Thursday, January 11, 2018

CULTUREPLACES SALON: A SYNOPSIS





DRAFT
Rather than try to tackle complex national and international issues and institutions that affect the entire U.S. , we concentrate on place based trends and academic research that more directly affect our everyday experiences in our own neighborhoods, workplaces, and other closer connections.

Though they will overlap with certain national and global phenomena, we seek to grapple with ideas that stem from and have immediate implications for our personal ties.  We deal with those grassroots issues where we--rather than activists, advocates or interest groups, think tankers, or politicians--have some control and where we can make a difference if armed with the kind of insights that emerge from our discussions.

We start from the premise that changing the body politic is becoming increasingly difficult for citizens of the 21st century in the way that the power structure was able to do at the start of the 20th century, when American Progressivism was imbued with a strong reformist optimism.  “I propose that we lead” declared Edward Adams in the paper delivered at the organizational dinner of the Commonwealth Club of California in 1907. That determination has long since been replaced by anger or apathy, cynicism or irony. Were it not otherwise, the Commonwealth Club would still be engaged in “public service” i.e. attempting through their long standing “Study Sections” to help shape California laws and regulations. Now only specialists attached to policy institutes and politicians’ offices can comprehend such complicated issues, not to mention the power of money.

This more decentralized, small scale approach puts aside debates over broad public policy matters such as “the media”, health care, diplomacy, climate change, and immigration policies that require a level of expertise that defeats all but most determined policy wonk.  Or they happen in our everyday interactions but devolve into heated declarations.

That said, however, certain patterns of behavior associated with racial, gender, and employment relations, for instance, which have a universal dimension, affecting human activity well beyond our individual situations, obviously have strong influence over our own daily lives. Insofar as these human tendencies can be directed or “debugged”, in Steven Pinker’s word, by individuals and smaller groups, they deserve to be examined as they are manifested in particular contexts which we call CulturePlaces.

By culture we mean the normative order, grounded and manifested in specific places, explained by the behavioral sciences, and illuminated and animated by the arts and humanities, which allows us to comprehend ourselves, others, and the world around us, and through which we order our experience.  We probe the Human Condition with an emphasis on societal trends and artistic expressions that manifest themselves in our own experience and provide texture and  insight. In short, culture is shared meaning.


For places of culture to be more than divertissements, they must be pertinent to the formation of our values and bonds of associational life, what has come to be referred to among researchers as “social capital”. CulturePlaces are critical to forming our character and capacities, providing us with significance and purpose, and for addressing the many challenges we face.    Observations that we accumulate not through “knowing more and more about less and less,” but just by living a cosmopolitan life in the Bay Area equip us to form opinions that deserve to be examined by others who share an interest in the deeper meaning of events and related information.

We emphasize dialogue among participants of our salon not lectures or panel exchanges. As the great polymath Sir David McKay wrote in his book on sustainable energy Without Hot Air,  "Convictions are stronger if they are self generated, rather than taught"  

Rafting the Cultural Currents of the New Millennium


"To enter the current of this poem is to hurtle downstream through history on a flood of eloquent and passionate language that is in turn philosophic, satiric, tender, angry, ironic, sensuous, and, above all, elegiac.”
  -Helen Vendler on “A Treatise on Poetry” by Czeslaw Milosz


“Our culture evolves around acquisition of material goods, and that turns out to be a pretty dissatisfying pursuit. It is very important for people to have meaning and purpose in their lives and connection to other humans.”
-Dr Dan Shapiro who defeated cancer and counsels other patients, in conversation with Jane Brody, New York Times

Clearly, one’s genes as well as class, gender, age, race, sexual orientation and the numerous other distinctions that seem so wrapped up in identity politics these days, educated adults want to grapple with the ideas that are shaped by these associations but are not bound by them. The CulturePlaces Salon provides more opportunities to compare views on the ramifications of the changing social landscape constrained or enhanced by biological influences. (Nurture/nature)

We believe that the meaning and implications of our experiences emerge through discourse, not absorbing more information. All that is required is a curious and probing mind and the capacity for dialogue (attributes that are too often missing in conversations around the water cooler or at the dinner table). And while we may wrestle with weighty matters that can ignite strong emotions, we want to be able to treat them playfully and with a disinterested passion for clarity that avoids partisanship, ad hominem arguments, grandstanding, or axe grinding.  Such a mental exercise produces pleasure and reduces the pain of confusion and discord that too many conversations can devolve into.

Image result for round table discussions
This conversational skill is not easily acquired. CulturePlaces Salonistas have demonstrated that they have the wherewithal to participate in our roundtables

For a few of our discussion programs, we invite someone, often an advocate or practitioner involved in some aspect of an issue, to join us as a resource person. This individual does not give a presentation, like a TED Talk, looking down on the audience as the "sage on the stage", but instead offers some preliminary remarks to launch our exploration and then serves as a kind of “river guide” to keep the discussion on course.

In most other get-togethers we utilize an author's talk,  movie, play, article, podcast or video found on the Internet to spark our discussions. TED itself has finally launched TEDxSalons which allow attendees to discuss a TEDxTalk face to face.

Most of our conversations focus on mores and sanctions, common interests, mutual obligations , and how information transmission encourages or discourages collaboration and coordination between friends and strangers alike, i.e., ways to build social capital. Social capital is thus embodied within specific social settings that we call CulturePlaces.  A person’s social characteristics – from our education to the watch we wear –  reap both market and non-market returns (or losses) from relationships with others.

Whether an attribute of an individual or a group, the worth of social capital is increased by the number and depth of connections with others.  The value of those network connections depends upon the extent (both quality and quantity) of one's place in the larger society. However, a group of like minded friends represents the highest form of social capital and may require ignoring the mainstream in favor of an 'intentional community'

The Threat and Promise of Diversity


We accept the "incorrect" finding that more diverse groups can reduce civic engagement. In more heterogeneous communities, people participate less as measured by how they allocate their time, their money, their voting, and their willingness to take risks to help others.  Today, we notice how political differences have grown more acrimonious making good conversation even more elusive.


When interpersonal contact is high, people prefer to be with others like themselves.  With the exception of fraternal and religious organizations, both membership in groups and trust have declined, coinciding with increases in immigration and the rise of ethnic, racial, and gender distinctions. This decline in group membership is mostly explained by one variable: greater heterogeneity.

Social capital, then, is the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition – or in other words, to involvement in a close knit group.

One of the most prominent figures in this field, Harvard professor Robert Putnam, has described social capital as: “…features of social life – networks, norms, and trust – that enable participants ... to pursue shared objectives…" That said, however, we also accept that perspectives will vary. We expect and encourage differing opinions.  But there is a commonality of rules of engagement--ways of behaving in our discussions.  

History and Culture

A community, region or nation’s social capital is stable over time when one looks at the large regional differences in social capital across the USA today which tend to correspond fairly closely to the differences in social capital among the nations from which the ancestors of today’s Americans came.

For example, the area around Minneapolis and St. Paul – the area of highest social capital in the USA – was populated with Scandinavians. Something has persisted over more than five generations, and separated by 1,000s of miles and different political structures, to explain why both the residents of Minnesota and the Scandinavian nations today remain so connected and trusting.

Ethnic and Social Heterogeneity


There is considerable evidence that social and ethnic heterogeneity is associated with lower levels of social capital, not only between groups but within them. Data suggest that this may be one of the most powerful explanations of local and regional variations in social capital.

This controversial finding is difficult to interpret. After all, the bridging between groups that eventually reduces long-term conflict cannot easily occur if we lack empathy. What really needs to be established is what factors facilitate the growth of social capital in contexts where the starting point is characterized by strong ethnic and social fissures but which hold out the possibility of an enriched community.  In other words, how do we go beyond "Trumpism".


In our programs, we are on the lookout for ways that different groups have built those bridges, however fragile… So one of our goals is to encourage more participation of those who may have been kept at the fringes but possess the educated qualities that would enhance our dialogues.

An Example of one salon

Philosophytalk-122811
Throughout human history, people have tended to live and die in the same place, or at least the same region, in which they're born. Place is an important part of one's identity.

But what happens when people are deprived of this sense of place? What psychological effects do immigrants, exiles, and expatriates endure? What happens to the importance of place when community membership can be based on common interests among people linked by email and facebook? Do we risk losing an important part of human life? Or do we gain freedom from the lottery of birth and assimilate into an unfamiliar environment.

Mukherjee_author_photo

Recently, we joined Philosophy Talk's John and Ken, philosophers at Stanford, whose guest was India born UC Berkeley English Professor Bharati Mukherjee, author of Miss New India and other novels exploring migration, alienation, and identity.

Afterwards, we walked over to the Jupiter restaurant for THE MAIN EVENT--our discussion--accompanied by pizza  (voted best in the East Bay) and a brewski.  We broke into smaller groups so all could participate and hear each other.  The ethnic and racial diversity were both irrelevant and advantageous for enhancing our discussion because of a diversity of experience.





Addendum:  Pairing Wine and Wisdom
On more that several occasions we have combined our discussion with the rating and ranking of a select group of wines, resembling a co-ed ancient Greek symposium without the inebriation.  Click on this link for a description of a vino taste-off and conversation focusing on a presentation by SF Chronicle's architecture critic John King













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