The Public Sphere was the phrase coined to describe the collection of the old and the new, meeting places like bars and taverns, newspapers read privately and discussed publicly, which used to be the center of American opinion-shaping.
There were of course, especially after the civil war and before radio, all kinds of special interests who owned newspapers or were committed to policies that they privately benefited from; but for the most part, it was the most democratic of Rube Goldberg devices that fostered national debates over issues, people and news.
Public discourse was certainly not a passive spectator sport but an activity that included the ideas of all, their thoughts on societies, ills and conditions – an opinion that gelled into votes and party loyalty. As the 19th century became the 20th people gathered themselves into private organizations whose mandate was the Public Good. The Elks; the Moose; the Masons; the PTA, The Boy Scouts, Letters to the Editor, and corporations like Carnegie and Rockefeller were non-governmental but quasi-official groups who were all joined together by various notions of ‘not waiting around for the Government to tell them what to do’. They were connected to the society that they lived in and acted it out in a thousand ways.
There was actually a phrase, “Anybody Could Be President of Something” that referred to the social approval that was conferred on those groups and companies who took responsibility for some portion of the health of the civic body.
“We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business… we say that he has no business here at all.”
Pericles was saying 3000 years ago, that we were responsible for the nation. It is that responsibility seen through the various filters of "benign self interest", economic health, and incredible creative partnership of corporate and social health, which is our version of his statement.
We are connected to one another. Americans, world leaders and business leaders alike are made uniquely strong, in a unique system of a representative democracy. It is "Serious Business", with the emphasis on both.
But in America we are connected even more uniquely by an ideal only. Neither our ancestry, with its honors and wealth, nor our spiritual beliefs, except in their variety, bind us. Ideas bind us. Ideas, that without, the world would be a different place.
Here is what does not exist in America today: A place where serious issues were discussed seriously without the melodrama of toxic partisanship. This is our definition of The Public Sphere... Television killed the old one: wittier than your local bartender, speaking in pithy, informed opinions, using the newest of technology, which by itself created a fascinated constituency, enamored by a machine that brought subjects of all kinds into almost every home in America - TV ended dialogue but was and is hypnotically interesting. Bennett Cerf, Jack Paar, Alistair Cooke, Steve Allen who became the first stars of TV because of their great talent for conversation, unknowingly became the facilitators and stand-ins of the “new” and critically different Public Sphere.
America cannot afford the loss of that Public Sphere but we contend that the Public Sphere is not dead it is in fact The Dreyfuss Initiative.
The Dreyfuss Initiative, in alliance with communications and technology-based companies has the ability to revive an endeavor that is not only good for the community and America but serves the interests of the companies who participate.
We don’t just have bookstores today; in five or ten years, commercial book and media outlets will have morphed into the central point of contact in a society with few points of contact. There will be an interactive customer base, and the opportunity to be the real-world alternative to the tawdry offering that television, the spin rooms, and the short list of profiteers who control the radio newspaper and TV enjoy today.
The Dreyfuss Initiative, through the Public Sphere, will bring Community back to the community and our partners will play an inescapable role in the reconnection that is the fundamental definition of Democracy.
Right now at any particular retail bookseller, an author of fiction or non-fiction, new or basically unknown, can read an excerpt from his or her book, answer questions and sell somewhere between 10 and 50 copies of said book. Now imagine if the audience for that reading was increased by a factor of ten – or a hundred. Imagine if the author was a star in his/her own right, like David McCullough, Doris Kearns, Gordon Woods, Al Gore, Bill Bennett, John Grisham or John Irving to name a few.
Imagine retail outlets linked by the most accessible of flat screen, audio and streaming technology where an audience of potentially hundreds of thousands of people can not only watch but also join in a conversation seen at the same time on the same night, across the country. On certain given evenings people, parents and kids, teachers and locksmiths, Starbucks employees and jewelers will turn off their computers and TV’s, the isolationism of our time, and drive to their Public Sphere location to watch and listen to an intelligent, funny and engaging conversation by Great Minds, Wry Minds, Minds that create fascinating talk that foster ideas that are truly “outside the box”. The events would actually fulfill the traditional role of books in society, to ignite thought, inspire conversation – the audience might learn, they might laugh while they learn; they would listen to authors reading from their books, they could agree or disagree but they would be smarter for it.
The Public Sphere would be linked and shared live amongst hundreds of retail locations and they would also live permanently on a dedicated web page where the conversation is given even greater context. Built into the structure of the Public Sphere is a young, carefully chosen, “flying squad” of the best and the brightest University students they would fulfill two roles: They would have the singular privilege of interrupting the conversation to correct factual error live and they would deliver historical context and commentary via the message board on the website both of the participants of the conversation and the audience. A fascinating consequence of the “flying squad” would be to enlarge the audience itself by bringing young people into the Public Sphere.
Our technology of choice, the message board, is the cheapest way for the audience to interact, critical but invisible it promotes thoughtfulness and the ability to craft smart questions and comments. At a time when thinking things through has been removed from decision making, one hidden agenda of The Public Sphere would be to reward rumination, contemplation; reason, logic, dissent, debate and civility.
Citizens would discuss issues of controversy and substance without fear of being yelled at or demeaned. The Public Sphere will help us recapture our faith, fate and the values we talk so well about, and walk so insecurely.
From geo-politics and current events to Shakespeare and Architecture there is no end to the subjects that could be discussed…
How can the teaching of Civics save America?
What has history taught us? Why should we care?
How has technology changed Democracy?
Is the Constitution a living, breathing document? (Alt: The Constitution: The imperfect miracle)
What would America be like if..? An entertaining and thoughtful look at history (What if it weren’t for the bill of rights, the devil’s bargain, the founding fathers, etc.)
What does it mean to have Western Values? (What are eastern values?)
What does America mean to the rest of the world? What does it mean to Americans?
Shakespeare is everywhere – find him
Civility in practice (the lessons of early journalism)
What is funny and why?
The questions stars yearn to be asked…
The list goes on and on…