Dewey’s “Public” and Its Many Problems

Meg has a J.D. in Urban, Land Use and Environmental Law. She focuses on maintaining the balance of community and environmental health, healthy lifestyles, and encouraging sustainable living.

During one of my MPA classes, Politics of Administration, we read a book about the concept of “the public,” how it is formed, and how it is identified.

Review of “The Public and Its Problems”:

In his book “The Public and Its Problems,” John Dewey discusses the concept of “the public” and how its role fits into the history and context of U.S. politics. The reader also uncovers a nexus described between the state, the public and democracy. Dewey describes the problematic nature of the concept of “the public.” After exploring the nexus described by Dewey and the problems with “the public,” I will then explore the most problematic feature of “the public” as it pertains to discussions today, and whether or not the 80 year-old discussion is relevant to political life in the U.S. in 2010.

Throughout the text, Dewey describes a nexus between the state, the public and democracy. These three concepts are intertwined into a system where each depends on the existence of the other. However, part of the difficulty in understanding the significance and meaning of each is knowing how to fit them together in context.

Let us start by trying to understand the concept of “the public.” Dewey says the public exists when the consequences of a conversation or exchange extend outside of the confines of those directly involved in the exchange to affect the lives and welfare of others (Dewey 13). Almost simultaneously with the emergence of “the public” is the emergence of “the state,” which is an entity that involves members of the public bound by shared concerns and interests (33). The state is something to which members of the public belong and identify. However, Dewey does warn that people looking for “the state” will inevitably get lost in the process. It is a concept that is nearly as abstract as “the public” because its existence depends on consequences and the emergence of people who need to be taken care of as a result of those consequences (27).

With the emergence of such entities as the public and the state, a form of government is necessary to govern and administer the needs and concerns of the public. Dewey portrays democracy as a system of government that resulted from fear (86), and a democratic government gave people the ability to participate in their own governing. Within this democratic system, individuals felt free to express their own individualized ideals. Dewey notes that the American Revolution was a revolt against an established government that oppressed individuality (87), and democracy resulted in the U.S. as a form of government administered by the people. Individualism became the new movement within the system of democracy that allowed people to express their own political and social ideals while being involved in the forming of a new political nation.

The nexus of these three concepts converges in their dependence on the existence of each other, but putting them into context is difficult when their boundaries are ambiguous. The public and the state emerge when private exchanges result in external consequences. Democracy is a form of governing the members of the public included in the state, by involving individuals from the public as officials to govern the matters of the public. The challenge arises with the concept of individualism because it inherently discourages unity, a necessary characteristic of a state. Therefore, the development of states must be an ongoing process of experimenting through trial and error, using historical experiences to learn from previous mistakes (33-4).

Dewey sees the public as being problematic mostly because it is difficult to find in the context of a situation. It is an abstract concept to describe an abstract group of people, which makes it difficult to identify. In theory, the public is a community as a whole that is affected by the transactions of private individuals (88), but in practice, it is often very difficult to identify the specific public (and therefore state) affected because of the private nature of the exchanges.

According to Dewey, the difficulty in finding the public lies in the advent of modern technology that impaired the need for face-to-face relationships between members of the public. The very same technologies that create the ease of national interaction also create the ability for individuals to focus on the bettering of their own lives without much personal contact with others (131). The individualistic philosophy utilizing the new technology is a force that detracts from the sense of community. If the needs of the public as a whole are not identified, then those problems cannot be addressed by the officials elected specifically to govern such issues.

The most problematic feature of “the public” as it is invoked and discussed today is that the concept is abstract and the people involved are difficult to identify. Dewey’s discussion of how the Great Society (what we have now) may become the Great Community (the ideal) helps put the sense of individualism and of community into perspective as related to the public. While the Great Society is composed of many groups of people with advanced technology, the Great Community only comes about when individuals share interest and responsibility to the community on common issues (147). The transition can only be accomplished through communication (142). Without communication, the consequences affecting the public through private exchange cannot be identified by governing officials. If the problems cannot be identified, they cannot be solved. Also, if the problems are not identified, the people who suffer from the problems cannot be identified, which creates further confusion about the boundaries of the public.

Even though Dewey’s text was originally published in 1927, I think his discussion still has relevance to political life in the U.S. today. His concerns about the steam engines and the printing press as forms of modern technology that decrease personal relationships apply today using things like the internet and credit cards as substitutes. The concept is still the same, that identifying the public is a challenge, especially with rampant individualism and lack of face-to-face communication.

One thing that I think makes Dewey’s discussion particularly relevant to politics in the U.S. today, perhaps even more so than when his text was first published, is that groups with shared interests and concerns in the modern world (or, a “state”) typically do not share the same political boundaries. People commute, they live out-of-state, they even live in other countries, but they still stay virtually connected to the people they share common interests with through the use of telephones, Skype, email, and any other form of communication technology available today. Dewey’s concern about the boundaries of the state was that geographic lines created arbitrary boundaries when determining who was included in the state and who was not. The technology available in 2010 makes determining those boundaries even more challenging.

Another part of the discussion relevant to the political world today is the idea of controlled inquiry and looking at history to understand context and application. It is important when implementing new ideas in politics and society to have something about the present to compare with the past. By learning what works through experimenting, we can better tweak the form of government that will facilitate the Great Society becoming the Great Community (147).

While his writing style is very difficult to digest, Dewey’s message is actually fairly simple. “The Public” is an abstract group of people that we can only identify once they have something in common. That something in common outlines the boundaries for “the state” and also creates the simultaneous need for administration to protect the interests of the designated public. The next part of his discussion gets confusing with the many problems and methods involved with what comes next: government. Determining political jurisdiction is just the first part of the challenge, then comes the potential for corruption and the ongoing struggle for effective communication. His discussion is still fairly abstract, but it does help us discern the inevitable challenges that present themselves within the ambiguous realm of political life.

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Ode To Niecie’s

Terry and I have a breakfast date every weekend. We have a few places we go regularly but are always looking for new and interesting destinations. Not long ago he met a friend for lunch at Niecie’s. I’d heard about it but had never been there. But as they say, the rest is history. Terry suggested the next weekend that we have breakfast there. We went there once and now we include it as a favorite.

Why? When we walk in the restaurant we are greeted warmly as though they are excited to see us. The servers are friendly and the food is fast. When we leave the restaurant someone inevitably says something like “have a blessed day”. We almost always run into someone we know. It doesn’t matter though, because we have also found ourselves talking with strangers. When we leave we feel good about breakfast, good about Niecie’s and good about ourselves.

This is not a sales pitch for a restaurant. There are probably lots of restaurants like Niecie’s. This is a sales pitch for a life style. It is great to be with people who are nice to each other. It is great to chat about the K.C. Chiefs, even when they are having a bad season, just because the Chiefs are the hometown team. It is just part of being neighborly and being nice.

I’m not saying that being nice would solve the problems of the world. But I’m also not saying that it wouldn’t. If people are nicer to each other then maybe politicians can be nicer. If politicians can be nicer to each other then maybe nations can be nicer to each other. Maybe we could have world peace. Being nice has to start somewhere.

Ann

How We Spent Our Summer Vacation–Umbria

Umbria is not a place I had ever thought of going. Tuscany, of course; Umbria, why? But then again, why not? Having no real expectations when we began planning this trip, we became more and more excited about what we would find. Now that we have visited, I can definitely say that it was worth the trip.

We were in Umbria at what must be one of the most beautiful times of year. The landscape is often routine but coupled with hill towns that are anything but. We visited too many towns to describe them all, but our overall experience is enough to recommend to anyone that they include it on their travel list.

We began our first full day in Todi. Like Monticello where we stayed, Todi rises out of the ground with breathtaking beauty. While accessible by car, it is easier to park at the bottom of the hill and take the “funicular” to the top of the hill, ie. the edge of Todi.  A funicular is most effectively described as an outdoor escalator. Two churches were visible at the peak of the hill. There were so many churches in the small towns and cities we visited that I finally decided that building a small church was the best way for a family of affluence to be confident they could be buried in a prestigious building. Throughout the town, stone buildings clung to the hill as though they could literally slide down to the valley below. The residents seemed to be perpetually walking up and down–but never on flat ground. While open to traffic, the stone and brick streets are most used by walkers and a few motor scooters. Tourists were present but did not dominate the town.  The walls of Todi seem to have been built and rebuilt through the centuries as evidenced by the patchwork of brick and stone in the walls. Maybe the walls have, in fact, slid down to the valley as they have weakened. I don’t know. We ate lunch at the Umbria Restaurant, where the view was wonderful and the food quite good. We finished eating at 2:30, at which time the shops, churches and museums closed, not to reopen until 3:30. We immediately realized we would have to alter our travel schedules to adjust to the Italians. They certainly would have no reason to adjust to ours!

Every day seemed to be the best day of our trip. We visited Orvietto and Civita Di Bagnoriego our second day. Two hours in Orvietto was barely enough time to scratch the surface. Again we arrived by funicular. It is a quick way up these steep hills. It was lovely and seemed to be a place where people lived, rather than toured.  There was no funicular at Civita di Bagnoregio. This ancient city is separated from the land around it by a deep valley. It is accessible only by a long walking bridge. The route began with a hike from the car park followed by a steep and extended trek down the hill via a stone stairway, followed by an extended walk to the bridge. The bridge itself begins with a gentle slope before rising more steeply up to the wall of the city. We were told only nine people live here full-time. One of the residents said that their property had been in the family for hundreds of years. There are more restaurants than residents. I never quite figured that out! The food was quite simple but tasty. It was cooked in hot earthen ovens with hot coals continuously placed behind the cooking area. The simplicity of the food did not minimize the obvious challenge required to provide food and cold drinks to those physically fit enough to desire them. The simple church was lovingly tended. Instead of a center rug, decorative cut flowers had been painstaking spread in a pattern over the center aisle. The lives of the inhabitants were also simple. Some living quarters were behind gates and appeared to be carved out of the stone from the hill itself, with only iron fences between the residents and the steep slopes. Not a place for the frail or fearful. Certainly not ADA compliant!

Monday was devoted to St. Francis. I’m not Catholic, but he is my favorite Saint. The Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli is at the foot of Assisi. It is there that St. Francis is said to have discovered his vocation and where he founded his first small church. This original church sits within the Basilica. During our visit, religious services were actually being conducted in the tiny interior church. St. Claire is buried in the Basilica.  After touring the Basilica we drove the few miles to Assisi. It is more beautiful than I had anticipated, although the tourism seemed incompatible with St. Francis’ humble message. I wondered how he would feel about it all.  More important, as things progressed, I wondered how he would feel about Assisi’s neighbor, Narni.

Narni is another walled town on a hill. A lovely little town, it is famous, if at all, as the location of an inquisition court where trials were held from about 1600 to 1880 A.D. Only fairly recently have the court and the adjacent cell been discovered. It sits immediately below a small church were, presumably the messages of Christ were preached from the pulpit. Below, the court and adjacent cell, where prisoners were held, are small, dark and completely under ground. They appear to have been intentionally hidden. Our guidebook advised us that records concerning this court were found in the Vatican archives sometime after 1970. The instruments of torture depicted in drawings at the site were cruel and barbaric, capable of inflicting horrible pain and humiliation on alleged heretics within a few feet of where others worshipped a loving God. What would St. Francis say?

On Wednesday we traveled to Montefalco, with architecture reminiscent of Latin America, and then to Bevsagna. Interesting towns, the first devoted to wines and linens. Lovely but we declined to buy.

There must be dozens of similar walled cities in Umbria, I have mentioned only a few. While it was a wonderful adventure, we were ready to return to K.C. Of course, we both knew that we will become restless to visit more beautiful and amazing places.  But without question if someone asks about my favorite vacations, I will tell them about Umbria.

How We Spent Our Summer Vacation–Le Mandorelle

How We Spent our Summer Vacation–Le Mandorelle

A week of our trip to Italy was spent with friends.  Together we rented a lovely country home and adjoining guesthouse outside of Monticello, Italy. The route included driving the steep and winding road through Monticello. We were warned to shift into first gear when we saw the Monticello city limit sign. We were glad we listened to the warning. Monticello is as dramatic as it is small.  We no sooner entered the small town than we were leaving it.  Our destination, Le Mandorelle, more than justified the challenge to reach it.  Its owners are former residents of Kansas City. The property is 12 acres and includes a residence with 3 large bedrooms bathroom suites, a guest cottage with two bedrooms, and two baths, 3 dining areas and a large patio area.

In addition to a pool, the grounds include lush gardens with roses in bloom all around us.  There were rows of grapes, olive trees, a vegetable garden and geraniums. The vegetable garden is for guests and we did not hesitate to enjoy the benefits. There were honey bees everywhere. While we were in residence the owners harvested the grapes, olives and honey. He is on the property almost daily, not to bother us but to attend to the farm. We see him in his yellow beekeeper’s protective gear as he harvest the honey. His biggest concern that day is the death of his queen bees and the urgency to replace them. With two days new queens are in residence and the hive is back in business.

Our host gave us a lasagna for our first meal which is truly delicious. It was made from a wonderful sausage, mushrooms, truffles, cheese and pasta. All it needs was to be heated. Despite our combined efforts it took two hours to figure out how to heat the magnificent but confusing gas stove. But with salad, bread and pasta we sat and talked about travels in the past and the week in front of us.  The fully equipped kitchen, outside pizza oven, and supplies of our hosts’ vegetables, wine and olive oil, made meals here a dream.

Finally, the panoramic view added to the pleasure of our residence. Not only did the hills roll unendingly into each other, but the farms and estates themselves followed the curves of the land. The view was not the patchwork of square or rectangular plots we see in Kansas and Missouri but consisted of waves of crops, plowed lands and forests of green. The colors of the landscape include deep greens and straw yellows. The crops included acres of sunflowers drying in place until the seeds are ready to harvest.  Our September stay enabled us to have the satisfaction of watching first hand the completion of the harvest.  It is a special place and we felt privileged to enjoy the property to its fullest.  But now, on to Umbria.

How We Spent our Summer Vacation–40 Hours in Venice

My husband is a wonderful travel planner. Together we have visited some of the world’s beautiful places. Among the beautiful places we have visited is Italy. We have been to Rome and Southern Italy. This year our travels led us to Venice and down through Umbria. We arrived in Italy by air and Venice by ferry. It cost 15 Euros to travel from the airport to the Rialto Bridge. From there we walked to our hotel. There is no real option but to walk. While Venice is famous for gondolas; and while there were also water ferries and water taxis, Venice is simply a place for walking. There are no automobiles in the city which means no taxis. Baby strollers, wheelchairs, bicycles and motorcycles are rarely seem and barely helpful. The combination of bridges, dead-ends and sharp corners aren’t conducive to any other form of travel, and so we walked.

Courtyard in Venice

We easily found our hotel, “Al Codega”, in the heart of Venice. Recently remodeled it was a perfect pick by my travel savvy husband. Close to the Rialto Bridge and Saint Mark’s Square, it was an oasis at the end of a busy day of sight-seeing and shopping. The decor is charming. There is a small hotel bar with service by the concierge/ bartender. He can give you travel advice while serving drinks and offering up chips and peanuts, the only food items available. The bar and breakfast areas had a computer and Wi-Fi access. Sometimes they worked!

When I called Meg to tell her we had arrived, I was amazed to find that my iPhone automatically adds the international access numbers when placing calls to the states. This was new to me. l just punched my phone’s automatic dial for Meg’s number and within seconds heard her voice.

Beautiful gate in Venice

There are a lot of wonderful places to visit in Venice. We missed most of them. There is really no reasonable way to move quickly around Venice to see it all. But considering the beauty of Venice we really didn’t care. Many of the streets, buildings, the canals were breathtaking. We walked through ancient streets and never knew what we were going to run into next. We could find ourselves in blind alleys that led nowhere or come upon a gallery or museum or courtyard. Almost every courtyard had a covered well, presumably once a source of drinking water. And while people sometimes complain about the smells in Venice, the only thing we smelled was the onions, garlic and similar smells of the many restaurants.

We visited the Guggenheim, Harry’s Bar and a host of beautiful, if lesser known churches. We didn’t visit Saint Mark’s Cathedral, the line was too long and our visit too short. We also missed the Vivaldi concerts. They began at 10 p.m. and decided we were unwilling to attempt to find our way back to the hotel that late at night. Venice is simply not a city where we could call a cab if we were lost.

The Guggenheim was lovely. We enjoyed the art, but it was the building, and the proximity to the main canal that is most memorable. We also had a wonderful visit to Harry’s Bar, a well-known bar catering to those willing to spend a bit more for drinks just for the pleasure of people watching.

It was with regret that we left Venice but after 40 hours we said farewell to the city and were on to the next leg of our adventure.

Global warming and the need for leadership – Meg’s research from 2008

Meg has a J.D. in Urban, Land Use and Environmental Law. She focuses on maintaining the balance of community and environmental health, healthy lifestyles, and encouraging sustainable living.

I wrote this as part of my senior thesis at the University of Kansas in May 2008. The class was about the history of accidents, both natural and human-induced. I looked at a place in Greenland dubbed “Warming Island” that was visited by a U.S. delegation led by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a group of representatives.

Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, the representative from the 5th District of Missouri (Kansas City area), was a part of the delegation to Greenland. In the two summers following his trip, I was able to intern in his DC and Kansas City offices. His ideas about global warming and the environment in many ways sparked my current interest in environmental health. He is so unbelievably passionate about bettering the world, it just naturally rubs off on anyone he meets. During his initial campaign for Congress, my granddad Mesle met him and worked on his campaign. Granddad still talks about how nice Rep. Cleaver was to be around, how he wears his love for his community on his sleeve, and always asks me to tell him hello.

I don’t necessarily mean to sound like I’m putting in my plug for Cleaver, I just think it’s important to understand where the inspiration comes from. He really has been a significant influence in my growing interest of balancing community needs with environmental needs, all while juggling the various issues of the world. I’d like to share an excerpt from my 2008 thesis about Warming Island in Greenland, and Rep. Cleaver’s commitment to community and environmental health. Please note, the following information is current as of May 2008.

Here you go.

 “Warming Island” in Greenland

The Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) is the second largest ice sheet in the world next to the Antarctic Ice Sheet. During Speaker Pelosi’s delegation to Greenland in May 2007, she noticed the rapid speed at which the ice is breaking off and melting. She learned the amount of ice breaking off in two days time would provide enough fresh water for all of New York City for an entire year. The delegation inspired other political officials to travel to the island, including several Senators, in July 2007.

Some scientists say the melting ice is being offset by the amount of snow accumulation during the winter months, but there is also a highly significant correlation within the last decade of temperatures in Greenland with the Northern Hemisphere. This correlation suggests that global warming may very well be emerging within GrIS in the present day. One man, who is a veteran arctic explorer, made a discovery several years ago that would change the visible perception of global warming.

Dennis Schmidt is an explorer who discovered “Warming Island” in Greenland in September 2005. It is an island on the east side of Greenland, about 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle, which was previously thought to be a peninsula. During an expedition to GrIS in September 2006, Schmidt commented that documenting the island was important because it is, “a very visual, very graphic example of climate change… maybe the best that exists in the world today.” Makers of this video documentary who traveled with Schmidt reflected on how scientists had been warning for years that the warming atmosphere would “wake up” the ice sheet and send hundreds of billions of tons of ice surging into the ocean, raising sea levels and drowning coastal cities. (To see a brief video documenting the island, click here.)

“I think a lot of people that will look at this will be fascinated because of its beauty, but also interested in it because it is a clear example of climate change,” commented Schmidt about the view of the landscape. In the documentary, the visible gap between the mainland and the now island appears to be at least several hundred feet. When Speaker Pelosi’s delegation travelled to the island in May 2007, they witnessed these effects first hand and realized the severity of global warming.


Cleaver’s commitment to the environment

To approach the issues surrounding global warming, Congressman Cleaver uses many different strategies. It is my understanding that neither oil companies nor delegates for non-renewable resource companies financially support Cleaver’s political office. He is therefore more flexible to speak openly about his concerns for the environment and what he believes to be the root causes for those concerns (such as oil companies drilling in the Chukchi).

When he addressed the Progressive National Baptist Convention in August 2007, Cleaver asserted to his listeners to make the earth’s environment a high priority. “There is overwhelming scientific evidence that the sin of materialism and greed are inextricably linked to the alarming rise in greenhouse gas emissions, and that, my friends, demands an urgent response,” he asserted. This comment followed a lunch conversation I had with him while in Washington D.C. during the summer of 2007. Cleaver believes there are many ways to attack the problems of global warming. One of those ways is through politics and legislation, and the other way is through religious promotion of possible solution. “If one Sunday, every preacher in the country said that everyone needs to use less gas, less water, recycle more, and care more about our environment, on Monday morning, everyone would be out buying a hybrid car.” He acknowledges that there is more than one way to approach global warming, and it is important to try to get through to people on multiple levels to ensure that the message about global warming gets across.

Protecting the environment and the vulnerable communities in the world from global warming is an important issue for which few people are up to the task. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver focuses on bringing together communities and protecting them from social and environmental injustice, which makes him a perfect candidate for provoking global unity. Cleaver is a man who is focused on solutions to problems surrounding struggling communities, whether they are black, poor, polar bear, or arctic ice. He believes in a balance within the social and spiritual spheres that keeps the world in harmony. When that balance is shifted, the world struggles, and Cleaver takes it upon himself to help bring the world back into balance.

– Meg McCollister, May 2008

U.S. role in world affairs, pt. 2: Courts as a Model and Trusted Protector of the Rule of Law

If our role in the global community is changing, we need to decide in what ways we choose to adapt to the change.  Any vote taken in our family would support the belief that we follow the adage to “lead by example.”  Of course, leading by example requires that we project, for ourselves and to the world, the best of our core values.  Not surprisingly for us, our conversation turned to the importance of our judicial system and the fact we are a nation governed by the rule of law.

Pursuant to the Constitution our government is divided into three separate but equal branches.  The Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch are responsible for enacting our laws.  Their roles are generally well understood.  Less well understood is the role of the judiciary as the third equal branch of government.

Courts are responsible to enforce our laws.  They are accountable to the Constitution. Unlike members of the Legislative Branch, judges are not, and should not, be accountable to any individual segment of the community.  In our courts, every citizen is considered equal under the law:  rich or poor; individual or corporation; of whatever color, ethnicity or gender.

The challenge is to constantly protect the integrity of the judiciary and to preserve the requirement that judges are not answerable to a political agenda or viewpoint but instead enforce laws fairly and consistently.  So long as the courts are committed to this role, they create an environment of trust and confidence here and throughout the world community.  They support an environment in which individuals and businesses trust that they will receive fairness and confidence that laws will be enforced consistently.

Keeping politics and special interests out of the courtroom helps us to protect what Chief Justice William Rehnquist called one of the “crown jewels” of our democracy. Courts that demand respect for the rights and interests of all parties are consistent with a just society and enhance our image as a global citizen.  Is this what we should desire from our courts? Yes. Is this what we need as a nation? Yes.

A fair and impartial judiciary is essential to a fair and just society.  This is the judicial system we want for ourselves and as the model we want to present to the world.