question of the weekend: Is a new intellectual culture taking shape in America?

In comments following last Saturday’s Question of the Weekend — “Is it okay to celebrate the death of an enemy?” — I got slammed for saying “Americans on the whole have never been a thoughtful, intellectual people.” There were many thoughtful commenters who criticized what I wrote and explained why I was wrong, but here’s just one, by Bluejay, that I want to specifically focus on:

You say there’s no ongoing broad discussion in the public sphere, but “the public sphere” today includes the Internet and Twitter, where such discussions do go on, and people tune in to what they want. In our fragmented media world where we can pick and choose our sources of information and entertainment, is there any media outlet that everyone is required to pay attention to? People don’t have to listen to NPR, or read the WSJ or the NY Times, or watch Colbert or Beck, or listen to Limbaugh, or watch network news or Fox or 60 Minutes, or browse DailyKos or Drudge or Firedoglake. But those voices are all out there. Anyone with a TV remote or a web browser or a cell phone can access all of these arguments and perspectives. I don’t see how we can make anyone pay attention to a perspective they’re not interested in, unless we all go back to three channels and Cronkite and Carson. But the choices are there.

Of course I am not in favor of forcing anyone to do anything they don’t want to do. But when forcing people to do something seems like it might be the only way to get citizens involved in their society, something is desperately wrong. Being a knowledgable, engaged member of one culture should not be a chore. It should not be something we ever have to remotely consider having to compel anyone to be. If we were educating children to be curious and rational, instead of educating them to be compliant robots who test well (and I’m not saying that that’s what all children end up being, just that that’s what the American educational system is trying to turn them into), we would end up with adults whom we would not need to be talking about forcing them to take an interest in what is going on with their nation. We wouldn’t need to go back to three channels and Cronkite and Carson… though I’m not sure it was limited options alone that made for a more engaged populace half a century ago. TVs have Off switches — no one was forcing anyone to watch Cronkite and Carson way back when.

But maybe I’m wrong about all of this. Earlier this week I came across a piece by David Rosen at AlterNet about the “new intellectual culture” that is sweeping the United States:

Something different has emerged over the last decade or so, one recalling the great era of salons that occurred during the early decades of the 20th century. This something new grows out of the coffee shop phenomenon commercialized by Starbucks and Peets. While superficially recalling the good-old coffee houses of the counterculture ‘60s, they lack the fun, live music or politics of the days gone by.

Nevertheless, these coffee shops established public spaces for strangers to get together and, more than anything else, to encourage flirting and casual hook-ups. Some of the more enterprising venues have pushed the boundaries of social commerce and welcomed, at off-hours, presentations by poets, writers and filmmakers in an effort to fill the venue and sell product.

Sensing the growing popularity of social gatherings, opportunistic entrepreneurs quickly jumped into the game. Meetup was the first, founded in 2001, and remains the leader; it got into politics backing Howard Dean’s failed 2004 presidential ambition. Other social facilitators include BigTent and GroupSpaces; however, online social networking capabilities offered through FaceBook, Twitter or Craigslist allow essentially everyone to convene a get-together.

For all the cautionary tales of cyber-stupidity and Internet solipsism spouted by media pundits, people in New York, San Francisco and other cities are attending intellectual get-togethers at unprecedented numbers. Yes, everyone feels overwhelmed, whether by mounting bills, political uncertainty or natural disasters. Yet, more and more people are drawn to public venues of discourse and conviviality to think, engage with others, flirt, organized political actions and add something meaningful to their lives. They are 21st century version of the classic salon, venues where ideas matter.

And it goes on and on.

What do you think? Is a new intellectual culture taking shape in America? If so, can it happen fast enough to save us?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD/QOTW, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTW sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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