Sunday, March 17, 2013

Today in Nearly Century-Old Social Criticism That's Still Relevant Today

When I read the passage below in Walter Lippmann's The Phantom Public (1925), I was impressed and saddened by how relevant it still is.  I had to read part of The Phantom Public for a class on the history of media and democracy last year.  From what I read, I agree with much of Lippmann's analysis of what is, but I think his lack of idealism and optimism leads him to settle for what is as what will be and, with certain arrangements, should be. The title of the work refers to his criticism of the belief in the reality or possibility of an informed and engaged public capable of forming opinions on all of the political issues of the day.  Such skepticism leads him to elitism as the only feasible solution.  

Since the general opinions of large numbers of persons are almost certain to be a vague and confusing medley, action cannot be taken until these opinions have been factored down, canalized, compressed, and made uniform. The making of one general will out of a multitude of general wishes is not an Hegelian mystery, as so many social philosophers have imagined, but an art well known to leaders, politicians, and steering committees. It consists essentially in the use of symbols which assemble emotions after they have been detached from their ideas. Because feelings are much less specific than ideas, and yet more poignant, the leader is able to make a homogenous will out of a heterogeneous mass of desires. The process, therefore, by which general opinions are brought to cooperation consists of an intensification of feeling and a degradation of significance. Before a mass of general opinions can eventuate in executive action, the choice is narrowed down to a few alternatives. The victorious alternative is executed not by the mass but by individuals in control of its energy.” (Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Public, New York: Macmillan, 1925, p. 48)

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