Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Breath of Enlightenment in the Local

In the current Age of Social Media and Apps one needn’t travel far to be inundated with ideas. In fact, we don’t have to travel at all. With a simple tap on our iPad or smartphone we are able to access a constant--and sometimes overwhelming--feed of news and blogs. While it is no doubt convenient, it fails to allow for a true exchange and discussion of ideas and perspectives. Sure, you can post a comment adding to the other 1,572 keyboard orators. But how often do you receive a response? In the end, it is a one way street in which the reader becomes the receiver and, ultimately, debate and defense of thought are non-existent.

Of course, the dissemination of ideas, perspectives, philosophical and political viewpoints--local or national--hasn’t always been dictated by handheld gadgets and corporate news syndicates. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, into the Renaissance and finally toward the Enlightenment, the exchange of ideas took place in the coffeehouses of England, and the salons of France and Italy. People would gather in a public setting to debate and discuss--rationally--scientific and political matters of the day. Their aim was to entertain and, through exchange, to gain knowledge and perspective.

‘So people use to come together to just... talk?’

Yep. And there wasn’t a 60-inch hi-def, flat screen to save them from awkward silence. No 24-hour sports highlights providing the latest pariah to which we can express our mutual distaste.

The coffeehouses and salons of the Enlightenment have long since evolved and not necessarily for the better. The last time I sat in a coffeeshop was with my fiance. We were chatting about the devolution of the American middle class to which we both have thoughts but no firm or politically acceptable answer. I can assure you that our conversation was neither loud or intrusive. After all, in the wake of PRISM and other NSA scandals one can never be too careful. Regardless, those who were not distracted by the noise coming from their strategically placed earbuds seemed bothered by the idea that in the entire establishment there were two people engaging in conversation.

It seems that even the public sphere is giving way to a sort of self-imposed censorship.

However, not all is lost and--if we look closely--we find that similar exchanges are happening in some of our own communities. Example? Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana, Illinois. The Center hosts ‘Krannert Uncorked’, a weekly wine tasting event held on Thursday evenings. What originated a decade ago has become, “...a vehicle for other special events, pairing with other campus and community partners so that they too can use the event to promote creative thinking and problem solving—celebrate the arts and gather diverse aspects of our collective together.”

In other words, ‘Krannert Uncorked’ is an event and forum through which cultural exchange--music, food, wine, ideas--is fostered and encouraged. And it brings together folks of varying ages and backgrounds living in the same community.

What could be better? In an age where people turn to one-way politically motivated news sources and social media for solutions, only to go about their daily lives more discouraged and distrusting, why not invest time and thought into true, mutual exchange?

Rather than criticize our local communities as “boring” and “backward” recognize that in them there is a breath of Enlightenment. Embrace it.Perhaps the answers aren’t found in 1400 Pennsylvania Ave or on Capitol Hill. Maybe Bill O’Reilly and Chris Matthews aren’t as savvy as we think. And maybe, just maybe, we common folks aren’t as inept as we are led to believe.

~Nick Stirrett