Tag Archives: civil society

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Public Wealth and Private Squalor

At this point most Americans would settle for a federal government that might work at least as well as the local Costco, food pantry or grocery store: setting reasonable safety rules and providing most of what people need.

These are tough times for the twin ideas that the United States is a “can do” nation and beacon of individual rights. Rather than serving as a model for the rest of the world, the aggressive federal response to protests in Portland and regressive efforts to deal with the wildfire-spread of Covid-19 surely creates more pity from other populations than envy.

Our inability to put reasonable controls on individuals to deter them from spreading the virus has made an American passport partly useless. Our neighbors to the north and south don’t really want us to come across their borders: a denial of visiting rights that extends to many other nations as well. And who can blame them? Leadership from the federal government mostly lacks the will to use its powers on behalf of the safety of its citizens: the most basic kind of malfeasance. The withering of a federal response to the pandemic has left the task of guaranteeing access to even the most elemental of services to many ill-prepared states and cities. This doesn’t necessarily describe all government employees or members of Congress.  Instead, the problem is with too many passive leaders at the top. And so—with some exceptions–we still lack timely virus testing, income maintenance for many workers left unemployed, protections for small businesses, and too little help for families on the edge of homelessness or caught in the grip of poverty.

Kids are now the political instruments of choice for an administration that craves the appearance of normalcy.

Even so basic a process of guaranteeing citizens an education comes down to a non-nuanced policy that simply says “open your doors,” even though many parents and communities are struggling to keep their families safe. Kids are now the political instruments of choice for an administration that craves the appearance of normalcy. At this point most Americans would settle for a federal government that might work at least as well as the local Costco, food pantry or grocery store: setting reasonable safety rules and providing most of what people need.

Another contagion has also spread through the country from the Trump administration or its followers: dangerous health advice and semi-official conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus, the presence of allegedly corrupt voters, unpatriotic activists, “fake news” Democrats, “the media” and even the federal government’s own experts.  Reasonable evidence-based judgments are too painstaking and exact for the frail intellects that now populate the ranks of political appointees in Washington and some of the states. What some leaders want to believe now easily out distances what the facts should oblige them to accept.

Of course, the very wealthy are going to be ok.  Having abandoned city houses for second homes, many are prepared to hire private tutors in lieu of sending their children into harm’s way. The ability of some of us to buy our way to safety is a reminder of economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous observation about the United States: that it tolerates private wealth even in the presence of public squalor. His description perhaps explains why so many Americans like to visit Europe, where the costs of functioning health care and public services are often built into the tax structure. We love cities like Amsterdam or Stockholm because fundamental infrastructures are in place, more or less, for everyone. Even through this pandemic some countries have worked to secure the future viability of schools, small businesses, arts organizations, public broadcasters and universities. In terms of similar cultural cornerstones here, we have yet to see how bad the American retreat from the core obligations of a civil society will be.

The Greek theatre in Syracuse Siracusa Sicily Italy

The Disappearing Agora

For most of us, the agora is electronic rather than physical. We now meet mostly online, missing the shared ‘witnessing’ known to early democracies and even early television viewers.

The idea of a central meeting place goes hand-in-hand with the idea of democracy.  A location where leaders and citizens are can be heard and exchange ideas is an essential feature of a civil society. Of course it was one thing for the several hundred citizens of a young democracy like ancient Syracuse in the 5th century BC.  They would gather in an open space.  It’s quite another thing when the political unit is scaled up from a city-state to a nation spread over a continent.

The romance of a New England town meeting retains some of the aura of a simple agora.  We have sentimentalized the idea even in classic television programs like Newhart or the Gilmore Girls.  Yet there is still truth in the romance. Even if most of us live in larger cities, we can still interact with local leaders. And though most of us rarely exercise the opportunity, it can be empowering to put a municipal leader on notice with our grievances or occasional praise.

Living within political boundaries containing thousands or millions obviously changes how we can connect to each other.  With regard to the federal government, most of us have only known the quasi-agora of national television news. Growing up in the 50s, my family mostly used one of three choices for connecting with the rest of the country.  NBC, CBS and a weaker ABC beamed out seemingly urgent news, such as the 1969 landing on the moon.  Life paused in most Colorado households in time to catch early evening newscasts narrated by Walter Cronkite at CBS or David Brinkley at NBC.  The announced death of President Kennedy in 1963 came to most of the nation through the words of the venerable CBS anchor.

The agora is now clearly electronic not in real time. We now “meet” mostly online: a change from early live television, where limits on technology meant that Americans witnessed the same momentous events more or less at the same  time.

We need to be careful about citing digital “advances.” To be sure, chatter in the culture has never stopped.  We are engaged with others in an endless spectrum of online communities.  But in no sense should we consider Twitter or Instagram as comparable vehicles for meaningful public “discussion.”  If we need a comparison, the typical social media post more closely resembles a shout issued from a passing car.

At the same time, the idea of a common civic space has withered. Readership of the nation’s largest newspapers is in decline.  Reliable online news (much of it aggregated from the remaining national news outlets) occupies less of our time.  The resulting fragmentation of the nation into specific audiences means that it is less likely that Americans will pay attention to significant events, or even  the same informational sources. If you ask friends what they are watching on online or via networks such as CBS or Netflix, the odds are good that “their” programs are not what you are watching. Neil Postman had it at least half right: we are “amusing ourselves to death,” but now with ever more esoteric ‘narrowcasting’ that satisfies personal rather than national interests.

I see this most dramatically in younger Americans, who have not only lost the newspaper habit, but the news-seeking habit as well.  There are too many other choices that offer more immediate forms of gratification.  Add in the double-threat of disinformation efforts from sources ranging from this White House to the Kremlin, and we are ill-prepared to enter any kind of agora as informed citizens.

Of course a national disaster brings lots of us momentarily back to CNN, NBC or Fox news.  But many more of us stay in touch–if at all–through other online venues offering their own unique perspectives and agendas.  Given these changes, its little wonder that the congressional Agora envisioned by the founders of the republic is now dysfunctional.  No one looks to Congress for momentous debates on the issues of the day.  In structural terms, it has always run a poor second to parliamentary forms of government for hosting spirited legislative debate.  The mute Congress is a symptom of our problem, but our fragmenting media now also seem ill-equipped to bring us together to ponder great national issues.