Yesterday I chatted a bit with San Jose Mercury News columnist L.A. Chung. She called about a piece I'd posted in May, entitled Community in the Post-Newspaper Age. But it's difficult to trace our conversation to its start. Let's see...
Technically I emailed her first, sharing a blog-post I'd written about her commencement address to the students of San José State University's Department of Communication Studies. That evening Chung offered a thought-provoking call for students to consider how their arts and sciences contribute to the public sphere, and I wanted to share my thoughts about her speech.
Perhaps this dialogue began with her speech, the first such address among many that made me want to write something in response. And yet Chung herself was surely responding to a lifetime of her own encounters with people, from family to school to work, not to mention the countless letters she'd received as a columnist for the Merc. So, who started all this talk?
It seems that "we've" been talking about public life for much longer than the existence of this internet blog or that newspaper column. And for good reason. As our individual range of rights and freedoms continues to grow, paralleled by our expanding frontier of mobility, job opportunity, and lifestyle choices, the common sphere of meaningful, consequential interactions and shared responsibilities seems to shrink. One's expansion does not lead to another's collapse, though the relationship between frontier and sphere are intimately linked.
We wonder about the permeability, indeed the viability, of public life because more of us may more easily abandon it than ever before. Indeed I've created a blog-project called Why Do You Do That? because so many of us suffer quietly amid troubling encounters with strangers (and sometimes with friends) that offer no scripts for meaningful discourse. We may ply the public highways with bumper stickers that announce our political affiliations or our opinions on controversial issues, but we are generally not trained to speak, to debate, or to engage in dialogue about the things that bother or inspire us, at least not beyond slogans.
I thought about this when I picked up the phone yesterday, because I was scared. Chung emailed earlier and said that she'd call. I replied that I'd be happy to chat, but that my family was seeing a movie that evening, so time was short for a call. I wondered: was she unhappy with my blog post? Certainly I must have taken unintentional liberties with the recitation of her ideas. No hastily written essay can accurately express the complexities of a person's public oration. Perhaps, I wondered, she might continue the dialogue with a column pointing out my numerous errors in exploring the thinning tendrils that connect newspapers and their publics. My blog has been read by a few hundred folks. Her column is read by many, many more people. Like I said, I was scared.
Her first question, her first words: "What movie are you seeing?" Chung was simply continuing the dialogue from our email, which started with my blog, which began with her speech, which...
Turns out, Chung wanted to chat in a more immediate and vivid way than can be found in electronic media. She'd planned to mention my blog in her column, and she wanted to know me before quoting me. She also wanted to have a conversation about our conversation about public life. I think that's pretty cool. So today, inspired by her column about the need to express thanks to strangers, I write an extended thank-you-note to L.A. Chung, and to you. Thank you for expressing some interest in my blog.
It is, after all, a kindness whenever a stranger writes another stranger with warm appreciation or illuminating critique. It's a kindness when strangers talk to each other with a reverence reserved for friends. It's a kindness to say, in effect, "I recognize you. I know that you have something to say. And I care." It's this kind of random, unexpected encounter that affirms the possibility of public life. We still have our frontiers, the open road alone with no congestion. And yet it's nice to return downtown, even to the traffic of ideas. Amid the cacophony of honking horns and rude whistles, we still can discover the joyful noise of conversation.