“The dining experience is becoming less sociable and more atomized, even as old conceptions of public life wear away,” as explored by Rebecca Spang, “Director of the Center for Eighteenth-Century Studies at Indiana University.” It’s a fascinating article, until the bad orange man caused her to politicize its conclusion.
When men and women heckle Trump administration figures in restaurants, they are trying to claim restaurants as part of the public sphere of confrontation, debate, and political action. When others respond negatively, they show that they’ve internalized the idea of restaurants as sites of private consumption. In a way, confrontations such as these are an exciting development—a challenge to the depoliticization of public, commercial spaces (and of commercial interactions) affected over much of the 19th and 20th centuries. They are also alarming, since one can imagine such protests leading to the disappearance of any putatively public spaces whatsoever.
As a leisure activity, going out to eat was always more or less about showing off, about making a public statement of private good taste. Why do it if you no longer care about others’ opinions or suspect their opinion may be that you are a fascist, communist, or other enemy of the public good? Wouldn’t it be so much simpler to order online?
Somehow, I don’t think she’d be equivocating between “exciting” and “alarming” if Obama or Clinton officials were attacked in public restaurants. And note this earlier passage:
In his essay “On Refinement in the Arts,” the philosopher and historian David Hume traced a similar logic, positing that improvements in production (what we today call the Industrial Revolution) and ideas (the Enlightenment) would necessarily spur greater sociability. What was good for one was good for all. “The more these refined arts advance,” Hume wrote, “the more sociable men become … enriched with science, and possessed of a fund of conversation … both sexes meet in an easy and sociable manner; and the tempers of men, as well as their behaviour, refine apace … Thus industry, knowledge, and humanity are linked together by an indissoluble chain.”
Since the death of Michael Kelly in 2003, who oversaw one of the very few remaining opinion magazines with both leftist and conservative authors sharing the same issue, the Atlantic has worked very hard to atomize the culture and break down cultural norms. Including this charming bon mot on the weekend of the death of the last president in office who had served in combat during WWII:
Classy — I can’t decide if Foer’s tweet is “refined” or “sociable.”