Monday, February 9, 2009

Community Stew and other musings on Dewey’s “The Public and Its Problems”

Community Stew (or my vision of democracy as dinner)

While this thought has been brewing for some time, I found a a bit more clarity in this Monday’s discussion. We’ve been (as did Dewey) wrestling with the idea of how to be part of a community yet not lost in it. All our individual voices turned to mush, as it were. I compare this to preparing dinner – we want to incorporate various foods, spices, and allow them to retain their individual flavors, textures, but still work in service with the entire meal. Too far on one end, the dish doesn’t hold together (why not just have a tray of separate items?) Too far weighted on the other – and bland, tasteless, uniform mush. Perhaps the “Melting Pot” has been the wrong analogy. That makes us all go to the same. But that’s not what we want. However, the rugged individual – “every man for himself” – doesn’t work so well either. It’s all finding balance – that tricky tightrope walk between participatory democracy and an “eclipsed public,” or a savory delicacy and nondistinct goop.

On this subject on p115, Dewey wrote, “The creation of political unity has also promoted social and intellectual uniformity, a standardization favorable to mediocrity.” Society is flattened out, rather than made rich. He writes on 150 that equality “denotes effective regard for whatever is distinctive and unique in each, irrespective of physical and psychological inequalities. It is not a natural possession but is a fruit of the community when its action is directed by its character as a community.” Community as core of individuality….

The more things change…

While the stylistic use of language has altered somewhat and technology has certainly changed, Dewey’s words some 80 years ago could have been written today, and apply today as urgently as they did then. We still face the same issues and need to ask the same questions he was asking. Perhaps over time, a layering effect has happened where this thought is building up in a greater percentage of the population – and they can articulate it in their own (non-mushy) ways. He writes on 110, “Optimism about democracy is today under a cloud.” Then and now… On 117 he talks of the vanishing public and decreasing voting – again this sounds familiar.

We, the People, means me and you….

The interconnectedness of our individual interactions and those of groups (and individual may belong to various groups) moves them from the realm of the private to the Public. The need to manage such transactions of individuals and groups leads to the creation of the State. (P15 and 64) Dewey reminds us that the State isn’t “Sacred.” (P170) In fact, the author of the State is “nothing but singular persons, you, they, me.” (P37) This is a big point, we make the State, it isn’t the mysterious or holy collective – but ALL of us signing off on it. Why should we submit to the will of authority – only because we allow it (P53)? On 74 he talks of there being no more sanctity in church, unions, etc. than there is in the state. These are all inventions of men, and thus can be reinvented, dismantled by men too.

It’s significant to his argument that Dewey states perhaps we’ve never had democracy and makes a distinction “between democracy as a social idea and political democracy as a system of government.” We may have democracy as our political system, but not clear we’ve realized it as social idea. (143) A democratic government “exists to serve its community…” (145-6) and until all are empowered and individual enabled, we’re not there. On 71-2, he writes, “A measure of the goodness of a state is the degree in which it relieves individuals from the waste of negative struggle and needless conflict and confers upon him positive assurance and reinforcement in what he undertakes.” Are we there yet?

The Grand (continual) Experiment

The other central tenet, on p33-4 Dewey writes: “The formation of states must be an experimental process. … since conditions of action and inquiry and knowledge are always changing, the experiment must always be retried; the State must always be rediscovered. … we have no idea what history may bring forth.” This reminds me of the “Peril of Perfection” as applied to the French Revolution. Everyone thought that they got it right, as a result – kept killing each other, tearing down government. Knowing that we don’t have it right, that it’s a constant experiment, allows for growth, humbleness in recognizing that you’re part of a continuum not an endpoint… On 159-60, Dewey discusses “habit,” we need habits to operate but we need to keep questioning and experimenting – only on this balance between habit and reinvention can true growth occur.

Easy as A,B,C, 1,2,3…

On 163, Dewey stresses the importance of childhood education for shaping good citizens – a key to a true democratic state. We need to know our world (P173) in order to affect change, in order to ask the sorts of questions that must be continually asked to shape our democracy. We must be versed in the signs/symbols of community to be able to interact with one another and invent new symbols (p152) – education is empowering the individual to be able to participate in the community. The uneducated public is “mush” and thus dangerous. (178) He speaks of “too much Public” (137) voices lost, not educated enough to deal with matters. It all comes down to communication.

We (“you, they, me”) need to be watchful to keep the experiment of the State changing and constantly serving our community better. (P68-9) Hence the cornerstone of democracy is an educated public, adept at communication. We can build this “Great Community” (instead of limited “Great Society”) (126-7)
by remembering that we make the state and we must continually question that State. As he writes on 184, “Democracy will come into its own, for democracy is a name for a lie of free and enriching communion. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.” Communication is the key to community. (142) Building up from “communal life” (149) we can grow democracy – otherwise it’s a false approach built on hollow words and not communication….

It’s Not Technology

While yes, technology does exacerbate conditions (particular in making the larger public not only possible but unavoidable by its ability to connect everything), Dewey identifies correctly that technology is not evil, the real devil are “ideas” that change “more slowly than outward conditions.” (141) Looking at ideas as being viral (memetics theory) use people to perpetuate themselves. Hard to inoculate against and get people to think for themselves. This where Dewey’s impassioned plea for the arts comes in. “Artists have always been the real purveyors of news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception and appreciation.” (184) The arts are pioneers, seeing in ways others don’t and thus acting as the voice of continual questioning, seeking ways to see not imagined yet….

Think Global, Act Local

We tend to vote global, but ignore the local, where our impact could really be felt, and trickle upwards. Community begins at home, all around us. Technology is changing the geographic boundaries of communication and hence community, but regardless, the heart of democracy remains in community however we continually redefine it. – N

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