Thursday, January 03, 2008

Mexicans on Ice: Lessons on Justice and Charity from Mexico City's Ice Rink

At the start of December 2007, the municipal government of Mexico City built an ice skating rink in the middle of the Zocalo, the central plaza at the heart of the metropolis. The Zocalo is model for most Mexican cities. It consists of a large open plaza (one of the largest in the world, next to Moscow's Red Square) that is ringed by the City Cathedral, the National Palace for the Mexican Congress, and the municipal government building, (the side opposite the National Palace is the Hotel Majestic--a little pricey for a budget traveller but it has a great view from the balconies)

You can watch a video of the ice rink here.

The municipal government is run by the leftist pary of the PRD. Some have criticized the project as a waste of city funds that could be used for improving a whole host of services. Part of the reason for spending millions of dollars on an ice rink, according to the city officials, is to give poor and working class citizens (who are a majority of the people) some leisure opportunities that they might not normally have. Entrance to the rink and the skate rental are free.

I've mentioned Pericles' "Funeral Oration" before as an early account of the values and institutions needed to maintain a democracy. One of the values that Pericles says is upheld by the Athenians is leisure (skole). The idea was that free citizens were not regimented in their thinking. Unlike the Spartans who knew only how to obey orders, the Athenians, according to Pericles, attended festivals, and sampled food and wine from all over the world, in order to develop their individual judgment and sense of taste. Leisure gave them time to become liberal and open-minded. Indeed, leisure here means more than our contemporary idea of "free time", i.e. time we are not a work, but, instead, skole is time in which we can dedicate ourselves to self-improvement.

So we might say that the Mexico City officials are onto something by spending millions of dollars to build an ice rink. They are acknowledging that government has a responsibility not just to provide security, and to keep the peace, but to contribute to the good life of its citizens, and hence, to democratic well-being.

On the other hand, Mexico has a history of engaging in elaborate public works that are sometimes little more than attempts to distract people from other social problems. In the early part of the 20th century, the Mexican government spent enormous amounts of money to build Bellas Artes,the Palace of Fine Arts. This is an enormous, and absolutely beautiful, opera house that contains some of Mexico's greatest mural art:



But part of the reason that Mexican president Porfirio Diaz commissioned it was to prove to Europeans that Mexico was not a backward country. It didn't matter that the country was on the verge of a revolution because of class inequality and oppression. At least Mexicans could hold their heads high and say they had one of the best examples of Art Nouveau architecture in the world!

There is no doubt that Diaz did Mexico a favor. Bellas Artes is a national, and perhaps even, a world treasure. And the Mexico City ice rink (the largest in the world) is quite a feat. But these might be better understood as acts of charity by powerful politicians that come at the expense of justice. The ice rink will eventually go away. Yet the problems of lack of potable water, personal violence, crime and insecurity, and environmental degradation that are everyday realities in this, the largest city in the world, remain. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, justice means more than just flinging a coin at a beggar on the street, but is, instead, working to change the conditions in society that produce beggars in the first place.

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