On Enlightened Cafés

What, then, of the Habermasian vision of the café as an arena of civil society, and of civil society as the foundation of enlightened societies? Certainly the café could be the foundation of emancipated life—that was why Agnon’s generation rushed there so ardently. But the study reveals a paradox of some poignancy: no matter how elaborately articulated, no matter how high its ceilings and how dignified its servers, civil society can’t protect cosmopolitan communities from assault when it happens. The café may have been a foundation, but it could never be a fortress. The most heartbreaking scenes in Pinsker’s book are from Warsaw, where much loved ghetto institutions like Café Sztuka stayed in business right up to the final expulsion of the Jews to Treblinka, in 1943. Singers sang and dancers danced, with the forbearance of easily bribed Germans, and while many condemned the frivolity (and the implicit collaboration with the Germans) of these last cafés, the writer Michel Mazor rightly praised their ‘continuous existence in a city which the Germans regarded as a cemetery—was it not, in a certain sense, the ghetto’s protest, its affirmation of the right to live?’

Adam Gopnik, “What Cafés Did for Liberalism” - .newyorker.com/magazine/2018/12/24/what-cafes-did-for-liberalism. “They were essential social institutions of political modernity—caffeinated pathways out of clan society and into a cosmopolitan world.”

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