A public, or just an audience?

Today’s LA Times has an unbelievably depressing story about Bush’s speech.

Depressing, I say, not because it was pro-Bush or anti-Bush, but because it was so entirely consumed with form rather than substance. Every superficial aspect of the speech — Bush’s facial expression, his tone, his dress, his posture (standing rather than sitting), the location — is subjected to careful analysis, in the usual one-expert-for-and-one-against format that stands in for journalistic objectivity. The two questions not addressed (except in an aside by Molly Ivins) are (1) whether the argument Bush presented for going to war is a convincing argument and (2) whether the facts he adduced in its support were accurately stated.

The story is, in effect, theater review, with the viewers of the speech assumed to be an audience that wants to be entertained and impressed rather than a public — the citizens of a res publica — needing to be convinced.

Of course this merely continues the pattern established in recent Presidential election campaigns, where the candidates are reviewed as performers. That’s what dismays me the most.

Democratic politics is not a spectator sport. Citizens are supposed to be players, not mere fans. When our leader tells us we are going to war, we should be paying attention to his reasons, not his necktie.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com