We should be very careful about how we construct ‘the public’ in discourses of public engagement

I just came across this description of Robert Moses, by the American Sociologist and former Secretary of Labour Frances Perkins, concerning his attitude towards the public. It was quoted in an essay by Jackson Lears in vol 38 number 6 of the London Review of Books:

He loves the public, but not as people. The public is just the public. It’s a great amorphous mass to him; it needs to be bathed, it needs to be aired, it needs recreation, but not for personal reasons – just to make it a better public.

And some would say it needs to be engaged. We should be very careful about how we construct ‘the public’ in discourses of public engagement. Treating it as axiomatic that public engagement is a good thing can sometimes hide some rather problematic attitudes about who this ‘public’ is.

For those unfamiliar with her, it’s worth finding out more about Frances Perkins. She’s a hugely impressive and important figure. This Democracy Now interview covers a lot of ground:

6 responses to “We should be very careful about how we construct ‘the public’ in discourses of public engagement”

  1. I grew up in the shadows of Robert Moses…all of his public works projects, his parks, his urban planning – all of which turned into dismal failures. From the economic and geographical genocide of Native Americans, to a legacy that leaves most of upstate New York west of the Genesee River (where I grew up) an economic and environmental dead zone where child poverty is 6 times the national average, and general poverty is 4 times the national average.

    I grew up in Buffalo, New York, with family in Niagara Falls, NY, and the current urban renewal policy is to tear down everything that Robert Moses built, because it’s turned the region into (literally) the economic equivalent of 1947 Berlin.

    To use Robert Moses as an example of anything is to disregard the thousands of Native Americans that lost millions of acres of land (both environmentally and legally) to his projects. It’s to discount the severing of the Niagara River in the interests of chemical pollution (Robert Moses helped create Love Canal – the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history), and it’s to discount the thousands that were kicked out of their homes in Niagara Falls in the “public interest” that resulted in a bankrupt city with streets & buildings that literally look like they’ve been bombed – frozen in time since 1956.

    Robert Moses’ “publics” were only white publics, and only publics that went along with his grand plans that usually resulted in cronyism, corruption, and political interests. Robert Moses only cared about the “publics” that could benefit his own interests and exhalations. The only thing he should be held as an example of, is what not to do to a “publics.”

    I know that I have an opinion – but the facts of what he did are not in dispute. Kicking Native people off their land, flooding it so that they could never reclaim it, facilitating environmental disasters, urban renewal that lefts cities in waste – these are facts that are largely not in dispute.

  2. Yes that was the point of the quote Dave – very well put! I don’t think she was holding it up as a positive thing. You might like the essay it’s from, it’s available online.

  3. I will read it! Forgive me and my lack of objectivity as a Sociologist. Anything with “Robert Moses” strikes a chord with me personally. My maternal grandparents lost their home to Robert Moses’ “urban renewal.” This is why I don’t dig into urban planning that much as a social scientist. This was purely a non-scientific reply 🙂

    Thanks for your posts! I enjoy them all!

  4. I’ve been remiss in checking my replies, as well as my blog. There’s been a lot of dissertation writing in my life recently. However, I have just been granted a brief reprieve as my committee reviews my latest edits. So I can at least get back to the blog…with about a dozen topics in queue!

  5. Probably wise, there are many reason it took me six years to write a thesis – blogging was perhaps the main one though

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