Friday, September 25, 2009

Review - The Public and Its Problems

Reading this book reminded me why I'm not a poli-sci or sociology major. It's not that there was anything awful about the book, it's just not my 'cup o tea' as it were.

The book is actually a collection of thoughtful and insightful lectures-turned-essays contemplating the form of democracy and what truly constitutes a "public", a "society", a "community" and what government's involvement should be in all these.

For me, the writing had some great nuggets scattered throughout but unfortunately I found myself bogged down by writing that felt otherwise tedious. Dewey is obviously very smart and full of great ideas. Too often for my taste, this resulted in (what I felt) lengthy passages where he took a ton of effort to try and expound on a single thought without getting to a clear point until wandering around the subject for 5 or 6 pages.

Again, my distaste is mainly due to not having any real deep interest in the subject (which is part of what he exposes as one of the problems of a public…that there are far too many things out there such that a person can't truly be educated or even interested in everything). I found my eyes growing heavy many times and had to put the book down at risk of falling asleep.

Still, as I persevered an applied heavy concentration, I found myself enjoying and agreeing with many of his premises.

I really appreciated his assertion on the importance of consequences and how it is the consequences of a thing that brings people together. Where a lot of the problems come about is that there are far too many distractions out there such that an individual, or even a collective "public" can't focus on all of the necessary consequences. As a result, even in a "democracy", there are only a handful of individuals sufficiently knowledgeable to properly react to the stimuli around us and predict the consequences to the extent that they can ensure a promising future.

Along with the 'uneducated' implication of having all these stimuli, we also have a problem in that everyone is being pulled in so many disparate directions that we've lost any real sense of community. There are "too many publics" out there. We can't have a solid national or global community because everything is truly a microcosm of each of our individual interests, needs and desires. Any "community" we have is generally very small based on a handful of common interests with others and a single person may be a member of multiple "publics" or "communities", sometimes even at odds with one another.

Until society can find some way to use its collective knowledge and advances in technology and communication, we can never truly have a "Great Community" in the sense of a solid national or global community all united and on the same page.

What was very intriguing to me is that this book was written 80 years ago and many of the anecdotes he uses could be used today without changing any of the language. If anything, in the past 80 years, I would suggest that the world has gained even more "publics" and an even more disparate society that continues to lack in a great sense of "community." At the same time, some technologies such as the various social networking sites, tweeting, and the blogosphere are helping to create a sense of community. But this isn't the type of community Dewey would have preferred as he was a proponent of truly getting to know the individual…and when we're veiled behind the mask of the Internet and technology, we lose something.

2.5 stars
(though I can definitely recommend this higher to a follower of poli-sci or sociology)

View all my reviews

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