Have we crowned ourselves the most democratic and connected generation preemptively? In conversation with Alec Baldwin on WNYC Radio podcast series, Here’s the Thing, Lewis Lapham, founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and former editor of Harper’s Magazine explains two of the reasons why he got into journalism. The first had to do with concision and writing on deadline, but the second reason is more surprising: to learn about democratic values. Lapham, a product of the affluent and privileged San Francisco society of the late 1940s relates how this played for him:
“It mattered that you could speak well, that you were adroit, also that you liked people. My sense of most of the politicians I’ve known have been that they have genuine liking for their fellow human beings [...] You see, a democratic society is held together by mutual feeling and respect for one’s fellow citizen. I hold my fellow citizen in thoughtful regard, not because he is beautiful or rich or famous, but because he is my fellow citizen. [...] The kind of a society that gathers around a court, the kind of society that you would see in the court of either Elizabeth I or Louis XIV—a court society is one where it is all about interest, it is all about hanging in the trapeze of one’s connections; it’s very, very cold.”
This resonates quite well with Michael J. Sandel’s thesis in his book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Sandel’s critique is that the metaphor of the marketplace has made its way into almost all aspects of civic life. He calls it ‘market triumphalism,’ stating that we’ve gone from having a market economy, to being a market society. But what are the kinds of attitudes and values that should govern aspects of life, ranging from health to education to citizenship or, in Lapham’s words ‘democratic life’? How can we debate on what it is that we agree on in terms of civic values, if we don't spend time with one another? Last August, Sandel expanded on this in conversation with John Hockenberry on The Takeaway:
"Take the example of the purpose of the public school. We sometimes think that the purpose of a public school is to make sure that regardless of income or wealth, every child has an opportunity for education. And that is a very important reason, but there is a further reason, a further ideal, behind the whole idea of the common school. That is, to cultivate a common citizenship. To bring young people from different walks of life, different social backgrounds, together in a common place to contend with one another, to learn from one another, to bump up against one another. My greatest fear about the market society that we are becoming, is that the more money matters, the more commonality can be eroded. Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that men and women from different backgrounds, different walks of life, encounter one another in the ordinary course of life and bump up against one another. The more we are segmented by economic class, I call it the ‘Skyboxification of American Life’, the affluent retreat to skyboxes. Even going to a baseball game isn’t the same shared civic experience that it was, when CEOs and mailroom clerks sat side-by-side in a baseball stadium. That, I think, is what’s really at stake. We need to re-create the civic infrastructure of a shared democratic life. That means figuring out where markets belong, and where they should be reined-in and give way to other values."