The Public Health

struggles over the care of bodies private andpublic.

What has been most fascinating about the otherwise utterly scary town hall protests by radical right wingers around the U.S. (guns and swastikas anyone?) is that these protests point to a larger struggle going on currently in Obama’s America: the struggle over who will control representations of the American public.

It is odd, but somehow fitting, that this larger contest over representing the public is taking place through an issue that is most of all about the intimate and private dimensions of our lives: the health care of our bodies.

Central to the right wing’s goals when disrupting town hall meetings was not only to shift public debate itself, but also to recast perceptions of who the public was. Whether coordinated or spontaneous or both, these protests rippled through the mass media with a new representation of public opinion: of what “the people” of the republic, the citizens, us in the U.S., were thinking.

Being noisy, putting private bodies and voices into public forums (or what passes for them), was an effective way to re-represent whose political opinions were legitimate and worthy of explicit political representation, in other words of who the public was and what they desired. Right-wing protesters transformed what seems to be, demographically-speaking, a small fringe population into the population writ large: the people were speaking, their protests suggested as they circulated through the media, and this public was saying that they might have to water the tree of liberty with their “natural manure.”

The struggle over the representation of the public is largely a matter of scale and mode of expression: in a mass society, an effective roar by a few citizens can overwhelm quieter but more widely-held opinions. And, if you think about it, what do we think and want, anyway? Privately, I would wager, many Americans have quite complex and intricate attitudes, particularly when it comes to the issue of health care. So the individuals in the American public, and the concept of the public itself, are both very amorphous.

And yet, in a democracy, the public is an essential — perhaps even required — concept. Whether one argues that consent gets manufactured in this public, or that opinions can arise authentically from debate and discussion, in order for democracy to be democratic, it requires a public. This social body has to arise out of private citizens whose opinions, whether freely-formed or manipulatively forged, define what seems normal and right. More importantly, this public’s opinion,  its perceived beliefs and values, give ballast to the actions of the state. Without the public, in a sense, there is no democracy — even a questionably democratic one.

So the public and how it gets represented is very important. Maybe this is why the left as well as the right has been spending so much time exploring how it might function now in the age of the blogosphere. Could a new kind of public emerge from online interactions of opinion and information? What sort of public?

The health care debate is becoming a test, in a sense, of the left’s ability to represent the public that supported and elected Obama. The idea (always a distortion) that the left was a small group of “latte-drinking” liberals controlling the larger American public no longer holds in post-Obama America. But then, what sort of public replaces this representation by the right of the left over the last ten or twenty years?

Yesterday, we began to see that new, amorphous public coming into view. Progressives were able to pressure their representatives in the House into making the “public option” (interesting appearance of that word, in this case as a representation of the state) a non-negotiable item for the health care bill that might emerge in Congress. And Internet-savvy activists flooded television and other forms of media to represent the constituents of those House reps — which we might call “the public,” of course, that is demanding the “public option.”

It helps, too, that the mass media itself has had to respond to these changes in the public by representing progressive voices and bodies. A station such as MSNBC is doing this for commercial gain, but commerce, like politics, is rooted in perceptions of who the public is and what they want.

Was it any accident, then, that this dramatic change in perceptions of the public debating — and the public debate over —health care occurred the same week as Netroots Nation? Probably just a coincidence, but a telling one. “Changing the face of progressive politics,” which Netroots Nation declares as its slogan, has everything to do with putting a new face on the public: who is in it and what it desires.

It turns out the health care of individual bodies has everything to do with the care paid to the social body. We live and die by what we think the public is and want it wants.

1 thought on “The Public Health

  1. I particularly like this line from your post: “Right-wing protesters transformed what seems to be, demographically-speaking, a small fringe population into the population writ large.” And now I’ll go check out Netroots Nation. – TL

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