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Lockdowns are coming back and blue-state authoritarians keep granting exemptions to their friends but not their struggling subjects. We all know the impact this has economically and on our dignity. But the hypocrisy of politicians and their buds enjoying lavish entertainment together despite their own restrictions opens a new gap: the social and intellectual stimulation of a public square is available to the few, but not to the masses.
I’m not in a situation to blow my savings at The French Laundry—“Maybe one day,” I sigh to myself. But what’s being withheld by not letting us go to The French Laundry or its more-affordable equivalents goes beyond just entertainment. But we don’t wine-and-dine only for the pleasure of it, and certainly not for survival. We often do so because it’s a manifestation of the public square—a place not in the home where ideas are exchanged, motivations are explained, and alliances are formed.
Restaurants themselves are an example of the exchange of ideas—our greatest chefs are great because they come up with culinary ideas that you would not have realized yourself. But that’s only a minor function of these public places. The great businesspeople of the distant or recent past didn’t invite potential partners they barely knew to their homes, nor to a Zoom call; they invited them out to lunch. The great writers as recently as the year 1 P.C. (Pre-COVID) didn’t just move from the living room to the kitchen when they had writer’s block. They went out to cafés, or bars, or the park, with the company of friends or strangers surrounding them. The public square is critical as a place of exchange, as neutral ground, as an entertainment venue, or as a place to clear your head from the repetition of the home.
So where is the public square in the Corona era? I’m in Chicago and I can’t find it. At the park? It’s 30 degrees out. At the bars and coffee shops? To-go only. At fancy restaurants that can provide tents and outdoor heating? I don’t have the kind of cash to do that every day. At your church’s meeting space? Forget about it. This complaint is being put to writing as I sit on a bakery’s freezing patio, and I don’t foresee that becoming a regular habit, either.
I know that not meeting is kind of the point. But social-distancing extremism is damaging not just our first-order health and prosperity. It chokes the zones where the exchange of ideas occurs, stunting the human innovation that makes us healthier and more prosperous as time goes on. It’s getting really hard to be an active-ish, social-ish person in a blue state, and as social and intellectual ties themselves are being criminalized, the rationale for staying is rapidly disappearing.Published in