11 August 2009

The Place of Democracy

A third place must be within walking distance from home, a place where one feels valued as more than a faceless consumer, where socializing, loitering and lingering are recognized as social assets, not commercial liabilities, where conversation and camaraderie prevail, where status and pretension have no place and where the hot political issues and the latest football scores gain equal attention.
Roberta Brandes Gratz, New York Times Book Review
A third place, as Ray Oldenberg defines it, may be a tavern or coffee house, a beauty parlor or general store, a diner or soda fountain. All these places where neighbors gather are essential to democratic society.

Instead we have today well planned and orchestrated "town hall" meetings that are fracturing as the disenfranchised--who want exactly the same thing as the most powerful lobbies in Washington DC--speak up out of turn, heckle, and yell, and generally create a disturbance. Ray Oldenberg, author of The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How they Get You Through the Day (1989), might suggest that the eruption of these protests stems from the same trends that gave us the mortgage crisis. Oldenberg's target is magadevelopment projects "promoted erroneously as community revitalizers" (Gratz). One thinks of Applebee's, billed as "your neighborhood bar and grill," and often planned as an integral piece of suburban development projects that "stifle democratic socializing and foster instead separation, isolation and alienation" (Gratz).


I have not read Oldenberg's book, but my memory of this book review has been stirred at least once every year in the past twenty years. Two weeks ago I found my old and tattered copy of "The Saloons of a Free People," New York Times Book Review (24 December 1989), 2. After writing about the taverns of graduate school and discussions of The Journal of John Woolman in a graduate seminar (see "The Greek Chorus"), I unpacked, sorted, and threw away almost the entire contents of an old file of miscellany left over from a rushed packing of things that seemed important at the time during a previous move. In that file were some notes from my reading of Woolman right next to this book review. I found the juxtaposition serendipitous.

The day I read that review remains clear in my mind. My siblings and I had gathered with our children and parents for the Christmas holiday at a time-share condo lent to my mother by one of her co-workers. The condo was on an island in south Puget Sound. We had been told to bring apples because the deer would eat them out of our hands. My youngest brother was able to get one deer to take the apple out of his mouth. I had to leave the gathering for a few hours on Christmas Eve to return my children to their mother in Seattle. On the return trip, I took the Bremerton Ferry back to the west side of the Sound. I recall feeling a sense of tranquility that night as the ferry pulled away from Seattle--tranquility was rare enough in the wake of my divorce to be memorable. On Christmas morning I enjoyed a quiet walk on the beach.

Perhaps this book review caught my eye because the coffee houses and taverns of graduate school were a little slice of paradise. They were not places of tranquility, but conflict. The conflict was much cherished and cemented me to my peers. We lived to argue politics and aesthetics, philosophy and current events. We watched the horrors of the San Francisco earthquake that fall on the television in The Cavern; there we argued about President Bush's invasion of Panama to depose Manuel Noriega, speculating about the significance of Bush's old CIA connections; and we continued our debates from the class where we read William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, selections from Cotton Mather's Magnalia, John Woolman's and Benjamin Franklin's autobiographies, the Declaration of Independence, and other seventeenth and eighteenth century texts.

After the holiday with my family, I met up with Daggy and Wang in Seattle's U-District for a two day drive south to San Francisco, where the three of us were joining thousands of history professors and graduate students at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. Because the United States was at war, I draped a US flag over the back seat of my Dodge Aries. This patriotic icon enlivened the discussions with Daggy (a German student studying here) and Wang (from China and hoping to remain in the US after graduate school). "I just don't understand you Americans and your flag," Daggy stated more than once.

I bought some books at the conference, and a bunch more when the spring semester started in January. The review of Oldenberg's book got filed away so I would not forget it. Yesterday, I finally ordered the book for $2 plus shipping from one of those megadiscount stores with warehouses in Seattle, Atlanta, Portland. The book may prove dated after these twenty years, but I plan to read The Great Good Place.

Un-American Activities
I think town hall meetings are as American as apple pie. ... They [protesters] had a right to express themselves. I wished that we'd have had a little bit more opportunity to discuss things before they started to boo. But they're all kind of performance art and they're all kind of opportunities of guerrilla theater to affect political issues and to make an impression, and I felt like it was a good discourse.
Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN), Quoted in "In the Crosshairs of Un-American Town Hall Protests"

Thanks to a poor choice of words by San Francisco's Representative in Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in USA Today, the focus of health care reform has degenerated into polls and pundits concerned with the merits of protest. FOX News host Greta Van Susteren led off her interview of Representative Cohen with a question that has nothing to do with health care. She asked about the protests rather than the bill. When he managed to squeeze in some comments regarding the substance of the bill, and the protesters objections to things that are not in it, she asked whether he had read the whole text. Then, she interrupted his answer.
There was an anti-government individual who is an activist who circulated petitions on the e-mail to encourage people to come and to be concerned about some of the myths, the ideas that Congress had opted out, which is not true, that abortion was part of this, which is not true, that there would be -- seniors would be hurt by a diminution in health care, which is not true, that there would be euthanasia, which is not true. But all these things were used to get people out and people came there with those things in mind. And that's what they wanted to cheer and jeer about.
Cohen, "Crosshairs"
Van Susteren asked about the text's length, whether the Congressman had read it, and seemed disappointed that he had. She shifted to his understanding--revealing her own difficulties with a complex bill--so she could interject her argument that laws should be simple and short.
You know, smart people can write things so the rest of us can understand it. And here's the problem. If it is so complicated, the people down the road who are going to have to implement it, you know, that's going to be even a bigger nightmare and they're not going to get it right unless you guys write a bill that's very plain and very easy to understand so we can all understand it. I actually believe you can if you want to.
Greta Van Susteren, "Crosshairs"
Cohen was prepared and hit back with another talking point of the Right: activist judges. If a bill eschews technical language, it empowers the courts to interpret the imprecision of simple language. That's not something Van Susteren and her colleagues at FOX News want to endorse.

That might be how it plays in coffee houses too.


Mark in Spokane said...

Great blog -- glad to see such comprhensive work being done. I think your project re: Zinn and the Patriot's History book is pretty good. I've got a copy of Patriot's History, and while I very much want to like the book, I find that I don't much care for it because I don't trust their research. You point out a couple of problems with their research -- I could give you several more. I much prefer Paul Johnson's book History of the American People for a pro-America history. I think his work is a much better balancer to Zinn's work overall.

I'll definitely give you a shout out over in my blog.


James Stripes said...

Thanks Mark. I agree that Johnson's work is better history than Schweikart and Allen. However, if Zinn's work is slanted to the point of grossly distorting the American past, pairing it with Johnson might be a tad unfair. As examples of distorted history because the narrative is driven by a presentist political perspective, Patriot's and People's match up well.

I am puzzled by your choice of terms to define Johnson's History of the American People as "pro-American history." Doesn't that imply Zinn's is un- or anti-American? Didn't you object to this language when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi used it to describe protesters?

I prefer the terms liberal and conservative, or left-wing and right-wing if I want a slightly pejorative connotation, to pro-American and anti-American.

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