The Enemy of the Public Good

At a recent Independent Sector conference, Sterling Speirn, the new president of the Kellogg Foundation, asked: “Who is the enemy of civic engagement?” I have an answer.

  1. The enemy is the various mechanisms for manipulation in public life that we have turned into a perverse science. Everyday we employ panoply of marketing and market-segmentation techniques that pin-point messages to different audiences and manipulate people’s fears. We use the techniques because we believe it is the way to WIN. But I believe these techniques are the enemy of the public good. They make our public discourse devoid of meaning and give rise to meaningless sound bites; they separate us into warring camps, rather than seek ways to build a common future.
  2. The enemy is the way in which we seek to monetize the public good at every turn in our society. Here’s one example: at a recent conference on aging, someone asked me and the other speakers if the government should provide tax credits or incentives to newly retiring baby boomers to entice them to volunteer and engage in community life. But equating engagement with money only cheapens the notion of engagement, and depletes the meaning that is created through our involvement. Not everything in our society merits a financial reward; and money can not be the answer to every challenge.
  3. The enemy is the mechanistic responses to civic and community challenges that we see across our nation. We falsely come to believe that if we have identified best practices, or employed the use of the Internet, or found new ways to scale up our efforts through quick and cheap replication, that somehow we have acted in the name of the public good. But in many instances nothing could be farther from the truth; our efforts can merely add up to empty activities and little change if we ignore the need for real strategy and the humanity that is vital to so many of our efforts.
  4. The enemy of the public good is the consumer mindset we have embraced in our nation, which tells us that we can get what we want, when we want it, at the highest quality value and at the lowest cost. We spend more time in the shopping mall than in the public square. But to be a consumer at every turn can result in the public good having meaning only when it serves our own interests. We must be more than consumers if we seek to imagine and act for the public good. We must see ourselves as citizens, too, and as part of something larger than ourselves.

Each and every day the path that is pursued in politics and public life diminishes the sense of possibility and hope that so many people seek – and that so many people need nowadays.

So, who will take on the enemy of the public good? In my last piece, I gave a clear response to that question: We will.

Change occurs when people of good will decide to step forward and give of themselves. It happens when we are able to see different ways to move ahead, different paths to take, a different vision to pursue.

Isn’t that what Rosa Parks came to symbolize in our nation? She found a different seat on that bus – a seat that required her to step forward in a different direction and with a different intent. She envisioned in her imagination a different outcome and, in doing so, she triggered ripples of change through her actions.

At the Independent Sector conference, Sterling Speirn was urging those of us in the audience – and people everywhere – to think more deeply about the obstacles that stand in the way of meaningful progress. He was right to do so.

The enemy of the public good is all around us; sometimes it is even within us. Let us use our energies to bring down the enemy of public good, rather than to feed it.