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Democracy Café
A Fresh Taste of Philosophy and Politics
Category: Society & Culture
Location: SocratesCafe.com
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I'm the founder of Socrates Cafe -- see SocratesCafe.com -- and a noted author (Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy, The...

by Christopher...
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August 11, 2018 01:25 PM PDT

For a dozen years, twice a month there has been a Socrates Cafe gathering in beautiful Edinburgh, Scotland, where according to my mom part of our family genealogy extends.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with four of the group's close-knit devotees -- we even had a fun mini-Socrates Cafe, exploring a question that has never received a majority thumbs-up during their regular ongoing gathering.

Listen in to this insightful and informative podcast with long-time Edinburgh, Scotland Socrates Cafe participants Penny Ciancanelli, Jon Davey, Nancy Fraser, and Lorraine McCann, about why Socrates Cafe has been such a boon in this polarizing era.

And by the way, I had the pleasure of meeting some when I was there in 2008 giving presentations for my book 'Socrates in Love: Philosophy for Die-Hard Romantic' and holding dialogues. Here's a link to a feature article that was in Scotland's Sunday Herald about the Socrates Cafe and my visit:


And here's another article I came across about the Socrates Cafe there in The Times:

August 09, 2018 10:36 AM PDT

A thriving Socrates Cafe has taken hold in Gujurat, India. According to 31-year-old Mayuri Talia, a writer, student, mother of a 4-year-old, and the organizer of the Socrates Cafe, it is helping cultivate a more flourishing participatory democracy in her city, particularly for women, and forging new bonds of friendship among people who otherwise would not have had a chance to know one another. What's more, Mayuri is sure that Socrates Cafe will soon spread to other communities throughout India.

Participants at their Socrates Cafe, who hail from diverse walks of life and experiences, have explored questions like, What is an excellent marriage? What does it mean to have a successful and rewarding life? How do we best educate our children?

Mayuri says the Socrates Cafe has helped make the world, and her world, a smaller and more connected place, and that all who take part vastly improve their listening and observation skills, and that it has made them more understanding and less judgmental, even if and as they see things differently.

Listen in.

August 07, 2018 10:04 AM PDT

Peter Atwater, president of Financial Insights (financial-insights.com), has made it his bailiwick to understand how changes in confidence affect our preferences, decisions and actions. His acclaimed book 'Moods and Markets' gives investors keen insights about how they might improve their returns by using non-market indicators of confidence.

But now we are entering new territory -- an age of what Peter by turns describes as 'fanaticism', 'stridentness', and 'colornessness'. How might we invest in such times -- not only in the markets, but in our democracy itself?

Listen in as Peter, a fellow graduate of the College of William & Mary, where I first knew him way back in 1980 when he was resident advisor on the dormitory hall of none other than Jon Stewart of 'Daily Show' fame.

Hopefully you'll come away from this exchange with Peter, a popular commentator on programs like CNBC, with more tools to deal effectively on a number of fronts with these deeply uncertain times -- but also, surprisingly, you might emerge with some sense of optimism.

[Many thanks to our amazing engineer Odin Halvorson for working his magic on this podcast. Check out Odin's website at http://www.odinhalvorson.com/ ]

August 05, 2018 08:22 AM PDT

Of late, there has been been what I'd call almost an explosion of new or renewed interest in Socrates Cafe and Democracy Cafe, in the U.S. and around the globe.

Imagine my delight in receiving a message from a young woman in Seoul, Republic of Korea, to let me know that she'd inaugurated a Socrates Cafe there, after talking it over with one of her philosophy teachers.

"You’re kind of spreading philosophy to the common populace," 18-year-old June Seong tells me in this latest podcast.

"You’re making philosophy more tangible," she continues, "more accessible, more fun. I think that is incredibly important, especially for people my age."

June and her fellow 'Socratizers,' as I fondly call devotees of Socratic inquiry, are getting set to hold their next gathering, after exploring the beautiful and intriguing question, at their first Socrates Cafe, "What does Socrates stand for?"

A long-time aficionado of all things Socrates and Socratic exploration, June realizes keenly "the importance of questioning, the importance of listening, and corroborating with the other persons' points."

Listen in as June conveys why she believes such Socratic explorations are more needed, timely and relevant than ever,.

p.s: If you're interested, here are links to two of my four books that have been published in Korean:

Socrates in Love (what a lovely cover design):

Six Questions of Socrates:


Oh, and here is the Facebook link to the ongoing Socrates Cafe in Seoul:


August 02, 2018 10:41 AM PDT

Rivkah Sass is to me the ideal librarian -- imbued with creativity, curiosity, openness, social conscience, as well as an abiding, passionate sense of mission. Rivkah is determined to make the libraries in the Sacramento, CA, library system (the fourth largest in that vast state) the go-to place for reading, for inquiry, for belonging, indeed for human flourishing on sundry scales.

Rivkah, named by the Library Journal their Librarian of the Year in 2006, has been director of the Sacramento Public Library since 2009. Thanks to her, I had the great pleasure of holding a Constitution Cafe there in 2012 -- and can't wait to return this fall to convene a Democracy Cafe.

Rivkah believes libraries play a more vital role than ever in this era of our democracy: "Where we’re going now is we’re really embedding ourselves out in the community and looking externally and saying, 'What do people need, how can we be more inclusive? How can we help children who don’t have the advantage of going to robotics camp of having the experience of learning to code? What do the communities need and how can we address them?"

To that end, among many other crossover endeavors, her library system has been at the vanguard of implementing California's Voter's Choice Act; even though it doesn't fully take effect until 2020, Sacramento's libraries already have 10 voter service centers.

The revered and much-honored librarian's steadfast commitment to libraries and literacy extends far beyond the borders of Sacramento. Already Rivkah been twice to a Syrian refugee camp, and plans to return. "It’s been a remarkable experience," she shares. "They have libraries and I went to see if there’s anything i can do to help." To that end, she gave workshops on early childhood literacy, as well as ones with volunteer librarians who are themselves refugees.

Listen in to this inspiring and compelling give-and-take.

July 31, 2018 11:35 AM PDT

For nearly two decades, Dr. Richard Bernstein has had a thriving Socrates Cafe at the Ethical Culture Society in Teaneck, New Jersey. As he said in a New York Times feature about Socrates Cafe, "Everybody has to deal with ultimate questions about why we're here and what's a good life and what's the meaning of life given the inevitability of death. Most of the time there's not a clear forum for discussing things that are very philosophically important, to give one's life a better sense of meaning and clarity.'' Thanks to his vibran Socrates Cafe, diverse participants in the Teaneck area have now had that clear forum for years on end.

It was a joy to have a chance to pick the brain of this incredibly thoughtful and generous human being. Dr. Bernstein studied philosophy at Yale before going on to medical studies. His interests as a physician, as well as life itself, have a decided philosophical and existential dimension. In the tradition of William Carlos Williams, he is truly a doctor who cares about his patients in all dimensions, including "what it’s like to experience illness, how do we alleviate the suffering emotionally and socially that people have, and the isolation."

He wisely notes that "while we all play a role, it’s not a big one, and we have to just realize our limitations in terms of how long we’re here, but to nonetheless make a contribution that will have some lasting value to others even after we’re long forgotten as individuals." Dr. Bernstein speaks meaningfully about legacy: "We want to feel we have done something meaningful with our time, and defining what that is is something we all have to struggle with."

Listen in.

Here's the link to the NY Times article I mentioned: https://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/13/nyregion/in-person-socrates-new-disciple.html

Also be sure to have a look at this excellent essay of Dr. Bernstein's, "Lessons from Socrates Cafe":

July 18, 2018 02:04 PM PDT

Nearly every day of the week features an observance day of some sort. So I picked several out of the hat, threw down the gauntlet, and asked the peerless donor engagement expert Christopher McGown to work his magic in coming up with ways to connect our nonprofit Democracy Cafe (DemocracyCafe.org) with these observances.

Voila and hey presto, as we riffed together, Chris came up, on the spot, with an array ingenious pitches that deftly and convincingly link our nonprofit Democracy Cafe with such observances as Celebration of Senses Day, Color TV Day, Sunglasses Day, World Music Day -- this one he hit not just out of the park, but out of the planet -- among others.

I must have done something good in my life for the forces of the universe to connect me with Christopher McGown. He has made such a difference in helping us chart a more vibrant course for Democracy Cafe, as we seek to bring it to the next level. In this and many other ways, he has been more of a godsend than he can know -- so much so that if my wife and I ever have a boy, I may just well name him after Christopher (oh, I know, the cynics will say that happens to be my name too, but let's leave them to their wild and unsubstantiated speculations...)

And while, as is my wont, I debatably have taken too much to heart Chris's insightful blog post on mission-aligned observances -- the link to that fabulous post is on his website is at:
http://clmcgown.com/2018/01/15/befriend-the-calendar/ -- the fact is that there likely are far more observances that an astute nonprofit staff can deftly exploit, for sublime ends that help it further its mission, than might initially meet the eye.

Listen in as Christopher McGown demonstrates this so masterfully on our latest Democracy Cafe podcast.

June 30, 2018 02:19 PM PDT

Stewart Harris, law professor extraordinaire and host of the wildly popular syndicated public radio program and podcast, Your Weekly Constitutional, believes we all need to be steeped in our supreme law of the land.


Here's how Stewart eloquently puts it: "The Constitution doesn’t belong to lawyers or judges or politicians. It belongs to every American. And to the extent that it captures universal human values, it belongs to all of humanity. And so I think we all need to know about it."

"We can’t protect our rights if we don’t know what they are," Stewart asserts during our wide-ranging give and take. "So that’s the first stage in making sure that our constitution does endure -- simply reading it and understanding it."

Listen in. And then listen in to Stewart's own podcast, which you can easily access just by Googling 'Your Weekly Constitutional.'

June 18, 2018 12:22 PM PDT

What compellingly comes through in a give-and-take with Reverend Rob Schenck, author of the recently published 'Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister's Rediscovery of Faith, Hope and Love,' is his singular thoughtfulness and exceptional introspective capacity. Rob's is a quest for honesty, and of a sort that can be transformative both for self and society. Rob, president of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute in Washington, D.C., is committed to rigorous, thoughtful and unflinching self examination and inquiry of a kind sorely needed the world over, but American society in particular. I hope you are as moved to engage in some serious soul-searching after your encounter with Rob here in this podcast as I was. Listen in. And be sure to visit Rob's Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/pg/RevRobSchenck/photos/?ref=page_internal

May 29, 2018 11:08 AM PDT

Imagine you are a woman and live in a country in which you have no rights. None. Not the right to vote, nor even the right to drive a car (while that will change next month at long last, the government -- an absolute monarchy -- has arrested many who led the movement for this right). Imagine you love philosophy, but that you have to read philosophical works, including 'Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy,' secretively online, because it's forbidden.

Imagine you love exploring philosophical and political questions, and that you are so courageous enough to arrange a gathering with like-minded women, in a public place, to do just that, come what may.

That is what Jenan Abdullah has accomplished. Jenan, 21, is a dentistry student at a university in the city of Qatif. When she learned about Socrates Cafe and read our facilitators guide, she felt this was just the thing for her, and other women in Saudi Arabia, and she was inspired and determined to start one, even though it could put her at risk if the powers that be in the absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia discover what she is up to.

Jenan is the organizer of the first-ever Socrates Cafe for women in Saudi Arabia. All those who gathered with Jenan were strangers at the outset, but after they explored the questions 'What is freedom?' and 'Should abortion be allowed?' these diverse and thoughtful souls became fast friends -- and even though Jenan planned only to have a Socrates Cafe once a month, they now have pledged to convene it at least every other week.

It is thrilling and humbling that I have played some modest part in this, and that our Socrates Cafe endeavor over time might be a great force for positive social change (indeed upheaval). I talked with Jenan about her experiences and hopes and dreams, not just with Socrates Cafe, but for herself and for Saudi Arabia itself -- and how Socrates Cafe might prove to be part of an unstoppable force in making her country more open. Listen in.

(Apologies for the poor quality of the recording, but Jenan had to do this at an internet cafe with a weak signal. Also, I misunderstood one word she said -- I heard 'coverment,' thinking she was referring to the head scarves women there have to wear, when she was in fact referring to 'government'). I look forward to doing another podcast with Jenan, who has my boundless admiration, as well as with other participants in her ground-breaking gathering in the near future.

[Thanks as always to our volunteer engineer Odin Halvorson for working his magic splicing this together.]

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