriotic and nationalistic symbols.  It often appears to be pointless or at best profoundly contradictory.  It is beset on all sides by forces of government, corporate greed, noblesse oblige and blithe privilege, all of which nudge at its corners, trying to re-shape it to their advantage.  It is constantly subject to people, many well-intentioned, who attempt to impose their own meanings upon it (as I am doing here).  It often includes elements that don’t seem to make much sense at first glance, or even at second glance (L’Enfant’s map, again).  As a space it is always contested, even if on the surface it may appear to be simply a placid, nearly vacant expanse where a few people pause to eat their lunch on a hot day in August.  The lines of force running through these spaces may not be as obvious as those at Ground Zero in New York City, but they may be more important for all that.

Freedom both is, and depends upon, the existence of these public spaces.  We need them if the fundamental freedoms established in the first amendment are to mean anything.  It is these freedom spaces that are fast disappearing from our material world public culture and which are virtually nonexistent in our online worlds.