Rhetorical Inquiry, the Public Good, and Progressive Political Assumptions

This is the latest post in a series on assigned readings for one of my classes. The book assigned for next week’s Foundations of Composition and Rhetoric Class is called Distant Publics. Aside from the book we read on Composition Pedagogies, this is the work that I am resonating the most with. The book explores the rhetoric of public engagement with issues of urban development, gentrification, and the like. Like most academics in the Humanities, the author (Jenny Rice) seems to hold to so-called progressive political positions. Like most academics in the humantities concerned with politics, she sees the Big Problem as oppression and the Goal as liberation. Specifically, she paints a picture of big corporations as predatory actors who make use of unrestricted capitalism to exploit entire neighborhoods and cities for their own gain. She frequently casts the state (usually local government) as in collusion with these predatory behemoths.

And I wholeheartedly agree with her. Communities have ceded control of their local affairs to ever larger governmental structures. Corporations with more resources than some nations and certainly more than lots of municipalities have come to dominate the our commercial and public lives. And while I fully embrace Rice’s vision of a vital and democratic public engaged in matters of public importance who comment on ongoing backroom deals through protest, I can’t help but wonder about some of the so-called progressive assumptions made by Rice.

First, there is the focus on Austin. It is easy for someone on the Left to lampoon big corporations and collusive city governments when the local culture at stake is one that socially progressive and hospitable to “weirdness.” But I wonder if the same kind of attitude would be taken when local governments in Colorado are issuing permits for people to shoot down drones, when some regional governments try to codify their culture in statute and are resisted by large corporations (the good guys in this instance), or when certain regions (in a rather vitriolic way) resist the influx of immigrants who would change their cultural landscape? I think there is a lot of similarities between a kind of socialism and traditionalism (as I’ve written about here), but I’m not sure everyone is always consistent.

Second, Rice seems to turn to government almost instinctively. Protest, while capable of sometimes stopping corporate action (as in the example of the Borders that never got put in across from the local bookstore), is generally thought of by Rice as oriented toward getting (in this case local) government to intervene. But this approach is evidence of the idea ascendant in the American political mind that equates “government” with “public.” The two are not the same. And while, under the (rightfully in a lot of ways) regulatory state people have come to see government as the site of public action, it has not always been so. Churches, civic organizations, neighborhood associations, and labor unions are all examples of publics (in Michael Warner’s sense, anyway) that are sites of decisions and actions that affect lots of people. From a traditionalist standpoint anyway, giving the government strong regulatory power is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can keep massive corporations at bay and help ensure the public good. On the other hand, decision-making can easily move into the backroom where citizens have very little say and in which crony capitalism is born.

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