Consumers, Spectators, or Citizens?
BY ALFRED NORDMANN
In a 1993 article in Harper's, political scientist Benjamin Barber sounds what first appears to be a pretty familiar tune: "Thomas Jefferson and Henry Adams both understood that the Bill of Rights offered little protection in a nation without informed citizens."
We have heard this many times before, that a democracy can only be strong if there is vigorous public debate among its citizens. We usually go on to blame illiteracy and general apathy, cynicism and too much television.
But Barber goes on to unsettle this litany of complaints. "I wonder whether Americans still believe liberty has to be learned and that its skills are worth learning," he muses. "Or have they been deluded by two centuries of rhetoric into thinking that freedom is natural' and can be taken for granted?"
Perhaps freedom is not "natural" but takes learning, and perhaps a "citizen" is not just "anyone who lives here" but someone who assumes a special kind of responsibility, and perhaps something is not "public" simply because it is there for everyone to see.
Questions such as these are the focus of a public forum on the University of South Carolina campus Nov. 9 12. Barber, director of the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy, will deliver a keynote address. The weekend will take the form of an ongoing conversation among concerned citizens. It is "public" not because everyone is invited to attend but because everyone is invited to contribute and participate and to shape the flow of the conversation.
"We have forgotten that the public' in public schools means not just paid for by the public but procreative of the very idea of a public," Barber asserts. "Public schools are how a public a citizenry is forged and how young, selfish individuals turn into conscientious, community-minded citizens."
What Barber writes about public education can also be applied to the idea of public television. At first it appears as if the only difference between public and network television is the fact that public money is used to support PBS. After all, both are accessible to everyone, are there for all to see.
The difference between the two becomes apparent, however, if we consider the different ways of responding to network and public television. When I don't like what I see on ABC, I write a letter to the Disney Corporation, I boycott the advertisers on the show. I behave like a customer in a store, using my buying power to demand good service.
If I don't like what I see on public television, I write a letter to the editor, and I call upon my senator or representative to ask the question: does this really resonate with American values, should we really use public funds to support this? And by posing these questions I widen the discussion. This is not a private matter between Disney and me; this is between me and whoever cares to join a public debate about values and traditions, about who we are and who we want to be and how we see ourselves.
Especially when it displeases and provokes, public television proves its power. The programming decisions at the Fox network are designed to secure their advertisers a certain share of the market. In contrast, the programming decisions at PBS are answerable to the public at large. Since we own PBS, its decisions involve all of us.
Public television is in jeopardy. So is public funding for the arts and humanities. Public spaces are being closed off everywhere:
It used to be that concerned citizens brought environmental issues into the public arena of national politics, questions such as how much do we as Americans value the protection of other species?
Republicans now propose that debates about political questions of public concern be moved from the floors of House and Senate into the backrooms of cost-benefit analysts. Politically appointed "experts" will weigh the value of saving the spotted owl against the cost of its protection to industry.
During the Cold War (not long ago!) Americans prided themselves in their ability to take a critical look at themselves. It was a sign of our freedom that everything is subject to criticism.
Now there is considerable backing for a constitutional amendment which would turn the flag into a sacred national symbol beyond the reach of free expression. And the Smithsonian recently shut down an exhibit about the decision to drop the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Debating the various sides of the issue in a public space might have been upsetting to some. Therefore the Enola Gay now stands enshrined in pious and deathly silence.
Once upon a time social problems were identified and then a solution sought. There may have been vigorous disagreement about various possible solutions, but even in disagreement Americans were still united by their desire to find one and their trust in the democratic political process.
But when health care became an issue, disagreement about the right solutions conveniently degenerated into a game of winner-take-all. Who would prevail those who thought there is a crisis to be addressed, or those who denied that there is a crisis or that crises like these can be taken on?
Instead of participating in a discussion about coverage and cost, about national solidarity and individual choice, the American electorate found itself watching a spectator sport.
Instead of listening to many voices, it saw two sides struggling for dominance. And instead of watching the two sides compromise for the common good (how boring), it celebrated victory with the winners and experienced defeat with the losers. The drama was exciting enough to make us forget for a while that the crisis is still out there.
In this year's State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton took the lead by accepting blame. "For years we've mostly treated citizens like they were consumers or spectators," he said.
Democracy and public debate can be preserved only if we treat each other as citizens, not as consumers or taxpayers, and not as spectators in a game of winner-take-all. We therefore need to craft and maintain the public spaces in which we can come together as citizens.
The Public Forum this month aims to spur conversation. By entering into a genuine conversation we forge a meeting of minds, with opposing views engaging in the search for agreement.
Agreement might come too easily if we were mainly to commiserate about the demise of democratic ideals. The Public Forum sets out to explore the public places in which we might still come together as citizens.
Newspapers, for example, increasingly engage in "public journalism," with the aim of building communities. The conversation may turn to proposals for allowing a more diverse political representation of the electorate. New forms of communication and sociability arise with the virtual communities on the Internet, and we may ask about their political significance.
Artworks are often appreciated for their power to create "a public." (The German word "Publikum" means as much as "audience"). Sculptures in public places often incite public debate, and the participants in such debates are not guided by prejudice and preconceptions, but rather they rely on their own experience of the artwork. Opponents and supporters of the artwork often agree on one thing: that the question of art is really a question of value, what we believe in and who we are.
Our exploration of public spaces will therefore include the cinema, the theatre and other arts. "Democracy is anything but a natural' form of association," Barber insists. "It is an extraordinary and rare contrivance of cultivated imagination."
As we cultivate our imagination and re-imagine public debate in a democratic commonwealth, we may stand to profit immensely from the example of the arts and humanities.
Perhaps freeedom is not "natural" but takes learning, and perhaps a "citizen" is not just "anone who lives here" but someone who assumes a special kind of responsibility, and perhaps, something is not "public" simply because it is there for everyone to see.