American Culture and the institutionalization of the 'sage' in the American political discourse -- are sages necessary?
According to the philosopher Plato, the ideal form of governance was not a raucous democracy, along the lines of the ancient Athenian state or polis. Nor would the ideal form of government take the guise of a modern republic, where popular sentiment was judiciously filtered through the wisdom of elected officials. Instead, under Plato's system of the rule of the philosopher-sage, the popular will and all disseminated knowledge by the media, would be controlled by oligarchs. Plato advocated not the rule of those not of high birth, but those who knew best, namely a tribe of philosopher kings or sages.
Frank Fischer and Brian Martin, in their recent analysis of the failures of the American political system do not offer as radical a solution as the ancient Greek. However, Frank Fischer's analysis does implicitly propose that there is a fundamental lacking within the texture of American government and American political culture as a whole, in terms of citizen involvement within American political society and decision-making. The solution to this absence of involvement, he suggests, is not a more responsive governmental structure, but the institutionalization of the 'sage' within the American political frame of discourse, that of an individual who is distanced from the issues to some extent, and can offer commentary and intellectual and intelligent perspectives upon issues of the moment and also put the perspective of politics within a forward-thinking view. In contrast, Martin stresses that rather than look to experts for knowledge, one must become one's own sage, and profound challenges to government and conventional wisdom have been proposed by many relatively ordinary individuals all over the world, from the author's native Australia to India.
But according to Frank Fischer, American culture is experiencing a crisis of confidence in itself. In other words, as American culture grows increasingly informationally savvy and informationally expansive in its dissemination of data across the airwaves and the World Wide Web, individuals are still becoming less and less enfranchised in the political process because they feel excluded from its technical discourse. Fischer sees the example of environmentalism as unusually revelatory of this example of personal political disenfranchisement of the citizenry of America.
For instance, environmental destruction is perhaps one issue where individuals should feel the impact of the issue very close to home. The destruction of the environment can harm the individual's own body, as recent cancer clusters in areas all over the state of California have highlighted. The destruction of the environment can impact a child within a school, as schools that are not properly taken care in terms of asbestos removal can cause asthma and thus cause a child difficulty in learning if not properly treated. Even on a very basic level of the physical environment, environmental dumping can harm one's own physical home, one of the most important health and financial assets a citizen possesses. Environmental destruction can increase one's health costs, decrease one's quality of life, and also decrease one's property values.
So why do not more individuals take a more involved role in the political process regarding environmentalism, asks Fischer? Yet the American citizen stands back, while interested economic and political parties continue to wreck economic destruction upon the land. Contemporary experts may understand the environmental issues at stake, but they have profound personal and economic interests that cannot be ignored when evaluating their opinions. Furthermore, citizens can only glean the full impact of environmental, and other scientific issues (such as issues pertaining to health, health insurance, and Medicare, to name just a few) from such experts, as most citizens are laypeople regarding such issues. Beck's techno-industrial logic, as Fischer calls it, creates a 'risk society' where individuals are unable to fully calculate and comprehend the full extend to which they are at risk, because of the density of technical verbiage. Individuals cannot understand fully what technical and scientific issues may pose risks to their well-being, or simply affect the development of their future. The recent debate over stem cell research, one might add, in the popular media, is a profound illustration of how even the risks of scientific innovations make it difficult for scientists, much less lay people, to engage in a coherent evaluation of how different risks may impact the future of…