Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Today's coffee houses produce the public sphere, just as they did in the past

Coffee houses are where the public sphere was born.

This is the argument of Juergen Habermas, an eminent German sociologist. He feared that coffee houses today do not produce as much political argument as the coffee houses of the Golden age, the late 1600s in London.

I think coffee houses have always produced a public sphere, but little of it is directly about politics. This was as true then as now. More often the public discussion in coffee houses is about popular culture. And this is fine; the people should discuss popular culture–that's what makes it popular.

I believe Habermas is correct, though, that some people need to be talking about politics in the coffee house. Indeed, some people need to be organizing civic action in the coffee house and elsewhere. As I read Tocqueville, this is where he thought the voluntary associations would come from that make American democracy work.

Some think we are in dire times for civic engagement. They imagine a golden past when people were more involved in civic life. I think as many people are involved in civic life now as ever have been. The voluntary associations that make our society work have always been the job of minority. The coffee houses of today are as productive of the public sphere as they ever were.

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