Thinking big in the Big Apple
A report on the New York Salon's debate, 'Reflections on the Future'.
On a Friday night in New York, one might have thought there would be too much competition for a forum with the speculative title ‘Reflections on the Future: Thinking politically in the twenty-first century’. And yet on 30 September the 400-plus auditorium was already filled with 20 minutes to spare, and New York Salon members, who had organised the event in conjunction with local public radio station WNYC, were turning away over 100 disappointed punters. It was apparent that the Big Apple was in the mood for big ideas.
The speakers were three academic heavy-hitters, all justified contenders for the title of ‘public intellectual’: professors Richard Sennett and Russell Jacoby, and spikedregular, professor Frank Furedi. The chair was WNYC talkshow host, Brian Lehrer, whose morning slot, covering local, national and international politics, is a fixture in the routine of many New Yorkers. The audience was particularly well prepared for the event. In an unusual step, aimed at engendering maximum audience participation, the speakers had been asked to write short papers about the topic which were posted on WNYC’s website (and reprinted on Spiked (1)). Meanwhile Lehrer had interviewed Furedi on his show just the day before.
After a witty opening by Lehrer, reflecting on the cynical attitude often adopted toward utopian thinking throughout history, Jacoby opened for the speakers. He argued that the left had abandoned ideas in favour of pragmatic solutions, acting in the grip of a cult of activism. He suggested that, while a millionaire liberal was likely to start a charity distributing aid to the poor, a wealthy right-wing philanthropist was more likely to found a think-tank. For this reason, he claimed, the right was setting the agenda in US politics. Furthermore, he raised doubts about the assertion that political thought was in a perpetual decline. Citing US sociologist Daniel Bell’s influential book The End of Ideology, published in 1960 shortly before the explosion of US counter-culture, he remarked that history can ‘turn on a dime’.
Sennett, speaking next, stated that he would discuss a particularly big idea: capitalism. He drew on his extensive sociological studies to describe the dislocation that many workers experience in contemporary society, where the workplace encourages them to live without reference to the past, to form short-term professional and private relationships, and not to develop particular skills that might be pursued over a lifetime. People are missing the narratives, rooted in achievements of both the public and private sphere, which might previously have given their lives a sense of meaning. The current workplace, he noted, resembled nothing so much as a railway station. He argued that this shift was one ironic consequence of a drive against institutions championed by the radical left in the 1960s. Unfortunately, it had left one particular institution, the market, in control.
Furedi used his opening statement to develop some of the themes in his new book, Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right (2). He declared that the period of his youth had broadly been marked by a willingness to experiment with the political future. This contrasted with a contemporary mood of caution, where change was almost universally regarded as dangerous and experimentation problematic. He mocked those who express concerns about ‘letting the genie out of the bottle’. Human history, he stated, had always been precisely about letting the genie out of the bottle. He argued that caution led to an inability to think big, which afflicts both left and right – he dismissed Jacoby’s claim that the right dominated intellectual life, characterising it as just as opportunistic and incoherent as the left. A climate of caution also led people to accept and even welcome official intervention into the personal sphere, engendering a formalisation of interpersonal relations.
As the audience contributions probed the arguments, further differences emerged. In particular, Furedi and Sennett crossed swords about the most immediate problems facing society today. Sennett questioned Furedi as to which institutions he would trust in society, given his radical anti-authoritarianism. Surely, he opined, people needed some kind of protection from the arbitrary power of workplace hierarchies and the rigors of the market? Furedi replied that he was not against any bureaucracy (he was, for instance, in favour of technical administration of transport), just those that attempted to regulate individual behaviour.
Audience reaction was on the whole positive, but there was an element of frustration. Several contributors from the floor berated the panellists for not actually bringing big ideas to the event. ‘I came here to hear big ideas’ was a common refrain. This was interesting. It showed, on one level, that there is a popular thirst for idealism. Yet at the same time, the fact that people expected to be spoon-fed their utopianism suggested a passive relationship to ideas.
‘Reflections on the Future’ was supposed to be a starting point for a long discussion of the central themes: ‘where are we?’ and ‘where should we go?’. Some people seem more accustomed to being handed a finished product than being active participants in the development of new ideas, a situation that the New York Salon and its partners are out to change.
NIcholas Frayn is a writer and member of the New York Salon.
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