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.

Courtesy of Linda Pollack
A group gathered Feb. 24 at the Habeas Lounge in New York to talk with financial historian Robert Wright of New York University about the lessons from past financial bubbles.

The former flower shop in New York’s financial district is empty except for a red oval couch.

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.

Ms. Pollack, the artist who designed the Habeas Lounge with the support of Brookfield Properties, which owns the shop, became concerned back in 2002 about the increasingly apparent dearth of civilized conversation. She created an exhibition called “The Daily Constitution,” which set up sites in Los Angeles and New York to discuss the US Constitution. She got the idea from her work in the 1990s at the European Cultural Foundation in The Netherlands, where she was involved with efforts to bring a dialogue between warring factions in the former Yugoslavia.

“I got used to seeing really innovative projects set up to be an antidote to the fear and breakdown of dialogue in ... Yugoslavia,” she says. “When I felt intuitively the same type of climate was taking over in my own country – post-9/11 there was a similar kind of shutdown of dialogue here – I wanted to do something.”

A deliberate effort to spark deliberation
As Pollack was planning her opening last month, representatives from dozens of public-policy institutes were meeting in Ohio about how to spawn similar public discussions about the economic crisis. The meeting was organized by the Kettering Foundation, which has been working to foster thoughtful dialogues about difficult issues since the early 1990s.

“Twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t even find the word ‘deliberation’ outside of communications departments. Now there are national associations to promote dialogue and deliberations,” says David Mathews, president and CEO of the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio.

One such group is the Center for Civic Participation at the Maricopa Community Colleges in Tempe, Ariz. Alberto Olivas, its director, attended the Kettering meeting. People are yearning, he says, for a substantive discussion of issues that breaks the mold of Democrat versus Republican or liberal versus conservative.

“We tend to be presented with policy issues as if they were black or white issues that you’re either for or against. But people intrinsically know that it’s never as simple as ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ [that the problems are] very complex and the solutions have to be, too,” says Professor Olivas. The prevailing political culture of recent years, he adds, has created an atmosphere that leads many to believe that if someone doesn’t agree with them they are “either stupid or evil.” This trend is beginning to run its course, he suggests. “More and more people are tired of having their communities broken into polarized camps.”

Olivas and others who study public dialogue agree that politics can bring up strong emotions. While Mr. Mathews says he is “unreserved in my enthusiasm for civility,” he also cautions that it’s important to acknowledge those emotions. Experience has taught him that it’s better to try to “work through those emotions, not to try to make them disappear ... or gloss over them.”

The Kettering Foundation publishes books about thorny issues such as education and healthcare, which are used by community organizations, schools, local churches, even some prison systems as foundations for discussions about the difficulties inherent in decisions the public and policymakers have to make.

Mathews says Kettering’s goal is to go one step beyond debating the issues. “What we try to do is recognize the tensions: It’s not [about] what people want [to do], but what they will do when push comes to shove.”

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