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My daughters and I just watched a movie whose soundtrack featured the Tom Cochrane song “Life is a Highway”.  What an odious, and sadly telling, metaphor.

The complete lyrics aren’t of interest to me, just that metaphor.  What does it mean that life is (or should be) a highway?  What are the salient characteristics of highways?

Highways are designed for high-speed travel.  They themselves are not rife with destinations — attractions only slow people down — but are merely the means to get from one place to another.  So, if we say that “life is a highway”, we seem to be saying that life is (or should be) non-stop travel from one place to another.  We’re saying that life is constant escape from our current situation.  It is all novelty, lacking the intimacy that comes only with stability, regularity, and grappling with the familiar.

I think the highway’s main attraction — to those that romanticize it — is getting somewhere else.  It does not hold the same appeal to those who are happy where they are.  Romance with the highway is romance with with escape — which arises only with discontent, and which arises more frequently when people have no places worth staying in.  Our national love affair with motoring bespeaks the general worthlessness of our communities as places of durable happiness.

The street, on the other hand, is not the highway.  A good street is made for people, not for cars.  It is full of destinations.  It encourages dawdling and loitering.  It is full of human activity and things of human interest.  It is not a place to escape, but a place to build relationships and community.

Isn’t that what people should have a love affair with instead?

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I’ve just finished a book that leaves me troubled over the future of civic engagement in the United States — and puzzled over whether it’s even worth worrying about.

Cover for "The Big Sort" by Bill Bishop Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort: How the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008) has one central thesis: since the mid-1970s, Americans have been voluntarily sorting themselves, physically and socially, into like-minded communities.  Members of these communities have an increasingly difficult time reaching any consensus or common understanding with those of different opinion, and it has rendered our politics ever more rancorous and ineffective.

Exhibit “A” for Bishop is a pair of electoral maps, from 1976 and 2004, that break down the presidential popular votes for those years by county.  But, instead of two categories (Republican and Democrat), he uses three: (1) Republican landslide victory (20 or more percentage points), (2) Democratic landslide victory, and (3) competitive race (within 20 points).

On a national level, the popular vote was very evenly split in both elections.  But the big difference is that, in 1976, the United States was full of competitive counties.  In 2004, competitive counties were few and far between: almost every county was a place where the electorate was overwhelmingly of one opinion or another.

Not only that, but 2004 saw far fewer places with Democratic landslides than with Republican landslides.  Since the races were close on a national level, that means that those few places with Democratic landslides had a tremendous concentration of population.  Democrats, largely, have moved to the cities, while Republicans have moved to the suburbs, exurbs, and farmland.  (The pattern is ubiquitous, but not universal: in some places, Democrats prefer the suburbs.)

Bishop finds that we have segregated ourselves not only by counties, but by cities and even by neighborhoods.  And not only by place, but by churches and other civic organizations.  If we are, say, Methodists, we no longer simply attend our local Methodist church; instead, we drive to the gay-friendly (or gun-friendly) Methodist church across town, where we feel at home because the people are just like us.  Rather than belong to broad-based civic groups like the Loyal Order of Moose, we are far more likely to join issue-specific groups like the NRA or the ACLU — where we can find easy consensus and be uncompromising in our goals.

One positive side of this is that, among our groups of sameness, we’re much better able to agree on goals and work together to meet them.  With such a high degree of comfort, we’re able to make more strong connections with people.  The down side of this, of course, is that so many of the decisions our society has to make — on a city, county, state, or national level — involve working with groups not like us, and, if “they” are just as polarized and uncompromising on their principles as “we” are, then the lot of us will have not only a hard time agreeing on what actions to take, but a hard time just agreeing on what the basic issues are.

As Bishop points out, we usually don’t cluster ourselves this way out of some conscious desire to eliminate difference from our lives.  We do it because the community we’re considering moving to just “feels right” — maybe we like the wide, open spaces between people’s houses, or the bustle of activity in the downtown, or the availability of public transit, or the friendly people we meet.  It just turns out that, when we select a place for a good “feel”, we’re unconsciously selecting it for its politics.

I don’t know what to think about this.  On one hand, it saddens me, because it signals a collapse in the potential of civic discourse.  It heralds the extinction of a sense of the common good.  And that means, ultimately, a loss of cohesion in our states and in our country.

On the other hand, I want to live in a community where buses and light rail are valued, where people appreciate public space and civic art, and the vision of the good life includes meeting your neighbors regularly on the street.  As much as I love Fairbanks, I get tired of feeling like some kind of pervert for thinking private goods should carry a high premium when they infringe on public goods.  I get tired of the emotional struggle: God, do I have to tell these people again why the Steese-Johansen shopping complex is a civic monstrosity? I yearn to go someplace where they’ve already come around, where it’s easy — don’t we all?

Well, since Americans are so mobile, most of us really have that chance.  And what should stop us?  The sense of some abstract “greater good”?  That seems like a 300-million-player game of the prisoner’s dilemma: Maybe society will be better off if we all stay put and work out our differences, but, since everybody else is relocating, wouldn’t I be a sucker not to do the same?

Against the backdrop of mass migration and communities of increasing like-mindedness, what possible argument could you make to keep people where they are?  Why should they?

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A couple of days ago, I voiced a little suspicion about the many new “social software” devices and applications that make forming connections so easy.  Today I want to amend that.

I’m reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (New York: Penguin, 2008), an exploration of the ways new technology allows us to form groups without the conventional barriers of distance, resources, or management.  I suspected that, when people can make online connections that seem to satisfy their needs and that are low cost (in time and money), they will more often forgo local, face-to-face connections (and group activity) that have a higher cost in time and interpersonal friction.

Well, the very next thing I read from Here Comes Everybody was a chapter about Meetup.com, a name that should be familiar to anybody who followed the 2004 presidential bid of Howard Dean.

Inspired by Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), a modern classic on America’s loss of social capital, three men created an online tool to help people increase the number of their local connections.  They realized that people had difficulty making face-to-face, interpersonal connections in part because of suburbanization (greater distance) and the two-earner household norm (less time).  They assumed that people would not be content with new online “communities” — so they created Meetup.com.  It allows people to find others of similar interest locally.  People need only to sign up and enter a few interests, and they can see others of similar interest within a certain radius.  Once a Meetup group is established, Meetup.com can easily send e-mails to members about future meetings.

As Shirky points out, most groups fail: they never reach critical mass.  Fortunately, the ease of Meetup.com has made the transaction costs of trying to form new groups practically nil.  As a result, people make more attempts, and many find success.

There are currently 13 Meetup groups in Fairbanks.  The 74 Ron Paul supporters seem to be doing well, though I feel a little sorry for the two people in the singles group, especially for the one who attended last Saturday’s mixer.

I registered at Meetup.com with one of my interests and found that there’s someone else in the area with the same interest — unfortunately, his posted photo reminds me too much of the inappropriate yoga guy, so I’m a little wary of meeting him.  Shame on me for having such a prejudice: what’s called “bridging” social capital is built by spending time with people not of your in-group.  However, people will have prejudice — so why not just omit the stinking photo and give them a better chance to meet you?

Anyway, while there certainly are those who forgo the presence of flesh-and-blood human beings in order to spend more time “living” online, Shirky gives me hope that, for most people, such an existence isn’t enough.  Dispite their bizarrely strong streak of individualism, Fairbanksans seems to have a real propensity for civic engagement.  I have to believe that the new social software and tools will not isolate us, but bring us closer together.  We’re that kind of people.

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It finally got cold enough in Fairbanks — three degrees Fahrenheit this morning — that I decided to forego riding my bike to work and to take the bus instead. Truth be told, I don’t mind the cold or the dark so much as all the damned dressing and undressing. Lazy, I guess.

Riding the bus this morning gave me the pleasure of reading for twenty-five minutes on the way to work, something I haven’t done since April. (Readers may recall that I extolled this virtue of bus-ridership in June.) Right now I’m reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (New York: Penguin, 2008), in which the author considers the new kinds of social action made possible by computer (and specifically Internet) technology. For example, Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”, is minimally managed (though Shirky makes it clear that it is managed). Yet it amounts to an encyclopedia of vast scope and variety — and usually improving quality — because of the existence of countless volunteers whose contributions range from small to great, and who are motivated largely by good will. (Ego also plays a role.)

Shirky observes that political and social actions are easier to coordinate now because of the tools available. It’s not that the desire to form political and social groups was absent before, but potential participants were always constrained by the cost. “What cost?” you ask. Well, the cost of printing, for one. Before the printing press, anyone in the West who was not a scribe worked pretty much on a word-of-mouth basis. After the press’s invention, written knowledge could be spread much farther and much faster, but that power was still restricted to those who owned a press. Now, with e-mail, cell phones, text messaging, wikis, and blogs, transmission of information has become accessible to all. Not only that, but the previous publication model — even with e-mail — was “one to many” communication; that is, one person (or an organized collective) could push a message out to a single person or to the masses. Now, however, we have the chance for “many to many” communication: blogs and wikis allow a limitless number of people to contribute to a given conversation.

Another cost Shirky discusses is the time and human effort required for social action. Consider that, twenty years ago, if you saw an article in the newspaper you thought friends might be interested in and you wanted to share it, you would have to:

  1. possibly cut the article out,
  2. get to a photocopy machine and print enough copies to send to everyone,
  3. put each copy in an envelope, perhaps with an explanatory note (which you remembered to write ahead of time and copy also, right?),
  4. seal, stamp, and address each one, and
  5. drop the lot in a mailbox.

Then, if any of your friends wished to share the article, they would have to do the same. None of these steps is laborious, but together they amounted to enough work that most of the time we were inclined not to bother.

Today, most U.S. newspapers are online. Not only can their content be cut and pasted into an e-mail, but the newspapers themselves usually have gadgets already in place on the page to allow you to share the story in a number of ways. (The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner offers readers the chance to print the story, e-mail the story, leave comments about the story, and share the story with your choice of Digg, Delicious, Facebook, Mixx, Reddit, and StumbleUpon.) Or, you could just link to the story and post an excerpt on your blog.

Online tools exist not only to share information, but to organize participants into groups of common interest. While these tools still require managers at the head, middle managers — and they are legion in the face-to-face world — have been nearly cut out of online organizations. Collective action is much easier now, because the costs in equipment and time have been drastically reduced. If you wish to join a common-interest group, or if you wish to form one yourself, nothing is stopping you.

That’s where I wonder if there’s a dark side.

If nothing, not even time, stops you from joining or forming a new interest group — if all the costs have been removed — then what is the incentive to continue working with the existing, often difficult, community that you already have? Yes, yes, the incentive is supposed to be that you get some kind of reward from all your negotiation and all the time you’ve spent together. But how many of us regularly embrace something more difficult with more abstract benefits when we could have something less difficult that seems to meet our needs? For example, if sex were free, easy, and without consequence (as I believe most “free love” practitioners have found it is not), how many of us would embrace the more difficult task of building stable families?

If we are always perfectly free to choose those with whom we interact, or to create our own groups if our exact desires are not met, then aren’t we more likely to spend time with online “communities” that we could have spent working out difficulties in our local communities, in the face-to-face world?

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This post continues thoughts begun in “The people’s thing?” about three weeks ago.

(If you’re wondering where my fuller report is on the Vision Fairbanks public hearing before the FNSB Assembly, it’s coming.  This is now a little more timely.  And it’s what I feel like writing about today.)

As I said in “The people’s thing?”, there was a local candidate for office whose principles — according to his web page — have everything to do with individual liberty and with government creating a place where individuals can thrive, but nothing to do with community, common goals, shared fate, mutual obligation, or even duty.

This person is Schaeffer Cox.  He garnered over 37 percent of the vote in the Republican primary for House District 7 — not enough to unseat incumbent Mike Kelly, coming in at just under 50 percent.  While I don’t care for his opinions on the role of government in strengthening community or the insufficient attention he pays to mutual obligation and social justice, I bear him personally no ill will.  By all accounts, he is intelligent, accomplished for his age, well versed in the U.S. and Alaska constitutions, able to point to particular legislation he agrees or disagrees with and not just fall back on vague promises, and both ready and able to discuss politics at the drop of a hat.  While he was out-raised and out-spent by Kelly, he had twice as many individual donors, according to the News-Miner.  The fact that he made it so close to an elected office at the age of 24 is admirable.

After posting, I e-mailed Mr. Cox’s campaign and invited him either to reply directly on The Fairbanks Pedestrian or to address concerns of community and related issues in the “Principles” section of his website.  While he did neither of these, he did e-mail me a few days before the primary with (1) a reply, (2) permission to post the reply here, and (3) an invitation to call him at any time to ask other questions.  Here is what he wrote:

Why I do not talk specifically about community on my website?

Short Answer: Governments fail miserably at producing community while individuals succeed beautifully.  It is the legislator’s job to uphold justice and defend individual freedom.  This provides an environment where the individuals are able to do their job of creating and sustaining community, friendship and brotherhood.

Long Answer:  Community and the brotherhood of man is a good thing, but it must be done by individuals on a person-to-person level, not by legislators through the government with the use of law/force.  One must understand that law is force.  The job of a legislator is to write laws, determining where the use of force is appropriate.  Every human being has an inherent, natural right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and a corresponding right and, I dare say, obligation to defend, even with force, against encroachments upon that right.  Defense is the only proper application of force.  These same principles that guide the individual are to guide the group of individuals organized into a government.  Government is the collective extension of the individual right to self-defense.  It would be wrong for me as an individual to promote a good thing by force.  It would be wrong for me as a legislator to promote a good thing by force.   And since the implementation of law, and therefore force, is my concern as a legislator, the principle of community is absent.

I have a few responses to this:

Mr. Cox asserts that “Government is the collective extension of the individual right to self-defense.”  To me that seems a bleak and lonely view.  I prefer to see governments as the people acting together out of collective interest.  I see no reason that people should collectively pay for an organization whose sole goal is to enable them to meet individual, selfish desires.  Individuality must be protected, to be sure.  But it scarcely needs promotion.  Humans are a selfish enough lot that, with enough help, we’ll take our individuality to an isolating, antisocial extreme.

I suppose he’s right that, when push comes to shove, government amounts to force.  I prefer the term coercion, though, since force to me implies the application of physical force, while coercion increases the number of tools at a government’s disposal.  But, whether governments “force” people or “coerce” them, the key words are “when push comes to shove”.  The fact is, if government is done well, it rarely has to come to the level of outright coercion or brute force.  Governments are able to provide incentives both subtle and gross to encourage people to act in one way or another.  With skill, they will encourage people to act toward common goods.

For an example, let me take the public library (a brilliant idea that would surely be shot down if it were first thought up in today’s individualistic climate).  An educated populace is a social good.  Fortunately, public libraries have been with us long enough that people recognize them as a tremendous bargain, and most people are happy to fund them with their property taxes or whatever public funding.  Nobody has to be “forced” to pay for them.

Okay, if you really hate public libraries and you start shorting your local property tax payment by the proportion that would fund your library, you’ll ultimately lose your house — but that’s only if push comes to shove.  There is no reason it should, if a fair government is run.  Everybody should get something out of the bargain; everybody should feel that he’s come out somewhat ahead.

Mr. Cox states, “Governments fail miserably at producing community while individuals succeed beautifully.”  I take issue with this.  First, individuals, by definition, cannot produce community.  They may make beautiful paintings, hunt trophy moose, run record distances, and pen prize-winning novels — as individuals.  Community requires people to suppress their perfect individuality to become something more.

I admit, that may have been verbal sophistry.  I suspect Mr. Cox really meant that people succeed better at creating community when they are free to act with no government coercion.  So we have to wonder, what kind of coercion should people be under in forming community?  If the answer is “none”, then that community will never arise.  When people feel perfectly free to opt out of every situation, they have no cause to settle differences and arrive at conventions that will (more or less) please all.

Second, Mr. Cox seems to be implying that governments attempting to “produce” community are trying to force it into being.  This would be an absurd aim, one that I hope no public official endorses.  Governments cannot force community into being any more than I can force grass to grow.  However, just as I can offer that grass water, sunlight, and fertile soil, governments — again, the people acting together out of collective interest — can create circumstances under which community will thrive.  Like Aristotle, I believe that man is a social animal.  Most of us will tend toward lives of collaboration and co-nurturance if given the chance.  But to suppose that individuals will create community on their own without creating favorable conditions is like supposing that a sack of grass seed will turn into a lawn without water, light, or soil.  The governments we constitute are the agents by which we create those conditions.

A quick example: I believe that one of the requirements of community is that people sometimes spend time together.  (I may get into the benefits of this another time.)  They cannot do this without common space.  (There is no meaningful right to free assembly when the people have no place to assemble.)  What’s more, that space must be attractive and interesting enough to lure them from the the familiarity of the private sphere.  Thus, if public interest is served by people sometimes spending time together, then public interest is served by fostering quality public places.  In a sense, the government must create “infrastructure” of a kind, to allow and foster collective action.

My last complaint about Mr. Cox’s statement (and most of what’s on his “Principles” page) is that it too perfectly and too rigidly adheres to a single ideal: freedom.  I appreciate freedom.  I enjoy freedom.  But it is not the only virtue — it may not even be the greatest virtue — and it is incapable of doing all the moral “work” that many demand of it.

I’ll close with a quotation that has recently become a favorite of mine:

Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice. Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom. The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it. Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay. Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both… Divergent problems offend the logical mind.

(Schumacher, E. F. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, 1977, 127.)

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The people’s thing?

What chance does Fairbanks stand of being — or being part of — a republic? Can we be a community?

In high school, I learned that the United States was not a “democracy”, as many people think, but a “democratic republic”. Certainly the CIA World Factbook describes us as a “Constitution-based federal republic”.

The word ‘republic’ comes from the Latin phrase res publica, which means “public matter” or literally “people’s thing”. It implies that a republic is, by definition, a common concern. Not that the republic is a matter of common concern, but that that commonality itself is the substance of the republic. Where there is no common concern — where the people have no collective thing — republic can’t exist.

Now, I know that meanings of words change, and that modern definitions of words need bear little relationship to their historical meanings. But I feel that ‘republic’ has an almost spiritual core, or a philosophical kernel, in this idea of “the people’s thing”. When it comes to refer only to specific outward forms of government, it loses this kernel and becomes merely an empty husk.

The word ‘community’ comes close. It is derived from Latin communis, meaning “common (to several persons or to all)”. It doesn’t just mean some aggregation of people; it means a group of people who live by sharing something. (The word ‘city’ derives from Latin civis, which means “a free inhabitant of a town, and implies no commonality.)

I’ve long felt that community is one of the most important guiding principles — maybe just behind family. So I’m always disheartened to see large-scale enthusiasm for political candidates who seem not to believe in any common goals of society. There’s one running in Fairbanks — though they exist everywhere — who claims to be all about “freedom”. He says he believes in the role of government only to provide infrastructure and arbitration, so that the people can pursue their own individual goals. On his campaign web page devoted to “principles”, he says nothing about community, common goals, shared fate, mutual obligation, or even duty. As far as I can tell, it is all about the individual: governments exist solely to further private ambition. John F. Kennedy urged us to ask not what our country could do for us, but to ask what we could do for our country. My guess is that this candidate believes we and our country should do as little as possible for each other; any more would constrain our freedom.

It should be no surprise that he seems to have a large following in Fairbanks. We have more than the usual share of members of the cult of the individual. There’s much distrust of “government” here, and people vociferously protest most proposed laws that would constrain the liberty of the individual to do as he lists — common interest be damned.

Of course, this raises the question: What is our common interest? What are our common goals? If we have a community, what is the substance of that community? By sharing what things do we live? What is our people’s thing?

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As you may know, I’ve been reading Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. (In fact, I’ve been reading it for months. Now that I’ve started biking to and from work rather than riding the bus, it’s taking me longer. But I’m near the end.) It’s full of delightful passages. In lieu of a real review, I’ll give you some:

One of the most laughably erroneous characterizations of contemporary American society is that it is a “convenience culture.” Convenience is a persistent theme in our lives and in advertising media only because there is such a crying need for it. But only by confusing trivial conveniences with essential ones could we delude ourselves. In a genuinely convenient culture, the necessities of life are close by one’s dwelling. They are within easy walking distance. In a convenience culture, one’s European guests would not remark, as ours do, “My God, you have to get in the car for everything!”

(p. 287)

The more that class of people who used to provide community leadership turn their back on community, the worse things “public” become, with people finding more and more cause to retreat from them if only they can afford to do so. The rejection of responsibility for facilities all are meant to share and, beyond that, the identification of the “good life” as an escape from common Americans, may well be the system flaw that can cause the collapse of the American experiment. What was it Lincoln said about a house divided against itself?

(p. 222)

Some time ago, at one of those holiday gatherings of the clan, a relative was describing to me the problems with the teenagers in his community. The community in question had grown up around new mining technology and didn’t have any places for kids to hang out that older traditions supply elsewhere. The man complained that the youth of the community were a “bunch of ingrates.” They did not appreciate the special hangout that had recently been constructed for them.

After listing to his lament, I asked him two questions: Was the place right smack in the center of town–right in the middle of things? And, “Do the adults go there, too?” The answer in both instances was no. The place was “especially” for the youngsters and nobody wanted such a place right in the middle of town. As in so many cases nowadays involving both the very old and the young, the desire is to sent them aside. The old accept their lot more gracefully. The young resent their undeserved shunning by the community, and they have ways of showing it.

(p. 114)

An unsuitable habitat fuels the desire to escape it. Private acreage, offering as much “splendid isolation” as one can afford, looks doubly good when viewed against the deteriorated condition of the public domain. But will an unsuitable human habitat also, eventually, fuel the desire to change it?

(p. 285)

By the way, I’ve now added The Great Good Place to my “Further reading” page.

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