Sunday, October 31, 2010

Habermas: Stuttgart and the Peninsula

This is a recent excerpt from an op-ed piece by Prof. Jurgen Habermas, one of the leading intellectuals and philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. For our purposes, I have taken several paragraphs out of context from this recent New York Times op-ed piece, since he is discussing the nature of Germany's economic and political dynamics. I invite you to read this excerpt very carefully. It is packed with meaning.

Here he is referring to something that I read in an article and called attention to some time ago; that is, the possible demolition of the venerated railroad station in Stuttgart, Germany. He highlights the issue of political, public protest. The point, of course, is that public protest can make a huge difference in government behavior and decision-making.

That -- and here's the point -- is what I have been advocating that we must do to stop the high-speed train on the Caltrain corridor and in the State of California.

The similarities with the German and our situation is striking. The people were not sufficiently informed when the project was first proposed and voted on. The subsequent supposition that once voted on, no more discussion or disagreement was permitted. And, does the defeated minority in such an election have no voice whatsoever, as is our case right now here on the Peninsula?

If 53% voted for Proposition 1A in 2008, 48% voted against it. Do they have no say whatsoever in this matter any longer? And what if the 53% of supporters now have a change of heart with all the negative information spilling out about HSR from all the newspapers?

Does this sound familiar? "But it has since emerged that the authorities did not, in fact, provide sufficient information at the time, and thus citizens did not have an opportunity to develop an informed opinion on which they could have based their votes."

What is striking is that the protesting population is deemed conservative, not radical. And I submit that this is a correct reading. We, on the Peninsula, are also conservative; we want to conserve the quality of life, the nature of our communities, and the urban environment we have chosen and occupy it the way it is now. We oppose high-density, high-rise urbanization, the crowding of the population into newly formed mega-cities and the total reliance on and domination of public transit to the exclusion of private vehicles. I consider it government-sponsored social engineering, if not downright Stalinization.

We can, and we must, protest -- and in large numbers.




Of even greater concern is the sort of street protests we are now witnessing in Stuttgart, where tens of thousands of people have come out against the federal railway corporation’s plan to demolish the old central train station. The protests that have been continuing for months are reminiscent of the spontaneity of the extra-parliamentary opposition of the 1960s. Unlike then, though, today people from all age groups and sectors of the population are taking to the streets. The immediate aim is a conservative one: preserving a familiar world in which politics intervenes as the executive arm of supposed economic progress.

In the background, however, there is a deeper conflict brewing over our country’s understanding of democracy. The state government of Baden-W├╝rttemberg, where Stuttgart is located, sees the protests narrowly, as simply a question of whether government is legally permitted to plan such long-term megaprojects. In the midst of the turmoil the president of the Federal Constitutional Court rushed to the project’s defense by arguing that the public had already voted to approve it 15 years ago, and thus had no more say in its execution.

But it has since emerged that the authorities did not, in fact, provide sufficient information at the time, and thus citizens did not have an opportunity to develop an informed opinion on which they could have based their votes. To insist that they should have no further say in the development is to rely on a formalistic understanding of democracy. The question is this: Does participation in democratic procedures have only the functional meaning of silencing a defeated minority, or does it have the deliberative meaning of including the arguments of citizens in the democratic process of opinion- and will-formation?


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