Publics and the Government

23 Sep

What does Schudson say?

Schudson’s analysis centers around state influence over and role in creating public spheres. He maintains that the state and the public, the government and civil society, are deeply intertwined, stating that “government must be understood as part of a public sphere and not as a separate dimension of social life.” (Schudson, 532) What’s interesting is that there didn’t ever seem to be a true separation of government (public) and candidate personalities (private). He asks (and answers himself), “Is contemporary political discourse uniquely impoverished in its focus on personalities rather than issues in elections? No. In fact, in the late eighteenth century elites urged voters to vote on the basis of the candidates’ characters, not on the basis of particular issues of interests.” (Schudson, 530) This ties back to some of the readings we did the first week on the illusion of objectivity and the transcendental self. Candidates are supposed to be looking out for the public good, and yet, what is “good” for the public is going to largely be determined and shaped by the private realm of each individual candidate’s life. Take, for example, the recent Mitt Romney “scandal” ( Let me first put forth the disclaimer that what I think he said shows that he’s out of touch with most of America, and was just a fairly stupid thing to say, and get recorded, and lacks compassion for individuals who are going through everyday struggles, and is just…really problematic and irksome (and that’s euphemistic). Ok, disclaimer inputted.

We’ve already established in Calhoun’s piece in Week 1 that the “public good” is a very slipper thing. Mitt Romney is acknowledging the fact that not all Americans have the same priorities, and that different people need different things. Obviously, he said it in a really callous and uncalled-for way, which then, in turn, homogenizes about half of America. This is where the real problem lies. The president is supposed to vie for the public good. But what is the public? For ALL American people? Maybe this is the contradiction of the office that Romney touches upon – that people are going to have different opinions, so he needs to concentrate on getting the votes of the people who will put him in office so he can, with his own background and history, impose what he thinks is “good” for the public upon ALL Americans? I’m getting some cognitive dissonance from my own analysis and am getting a bit annoyed with myself. I’m going to stop. Maybe we can discuss in class and pick this apart.

The fact of the matter here is that the video has gone viral and countless analyses and articles bashing Romney and defending Romney have since come out, each in its own public sphere, but with the ultimate knowledge that the discussions going on in these oftentimes disparate public spheres will tie into decisions that will eventually be made by the state. If I talk to my friends about how Romney is out of touch, or post it on Facebook, this conversation would likely take place in the private realm, but our social interaction would influence our government. Moreover, and I think this is really the point Schudson is making, it is because of the framework of our government that I am even able to have these social interactions with my friends – that we even have this discussion. The government enables certain aspects of the public sphere, and enables our ability to use the press in order to help us make decisions that ultimately then effect the government. It’s cyclical and intertwined.

Now, here is where I disagree with Schudson. How about globalization? And digital media’s enabling of communication and civic action outside the boundaries of the nation-state? This is a question that I have for my interest in the Asian LGBT Diaspora. How much is discourse and public opinion shaped based on the priorities or ideology of a nation, but how much of that is bleeding across borders because of the Internet and because of these transnational means of communicating? No doubt it is still shaped a bit, but I don’t seem to think that this public is encapsulated in the influence of the government as much as Schudson puts forth in his article.


What does Sunstein say?

Sunstein takes us through the history of free speech. His main point is that the visibility and the debates of free speech have only gotten much more interesting within the last century or so, particularly between 1925 and 1970. There are two camps here. One tries to limit government’s regulation of the First Amendment, usually seeing government as the enemy which infringes upon the freedom to express. This side vies for very slight regulatory practices and is known as absolutism. The other side, which more closely mirrors the traditional, historical outlook on the First Amendment, calls for more governmental and legislative regulation with a whole slew of topics, deemed detrimental to society (hate speech, criminal plots, etc) or which threaten the state.

Sunstein’s problem with absolutism lies in the freedom it gives corporations, commercials and ads aired during tv (he cites the exorbitant amount of time given to that), and the like. He does get into the fact that there are many tiers of free speech, and that governments can regulate speech depending on the situation (libel, obscenity, etc). For example (and this was an example I was very excited about because my Political Science teacher from high school told us), public figures can only win a libel lawsuit if they can prove malicious intent, but regular people just have to prove that what was said was untrue. This is an example that Sunstein gives of tiered freedom of speech (Sunstein, 9). You have the freedom to say/write untrue things about someone if they’re not famous, so your freedom of speech is conditional.

This idea of free speech has gotten very interesting with the advent of social networking sites (of course we’re going to go there again, right?). What if you write something untrue about someone on Facebook? And I feel a lot of the false things on Facebook ARE done with malice. 

Sunstein also makes us consider free speech and high and low culture. We can take a 4-year-old to see the statue of David in Florence in all of his naked glory, and yet we shield him from nudity and sex acts on TV and in movies, which gets slapped with a TV14 or an R rating. I’m reminded of the film “This Movie Is Not Yet Rated.”


How are these readings related?

Both Sunstein and Schuedon (and the other readings this week) explore the legal quandaries of speech and its contradictions in negotiating democracy. They bring up interesting questions about the government’s role in the freedom of expression, in our idea of the public, in the ideology of the state, whether it is in the public sphere in terms of what we say, or our freedom to say anything at any time. The question then becomes, how is a democracy really constituted? What are the freedoms outside the government? How much agency do public spheres (including the press) have to instigate change? (I’m going to start using the plural to describe public spheres, because there’s never just one…) How much responsibility does the government have to protect public spheres, and hence, ideas that do not mesh with their own? How much influence do public spheres have on the government’s actions and legislation? How is the government suppressing expression and discourse (in the form of institutionalized or subtly designed censorship) in public and private spaces?


A few more case studies and examples to consider. Not quite within the realm of democracy, but will be interesting to consider how this week’s readings and themes tie into a global society and transnational ideas of publics.

Gu Kailai, the wife of Chongqing’s Communist Party chief, was accused to killing Neil Heywood. China censored any searches for Gu Kailai or Bo Xilai (, stunting any sort of discourse in the public about these issues that may potentially hurt the state or make the state look bad.

Cao Ni Ma. I’ll explain in class. But first, you should watch this video.

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Posted by on September 23, 2012 in Uncategorized


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