President Obama's "town hall style" meeting with a group of students in Shanghai, China, on his recent Asia trip, has me thinking about public discussions and the public spaces in which they take place. And by the way, what's with "town hall style" meeting?
The ancient Greeks' ideal polis, or city-state, was small: no more people than could gather within the sound of one man's voice. The idea was that there would be one conversation.
What would the ancients have thought of public meetings commented on in real time, and to a certain extent subverted, by bloggers, tweeters, and texters? ("OMG! U hear that?!") It might have been enough to make Plato retreat to his cave.
The concept of one conversation to which everyone is a party lives on in the tradition of town meetings across New England. Plato and Socrates would probably get the gist of these, even without ancient Greek as one of the options on the translation headset menu. "Town meeting" is in this sense both an event and an entity – "Town meeting voted last month to repave Main Street."
There's town hall, the place. If you're driving the back roads of small-town New England, to see the town hall is to know you have arrived. The town hall on the village green communicates a sense of place that is the antithesis of Gertrude Stein's aperçu about the place where "there's no there there," originally a reference to Oakland, Calif.
But in many other places around the country, places with city halls and what we remember from ninth-grade civics class as "strong mayor" governments, "town hall" figures in the name of buildings housing not government functions but other public activities. They are often theaters and music halls. But as I've clicked around the Web, I see that many "town halls" are venues for lectures, debates, book talks, and such. They're not mere entertainment venues, in other words; they're temples of a sort of civic discourse that runs parallel to, and presumably informs, official channels.
In New England, civic purpose has sometimes overlapped with ecclesiastical use. Boston's Old South Meeting House was a house of worship. But during the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, it was often the site of gatherings too large for Faneuil Hall, then Boston's official "town hall."
The most famous of these, the meeting on Dec. 16, 1773, that launched the Boston Tea Party, drew more than 5,000 colonists. That number bears an interesting relationship to Plato's ideal number of citizens for a polis: 5,040.
The concept of "town hall meeting," a large gathering where citizens can ask questions of a political candidate, is traced to President Jimmy Carter, who ran for office in 1976 on promises to restore confidence in government on the part of a public weary of the excesses of Watergate. Last summer many members of Congress held "town hall meetings" to discuss pending healthcare legislation; some ended up wishing they hadn't.
Critical distinction: Town meetings make decisions. Town hall meetings are talking shops. This brings us to town-hall-style meetings. They're not official meetings in the first place. So why is the qualifier ("style") even needed? Double-hyphen phrases tend to lumber awkwardly through a sentence like a tandem-trailer truck rumbling through a picturesque village. It's the kind of thing that residents ask to have banned – at a town meeting.