Today’s Coffee House?

I’ve been reading a book called Abundance, which details the multiple breakthroughs that promise to eliminate poverty in the world–if we humans deploy them wisely. There’s a lot of interesting information, and stories of human ingenuity are encouraging.

An interesting observation was that the Enlightenment was a product of the coffee house. According to the author, the practice of gathering in coffee houses and exchanging points of view–debating, discussing, considering alternatives–sparked the development of new philosophies, new ways of engaging reality. That diversity of perspective is also what makes cities important generators of new ideas, new inventions–as the author points out, the density of urban life also requires that we encounter people with different ideas, backgrounds and points of view, and it is that “bubbling cauldron” that incubates progress.

Then, however, the author made a comparison that may be too optimistic. He sees the internet as an extension of the city–a vast coffee house where even the most rural or isolated individuals can encounter the diversity of ideas and opinions that characterize the human family. And theoretically, that’s true. Those who actually seek out new and different points of view can certainly find them on line, along with information (and disinformation) about virtually anything. But as Eli Pariser pointed out in The Filter Bubble, the internet is increasingly being used not to explore new ways of seeing, but to reinforce existing prejudices.

If we use our new, marvelous technologies to construct “bubbles”–comfortable realities within which we encounter only those who agree with us–we might just as well be back on the farm.

We live in a time when we have access to marvelous tools. The question is: will we use them to encounter and engage with each other, or to construct comfortable silos that wall off those who are different, those who make us uncomfortable?

Progress is rarely comfortable.


Facts, Law and Mike Delph

A friend who uses Twitter sent me a series of Tweets from Mike Delph today. Most railed against “activist” judges (beginning with Chief Justice Marshall’s decision in Marbury v. Madison) and the “elites that control them.” Others were–frankly–incomprehensible, not to mention ungrammatical. The one sentiment that came through loud and clear is that Delph is highly pissed off that the courts would dare strike down provisions of his pet legislation. (Putting this as politely as possible, if he has even a rudimentary grasp of the constitutional architecture, that grasp was not on display in these tweets.)

I thought about Delph’s war on immigrants when I read a recent article from the Atlantic.

The article was titled “Safety in Diversity: Why Crime is Down in America’s Cities.” A couple of relevant paragraphs will give its basic thrust, but the entire article is worth reading.

In the popular imagination, crime is frequently associated with big, densely populated cities. Here again, we can separate fact from myth.  Primary cities and older high-density suburbs exhibited the largest decreases in crime between 1990 and 2008, according to the Brookings study. And the gap between city and suburban violent crime narrowed in two-thirds of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas. Our own analysis turns up no association whatsoever between metro size or metro density and the overall level of crime, though we do find a modest correlation (.25) between density and violent crime.


It might be hard to wrap your mind around this–especially with all the demagoguery about immigration. But the numbers tell a different story than our alarmist pundits and politicians do. “Since 1990, all types of communities within the country’s largest metro areas have become more diverse,” Elizabeth Kneebone, one of the authors of the Brookings report, wrote in The New Republic. “Crime fell fastest in big cities and high-density suburbs that were poorer, more minority, and had higher crime rates to begin with. At the same time, all kinds of suburbs saw their share of poor, minority, and foreign-born residents increase. As suburbia diversified, crime rates fell.” Along with their entrepreneurial energy and their zeal to succeed, immigrants are good neighbors–cultural and economic factors that militate against criminal behavior, and not just in their own enclaves but in surrounding communities as well.

Don’t you just hate it when the facts smack you down?