Toward A Public Sphere for the US

A call to arms, addressing elite youth, in the US, afflicted by “a culture where private gain has eclipsed the public good, public service, even public decency, and where the cult of the individual has caused the commonwealth to wither.”

Below Roger Cohen issues a challenge (with reading suggestions) elite youth have long needed to hear. Still, the public sphere will never be invigorated unless this advice is shared with non-elite youth, until we stop reifying “The Best and The Brightest.” Years ago, dumbfounded, I sat there listening to the world’s most self-satisfied naif praise that crusty old cold warrior Francis Fukuyama simply on the grounds of being a “Great Man.” Indeed, when it comes to social, economic, and political ideas and policy, “Great Men” let to sail loose from humanity only produce “the biggest and the worst.” If we must protect the superhumanity of Great Men, let’s let them celebrate their celestial election in the realm of the arts. It’s not a perfect way to hold back from repressing the frequent coincidence of noble birth and narcissism, because big ideas eventually make policy (witness the conservative resurgence), but there’s a role for toleration in every Enlightenment project, and socialism is an Enlightenment project.

The vigor of a country, even an historically elitist, capitalist country, lies in its ability to engage all in social projects that enhance human development and environmental integrity. The WPA was not just Roosevelt’s glory. It was the commoner youths’ great achievement as well. It would not have been such a fantastic program without this synergy. Doubt this? Check deep into the history of the US Forest Service. It was at its most environmentalist, most innovative, most ahead of its time in those interstices when and where mere middle/working class managers could make policy, such as in Minnesota when such workers were protected by a socialist governor. In the US today, it may be unthinkable, to give working class people (and seriously, in the US, working class–or not the Best ‘n’ Brightest– is understood to mean anyone who didn’t go to the Ivies!) protection and a chance at governing; but that bias may have caught up with the US. Another king is not going to fix what ails us. The old kings are too free to quickly do to innovative, constructive programs–such as the proposed NIB–what they did to the WPA: tear it down because it works far too well in a far too democratic way.

See also William Deresiewicz’s 2008 article at the beginning of Lapham’s Quarterly, fall 2008, “Ways of Learning”.

From Cohen, Roger. 2008. “The King is Dead.” The New York Times, September 18.

“….Barack Obama put the issue this way at Wesleyan University in May: beware of the ‘poverty of ambition’ in a culture of ‘the big house and the nice suits.’

College seniors might start by reading ‘A New Bank to Save Our Infrastructure’ in the current edition of The New York Review of Books, an impassioned plea from Felix Rohatyn (who knows something of financial rescues) and Everett Ehrlich for the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank, or N.I.B.

Its aim, at a time when the Chinese are investing $200 billion in railways and building 97 new airports, would be to use public and private capital to give coherence to a vast program of public works. ‘This can improve productivity, fight unemployment and raise our standard of living,’ Rohatyn told me.

It’s absurd that earmarks — the self-interested budgetary foibles of senators and representatives — should dictate the progressive dilapidation of America. How can the commonwealth thrive when its bridges sag, its levees cede, its public transport creaks?

So, young minds, sign up for the N.I.B.! Before doing so, read Nick Taylor’s stirring ‘American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the W.P.A.: When F.D.R. Put the Nation to Work.’ It shows how the Works Progress Administration, a linchpin of Roosevelt’s New Deal, put millions of unemployed to work on dams, airports and the like. It’s a book about how imaginative political leadership can rally a nation in crisis.

They’re listening to Coldplay down on Wall Street:

Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!

Yes, the death of the old is also the birth of the new. In my end is my beginning. It’s time for the best and the brightest to step forth and rediscover the public sphere.”

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