Tag Archives: civil society

The Disappearing Agora

For most of us, the agora is electronic rather than physical. We now meet mostly online, missing the shared ‘witnessing’ known to early democracies and even early television viewers.

The idea of a central meeting place goes hand-in-hand with the idea of democracy.  A location where leaders and citizens are can be heard and exchange ideas is an essential feature of a civil society. Of course it was one thing for the several hundred citizens of a young democracy like ancient Syracuse in the 5th century BC.  They would gather in an open space.  It’s quite another thing when the political unit is scaled up from a city-state to a nation spread over a continent.

The romance of a New England town meeting retains some of the aura of a simple agora.  We have sentimentalized the idea even in classic television programs like Newhart or the Gilmore Girls.  Yet there is still truth in the romance. Even if most of us live in larger cities, we can still interact with local leaders. And though most of us rarely exercise the opportunity, it can be empowering to put a municipal leader on notice with our grievances or occasional praise.

Living within political boundaries containing thousands or millions obviously changes how we can connect to each other.  With regard to the federal government, most of us have only known the quasi-agora of national television news. Growing up in the 50s, my family mostly used one of three choices for connecting with the rest of the country.  NBC, CBS and a weaker ABC beamed out seemingly urgent news, such as the 1969 landing on the moon.  Life paused in most Colorado households in time to catch early evening newscasts narrated by Walter Cronkite at CBS or David Brinkley at NBC.  The announced death of President Kennedy in 1963 came to most of the nation through the words of the venerable CBS anchor.

CBS News announces president’s death

Nov. 22, 1963: In an emotional moment, Walter Cronkite tells the world that President John F. Kennedy has died, half an hour after being shot in Dallas, Texas.

The agora is now clearly electronic not in real time. We now “meet” mostly online: a change from early live television, where limits on technology meant that Americans witnessed the same momentous events more or less at the same  time.

We need to be careful about citing digital “advances.” To be sure, chatter in the culture has never stopped.  We are engaged with others in an endless spectrum of online communities.  But in no sense should we consider Twitter or Instagram as comparable vehicles for meaningful public “discussion.”  If we need a comparison, the typical social media post more closely resembles a shout issued from a passing car.

At the same time, the idea of a common civic space has withered. Readership of the nation’s largest newspapers is in decline.  Reliable online news (much of it aggregated from the remaining national news outlets) occupies less of our time.  The resulting fragmentation of the nation into specific audiences means that it is less likely that Americans will pay attention to significant events, or even  the same informational sources. If you ask friends what they are watching on online or via networks such as CBS or Netflix, the odds are good that “their” programs are not what you are watching. Neil Postman had it at least half right: we are “amusing ourselves to death,” but now with ever more esoteric ‘narrowcasting’ that satisfies personal rather than national interests.

I see this most dramatically in younger Americans, who have not only lost the newspaper habit, but the news-seeking habit as well.  There are too many other choices that offer more immediate forms of gratification.  Add in the double-threat of disinformation efforts from sources ranging from this White House to the Kremlin, and we are ill-prepared to enter any kind of agora as informed citizens.

Of course a national disaster brings lots of us momentarily back to CNN, NBC or Fox news.  But many more of us stay in touch–if at all–through other online venues offering their own unique perspectives and agendas.  Given these changes, its little wonder that the congressional Agora envisioned by the founders of the republic is now dysfunctional.  No one looks to Congress for momentous debates on the issues of the day.  In structural terms, it has always run a poor second to parliamentary forms of government for hosting spirited legislative debate.  The mute Congress is a symptom of our problem, but our fragmenting media now also seem ill-equipped to bring us together to ponder great national issues.

American Dislocations

Chicago, 1968                                                The Washington Post

The current President produces a jarring and familiar sense of dislocation:  behavior rife with violated norms, intimations of collusion with shady figures, and shameless cronyism.

Was it always so?

Using the foreshortened perspective that looking back in time allows, its easy to see the United States as a civil society that is nearly always peering into the abyss of political crisis. These varied downturns are not quite existential threats; there’s usually no fear for the survival of the republic.  But as they unfold in real time, they can still seem overwhelming.

Was it always so?

As young people, our parents or grandparents stared down the gunbarrel of international catastrophe.  Eventually, America’s participation in the Second World War became heroic.  But the threat of a Nazi Europe  and a rising Japan left few untouched.  Germany’s bid for hegemony clearly failed, yet the eventual petition of western Europe at the hands of our former Soviet allies triggered new waves of governmental overreach.  Congress was at the center of anti-communist hysteria that chained out in fantasies of internal subversion. Throughout the 1950s, those who traded in such dystopian speculations were certain that Americans were not safe as long as the likes of Leonard Bernstein or Dalton Trumbo were loose in the Republic.  What would eventually become McCarthyism pushed America into bouts of anti-intellectual fervor that equals the magical thinking that now dominates our news.

In different ways it would be no less for ‘boomers’ like myself growing up in the 1960s. The proliferating spread of television put us in a front row seat for a stormy decade that would rob the nation of 58,000 American lives in Vietnam, a popular President and his brother, and the nation’s leading civil rights leader.  Racial tensions flared into open mayhem in Detroit, Los Angeles and other American cities. And within a year of the worst riots, the nation shamed a discredited Lyndon Johnson into declining to serve a second presidential term. The new heir to the office in 1968 was a moody Republican whose own devolution would be complete in the first years of the next decade.  Richard Nixon eventually resigned, impeached and disgraced. That was only a few years after the hot summer of political violence that culminated in a “police riot” and bloodshed at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. As a high school student living through the 60s in the sheltered heights of a mountain town, I can still recall a sinking feeling that the meltdowns of the decade amounted to a kind of second Civil War.

It seems like American politics is much like North American weather: brutish, prone to jarring changes, and sometimes lethal. Even so, it is interesting that Canadians living under the same meteorological forces seem more willing to forgo the kinds of tribal battles that routinely drain Americans of the natural optimism. Issues that easily cripple and harden Americans—health care, regional sovereignty, “fair” taxation—seem to be resolved with more grace and less drama by our northern neighbors. Is the fact that the nation never suffered through a crushing civil war a factor? Canada’s lesson for us is that nations not on the brink offer fewer psychological rewards to those who would make virulent opposition a lifelong occupation.

The challenge of nurturing a successful civil society is not just our battle to wage. In smaller and different ways some of the same issues exist in important nations in Europe. But it feels like we have the dubious distinction of constructing crises of our own making, putting ourselves at a disadvantage to find pathways of communication that can take away the strangeness of our neighbors.