Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Something nice in the news
New blogger Preposterous Universe (go check him out) describes a story he picked up from public radio this morning.
Authorities in Mexico City "are going to hand out free books to people riding the subway.... Apparently Mexico has the highest literacy rate in Latin America (about 90%), but people don't really spend that much time actually reading, so the program makes it easy for people to read in a context where they can't do much else. Hopefully the reading will catch on, maybe even cut down on crime in the subways."

The responses quoted in this Washington Post article are mostly enthusiastic, though there is some (probably justified) skepticism as to how well it will function as an anti-crime initiative. The books are distributed at the stations. They are specially published collections of short stories and plays that can be read in the time of an average commute. They will put out new collections every two months or so.

This reminds me of the cheerful idealism of some urban activist and protest groups in the late sixties, particularly the White Plans of the Dutch anarchist/pacifist Kabouters (gremlins). The White Plans were a mixture of street theater (one of the leading Kabouters was a performance artist) and serious solutions to urban problems.The most famous of these was the White Bicycle Plan to reduce traffic in the core districts of Amsterdam. Lost and abandoned bicycles in police strage would be cleaned up, painted white, and scattered around town for people to use as they needed. My personal favorite was the White Chicken Plan, according to which the image of the police would be reformed by disarming them, dressing them in white uniforms, and having them ride around on bicycles dispensing first aid, fried chicken, and condoms.

The metro book project brings to my mind that same kind of optimism and creativity. Its sponsors hope to increase literacy by encouraging people to develop the habit of pleasure reading. If they keep it up long enough, they have a good chance of succeeding. They hope to improve the general atmosphere of the metro sysytem. They hope to nudge people out of their alienated bubbles by giving them something in common. The idea of two strangers sitting together, reading the same story, and starting a conversation is completely believable. The most optimistic element, reducing crime, might sound naive to some. There is the possibilty that crime might actually increase at first. People with their noses buried in books could make better targets for pickpockets. On the other hand, if people do begin talking, they will be less likely to sit by and watch someone they know be robbed.

One aspect of the polarization of American politics over the last decade or so, is that politics is mostly a grim and unpleasant business. It's hard to measure the long-term practical effects of groups like the Kabouters, Yippies, and Merry Pranksters. One thing that is certain is that they made the whole process of politics a little more entertaining. I think that's a good thing. And along the way they occasionally came up with some simple optimistic ideas. I'm not sure what kind of people came up with the metro book project in Mexico City, but I would like to see more of this kind of thing in the States. This is the kind of activity third parties need to engage in to gain legitimacy, not quixotic runs at the presidency.

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