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Salons: A New Intellectual Culture is Taking Shape Throughout the Country

Amidst the long, drawn-out recovery from the Great Recession, an unprecedented flowering of intellectual life is underway.

Have you been to a salon? I don’t mean where you get a manicure or pedicure. Rather, a social venue where people gather to consider pressing social issues or compelling ideas?

Amidst the long, drawn-out recovery from the Great Recession, a new intellectual culture is taking shape throughout the country. While corporate executives bemoan the financial fate of newspaper, magazine and book publishing (to say nothing of the record and movie industries), an unprecedented flowering of intellectual life is underway. It signals a rebirth of ideas in America.

This new intellectual environment takes two principal forms, online and public. Online has gotten the most attention given the explosion of web publishing. While the Internet is cluttered with an infinity of garbage, it does provide invaluable access to versions of mainstream and alternative print outlets, innumerable web-only ventures and zillions of “self-published” commentary identified as personal websites, blogs, YouTube rants, Facebook postings and Tweets. The Internet is home to a new intellectual culture.

Less discussed are the efforts by people to reclaim public space for discussion and social engagement over ideas. America has long cultivated public venues that fostered social gatherings and intellectual discourse, whether libraries, “Ys,” fraternal meeting halls, labor unions, senior centers or local bookstores. They have welcomed Americans for decades and still draw loyal followers.

Something different has emerged over the last decade or so, one recalling the great era of salons that occurred during the early decades of the 20th century. This something new grows out of the coffee shop phenomenon commercialized by Starbucks and Peets. While superficially recalling the good-old coffee houses of the counterculture ‘60s, they lack the fun, live music or politics of the days gone by.

Nevertheless, these coffee shops established public spaces for strangers to get together and, more than anything else, to encourage flirting and casual hook-ups. Some of the more enterprising venues have pushed the boundaries of social commerce and welcomed, at off-hours, presentations by poets, writers and filmmakers in an effort to fill the venue and sell product.

More significant, Move-On incubated a decidedly self-conscious spirit of political discussion. Founded in 1998 by well-intentioned online activities, it played an invaluable role mobilizing grassroots support for Obama and the Democrats in the 2008 campaign. In 2010, it organized hundreds of “Rock the House (and Senate)” house parties. Obama’s effort to recapture his base for the 2012 election will likely revitalize MoveOn and its grassroots efforts.

At earlier gatherings, local Move-On affiliates welcomed groups of interested people to their homes or to public venues like arts or seniors center. These gatherings ranged from telephone-organizing drives, discussions of a pre-identified topic (e.g., healthcare, Congressional corruption) or the viewing and discussion of videos. Some draw only a dozen local activities, while others welcoming more than a hundred people, they fostered that informal camaraderie missing from large demonstrations.

Sensing the growing popularity of social gatherings, opportunistic entrepreneurs quickly jumped into the game. Meetup was the first, founded in 2001, and remains the leader; it got into politics backing Howard Dean’s failed 2004 presidential ambition. Other social facilitators include BigTent and GroupSpaces; however, online social networking capabilities offered through FaceBook, Twitter or Craigslist allow essentially everyone to convene a get-together.

For all the cautionary tales of cyber-stupidity and Internet solipsism spouted by media pundits, people in New York, San Francisco and other cities are attending intellectual get-togethers at unprecedented numbers. Yes, everyone feels overwhelmed, whether by mounting bills, political uncertainty or natural disasters. Yet, more and more people are drawn to public venues of discourse and conviviality to think, engage with others, flirt, organized political actions and add something meaningful to their lives. They are 21st century version of the classic salon, venues where ideas matter.

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