The word “idiot” derives from the Greek word “idiotes,” literally meaning a “private person.” For the ancient Athenians, it was the people who engaged with the public sphere, in the affairs of the community and state, who were truly admired.

London – The word “idiot” derives from the Greek word “idiotes,” literally meaning a “private person.” For the ancient Athenians, it was the people who engaged with the public sphere, in the affairs of the community and state, who were truly admired. A person obsessed with his private issues was considered narrow-minded and selfish.

However, in the last half century or so, we have seen what sociologist Richard Sennett has called “The Fall of Public Man” (and Woman). “Public” has become a dirty word in politics, indicating something supposedly substandard, sinister or even dangerous, e.g. public schools, public toilets, public ownership, the “public option” for health-care.

Recently we have seen the rise in the Republican Party of a faction that seems bent on the decimation of the public sector – scaremongering about “socialism” and “intrusive government.”

Grover Norquist’s rallying cry of wanting to shrink government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub” used to be seen as the reserve of the loony right. Now such a disparaging view of the public sector seems unsettlingly acceptable in certain quarters of the GOP.

We are being encouraged to embrace a so-called utopia in which we live in gated communities with people who look and think like ourselves, guarded by private police, send our children to exclusive private schools and arm ourselves in anticipation of an unwelcome intrusion from “outside.”

Yet I have found few of these right-wing firebrands who have really lived in a place where the power of government has nearly disappeared. It is rarely a pleasant experience – often just as unpleasant as places where the government has near total control.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, the Haitian government has suffered collapse. Its Presidential Palace and numerous other government buildings have crumbled, and hundreds of civil servants have been killed or injured. It is not much of a stretch to say that this is not far from the scenario of which Norquist or the Tea Partiers dream – a government close to drowning.

Of course, the result in Haiti is not the paradise of market-led growth and grassroots revival we are promised should happen when government is forced to get out of the way. Instead, hundreds of thousands of people have been pushed to the very edges of survival.

Absent massive government intervention, many Haitians I met are not withdrawing into an isolated private sphere. Rather they are engaging with their community to revitalize their public institutions.

Last week, I was lucky to take part in an exciting show of solidarity in Petionville, Haiti, where community members, at their own initiative, joyfully banded together to clear the rubble from a school that is funded in part by Outreach International (a nonprofit based here in Independence).

They demonstrated that when a community is in crisis, we must revitalize the public sphere, not abandon it.

The public sphere is where we interact with other people, who are different from ourselves. It teaches us the necessity of compromise, that others have legitimate interests, that not everyone thinks and acts in the same way.

At their best, both the Republicans and Democrats have seen the benefit of using government in a deeply liberating way – from the abolition of slavery, to the New Deal and the Civil Rights movement.

Since there is more than one person in the world, the public sphere, where we interact, negotiate our differences and find common solutions is an inevitable and necessary part of our lives. To ignore it, or try to stunt it, is at best misguided, at worst a recipe for disaster.