Let’s talk, with civility, about the stinker economy
How to fix it is a topic of rancorous debate. Some set out to improve the conversation.
The former flower shop in New York’s financial district is empty except for a red oval couch.Skip to next paragraph
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Artist Linda Pollack designed the couch so that people can sit, facing one another, to talk about the financial crisis. She calls this space the Habeas Lounge, and her hope is that it will become a salon for public discourse – a place where anyone can stop in to share their thoughts about the economy, join a reading group focused on Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations,” or listen to lectures from guest experts (extra seating to be provided!).
Ms. Pollack’s endeavor – part public service and part art project – is one small effort among many to try to move America past harsh polemics and partisan squabbling and toward a more civil debate in the public square.
There are some signs that more people would welcome that shift. One is Barack Obama’s grass-roots campaign network that used the Internet to organize issue-oriented house parties and neighborly discussions about the highly charged issues of the day.
Another is the rising number of organizations – academic, Internet-based, community-oriented, and nonprofit – dedicated to helping Americans foster consensus about difficult issues of the day. They include groups like America Speaks and the National Issues Forums, as well as more than 100 public-policy institutes that have taken on the challenge of improving the way people talk to one another about difficult issues.
“It’s part of a small but growing national movement that reflects a desire to come together as a community and talk about the important issues of the day,” says David Procter, director of the Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy at Kansas State University in Manhattan. “People know when dialogue is an attack – partisan and ideological – and they’re tired of it and they’re looking for an alternative.”
‘Just throwing around opinions’
Jerry Kocka, a banker in Manhattan, is one such person. While on his lunch break recently, he saw the red couch through the shop window and wandered into the Habeas Lounge in the concourse of One New York Plaza. An art aficionado, Mr. Kocka says he’s pleased to see this vacant shop turned into a public art project dedicated to dialogue.
“It’s a dying art,” he says of public discourse. “People don’t actually have conversations anymore. People just have talking points. They say, ‘I have an opinion, and you listen to me,’ and the other person says, ‘This is my opinion.’ So they’re not actually exchanging ideas, they’re just throwing around opinions. It’s very rare you get a dialogue.”
While at the Habeas Lounge, Kocka looked through a stack of historic postcards that show New York’s financial district in its early years. They’re among artifacts here, including a letter penned by Alexander Hamilton when Wall Street crashed the first time in 1792. Like the oval couch, they are intended to spur informed and thoughtful conversations about the economy.