Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Down Town Hall

As anti-healthcare protestors disrupt "town hall" meetings, I'm viewing the spectacle through my own research lenses this summer, since I've been thinking a lot about the rhetorics of town halls and how the town hall functions as both a public space and a site of architectures of control.

The modern town hall dates from the founding of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena in 1297. Inside the Palazzo Pubblico are fourteenth-century paintings of Ambrogio Lorensetti’s allegories of Good Government and Bad Government. The German critic Bazon Brock has argued that these paintings show how “it is precisely the many diverging opinions and interests of the citizens that fill a commune with life, provided the conflicting parties are all committed to law and justice.”

As civic organization has developed, the town hall has served as more than a site of potential political participation for the citizens who lived in its shadow. In the Early Modern period in England, the town hall represented the instantiation of political authority as well. According to historian Robert Titttler, the “requirements of political legitimacy and effective rule” were tied to “the structure, furnishings, use, and mystique” of the architecture of the town hall.

What is remarkable about the rhetorical function of the “town hall meeting” in the United States is that it often attempts to include urban dwellers and to represent the complexities of governance in cities, where direct democracy would seem to be impossible. Although the term suggests nostalgia for small town life, as early as 1951 LIFE photographer Thomas Mcavoy captured the drama of the packed theatre tiers of a Detroit town hall meeting where women with hats and furs joined male voters in the public airing of concerns.

A 1962 article in the New York Times describes a “valiant attempt to revive the ‘town hall meeting’ as a viable political force” when the Bronx’s Republican Borough President assembled 800 residents. The reporter described how some came “to air complaints, others to make suggestions, and a few to vent wrath.” This spectacle of democratic participation placed eighteen public servants from various city departments in a semi-circle on stage on “the receiving end” of the audience’s questions. All questions were to be answered, although those that were mailed in advance may have been given first priority.

One version of the “electronic town hall” was proposed by Amitai Etzioni in 1972. In an article in Policy Sciences, he argued that his Minerva system could be ready by 1985 to “allow masses of citizens to have discussions with each other, and which will enable them to reach group decisions without leaving their homes.” Etzioni claimed that his work would seek “to correct a loss brought about by modern mass society and heretofore considered beyond retrieve.” With the Minerva system he promised to restore “the kind of participatory democracy available to the members of small communities such as the Greek polis, New England towns, and Israeli Kibbutzim.”

In the 1992 election Ross Perot promoted the idea of an “electronic town hall.” Perot had been interested in staging one-hour public conversations to be followed by computerized voting since 1969. In response, TIME magazine dismissed the plan as “an illusion” similar to “the other trappings of direct techno-democracy.” "Mass electronic communication is really one-way communication, top-down." they insisted. According to the editors, "direct democracy is such a manipulatable sham that every two-bit Mussolini adopts it as his own. Pomp and plebiscites." They praised the "American experiment" as an "experiment in democratic indirectness" and asserted the value of "filtering institutions."

In 1935 America's Town Meeting of the Air opened its first radio broadcast with a town crier ringing a bell and calling out "Which way America -- Fascism, Socialism, Communism, or Democracy?" The show based its program on the work of the League for Political Education, which had been promoting citizen participation by sponsoring debates and other public events since the 1890s. George V. Denny introduced many of the elements of the town hall meeting of today: the use of questions from ordinary citizens, call-in participation from remote cities, and an emphasis on balance between the dominant political parties.

The "Town Hall" has now become a set of rhetorical conventions associated with contemporary campaigning, ever since Bill Clinton triumphed in a format that mimicked several elements of a popular TV genre in 1992: the afternoon women's talkshow. In a key moment during a town-hall-style debate, Clinton trounced opponent George H. W. Bush in responding to a question about how the recession might affect the candidates personally.

The classic Obama Town Hall emphasizes a kind of augmented reality, where screens call up remote citizens in front of their webcams or the character strings of text dropped into input windows usually used for personal updates. The multi-tasking president shows his ability to juggle multiple channels in a virtuouso performance of communication in which he simultaneously engages with those both here and elsewhere, occupying what Kazys Varnelis and Anne Friedberg have called the "networking of public space."

But these town halls have been harder to control, especially with right-wing organizations disseminating scripts on the Internet from groups like A frequent refrain at these meetings that shuts down discussion is chants of "One Nation Under God," which is not affiliated with this conservative website. As sites like indicate, the metaphor of the town hall has become associated politically with small government and traditional values. It's interesting to see the White House describing this activity as "chatter," a term that the previous administration associated with terrorist networks and far more purposive forms of communication.

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