Back Issue Volume 15 | Nos 3-4 
Public Opinion/Political Myth

Public Opinion: Bringing the Media Back In | Jeffrey Friedman

Guizot's Elitist Theory of Representative Government | Aurelian Craiutu

Abstract: In nineteenth-century Europe, democracy was not embraced with the same enthusiasm it now enjoys. Conservative critics questioned central democratic normative principles, while liberals tried to correct the limitations of actual democratic practice. While accepting the inevitability of democracy, nineteenth-century liberals often resisted the idea that universal suffrage guaranteed the wisdom of the people's choices. Nothing better illustrates this difficult apprenticeship of democracy than the writings of Francois Guizot, whose political thought focuses on the relationship between liberalism and democracy.

Bentham, Kant, And the Right to Communicate | Slavko Splichal

Abstract: Bentham favored a free press as an instrument of public control of the state, in the interest of the general happiness. Kant favored free public discussion as an instrument for the development and expression of autonomous rationality. But a free press embodied in the property rights of the owners of the press may well fail to achieve either Benthamite or Kantian goals. Such goals lead to a personal right to communicate rather than to a corporate right to press freedom.

Is the Public's Ignorance of Politics Trivial? | Stephen Earl Bennett

Abstract: Examination of a comprehensive database of political knowledge, constructed from pooled 1988 and 1992 National Election Studies, refutes criticisms that have sometimes been lodged against standard tests that seem to reveal profound levels of public ignorance. Although most people know something about politics, the typical citizen is poorly informed, and only a small group is very knowledgeable about politics. Differentiating people according to their perceptions of the most important national problem does not reveal pockets of well-informed "issue publics" among the electorate. The NES data also show that knowledge makes a difference in how people feel about government spending for social-welfare programs, and in how well citizens were able to connect their partisanship and ideological proclivities to their votes in the 2000 presidential election.

In Praise of Ignorance | L. L. Farrar, Jr.

Abstract: Ignorance is essential to life as we know it. Foreknowledge of the future would preclude choice, responsibility, individuality--even history. True knowledge of the past would obviate historiography. Without human ignorance of God's larger plan, His omnipotence and benevolence would not make sense, given the evils of the world. Full knowledge is the enemy of both intimate and impersonal relationships; for that matter, even less important personal decisions are made in ignorance. Military strategy and natural science both depend on ignorance, as do the law and politics--especially inasmuch as the latter requires myths that divide the world into good and evil forces.

Appeals to Authority in Journalism | Alexandra Kitty

Abstract: More than most information-gathering professions, journalism depends on authorities as legitimate sources of information. Ironically, the journalistic appeal to authority is used to bolster the credibility of a reporter's story, even though the substitution of authoritative pronouncements for first-hand investigation makes reporters vulnerable to hoaxes and bias.

Feyerabend's Democratic Critique of Expertise | Evan M. Selinger

Abstract: Paul Feyerabend is famous for presenting a scathing indictment of modern experts as a threat to democracy. While commentators have questioned the accuracy of his portrayal of experts, they have not assessed the accuracy of his depiction of laypeople. Although Feyerabend has political reasons for wanting to demythologize grandiose notions of expertise, his political project hinders clear thinking about the question by idealizing the alternative lay perspective.

Expertise and Public Ignorance | Evan M. Selinger

Abstract: Recent sociological/philosophical treatments of expertise, best represented by the work of Steve Fuller, attempt to (1) reduce displays of expertise to sophistic exercises of discretionary power, and (2) refute the claim that because laypeople are epistemically inferior to experts, it is rational to defer to an expert's opinion rather than making up one's own mind. But upon inspection, Fuller fails to provide reasonable grounds for liberating laypeople from the tyranny of cognitive authoritarianism. Rather, he presents a patronizing description of the expert-lay relation, one that actually makes the public seem more ignorant than is warranted.

The Titanic and the Art of Myth | Stephen Cox

Abstract: The myths engendered by the Titanic disaster suggest the essentially literary character of myths, the importance of individuals in their creation and consumption, the frequent insistence of their consumers on literal-historical truth, and thus the importance of discerning whether, and why, the creators of a myth distort the truth. The myth of the Titanic should be understood as a literal-historical myth with an especially strong literary character and claim to truth; a myth whose interest has not been exhausted by time because it raises perennial existential issues, and more superficially because it reflects the widespread assumption that disaster is readily avoidable and can be explained only by reference to stupidity or malfeasance.

Film as Religious Experience: Myths and Models in Mass Entertainment | Alison Niemi

Abstract: Popular film has become a significant venue for meaning-making in modern society. Like religion, film provides models for understanding and behaving within the social world. Like religion, film reinforces this content through emotional resonance. Myths slip under a viewer's intellectual defenses in the non-threatening guise of entertainment. In a mainstream culture skeptical of religion, film presents an alternative mechanism for the transmission and processing of "religious" ideas and ideals.

Ernst Cassirer's Theory of Myth | Peter Savodnik

Abstract: Ernst Cassirer viewed mythical thinking as a first step in our mental representation of the real world, but only a first step. What myth leaves out are the differentiations that lead eventually to science. To the primitive, mythically inclined mind, the world is an undifferentiated whole, the elements of which--including the mind itself--are thought to be concrete and interconnected. This means that there is no distinction between observer and observed, and that the observer sees the representations with which she constructs her picture of reality as direct apprehensions of reality, unmediated by any sensory or cognitive categories. Far as that way of thinking may seem from the modern mindset, we have only to examine commonplace political ideas to find evidence of the implicit assumption of an unmediated connection between the wishes of poltical agents and the results they intend to achieve.

D'Alembert's Dream and the Utility of the Humanities | Edward Hundert

Abstract: D'Alembert's Preliminary Discourse, a once-influential eighteenth-century consideration of the utility of the humanities, is relevant to contemporary concerns about the declining importance of humanistic education. A sympathetic appraisal of d'Alembert's critique of humanistic erudition as largely useless can serve as a starting point for reconceiving of the humanities as studies that help train the professionals who administer the institutions of modern society to better understand their own commitments.