In a recent New Inquiry post, George Scialabba agrees with author Morris Berman’s argument that America is the new Rome, that our shallow hubris has led to a free-fall that shows no signs of stopping, that “the monastic option” may be our best bet to preserve our progress—our intellectual progress, at least—while our cities inevitably burn. Whoa.
I’m not going to get into all that, but I was a little surprised to find that when it came time to cite social failures in the litany of doom, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) still represented the state of the art. I was a grad student in sociology when Putnam’s book came out, and I remember it receiving immediate popular acclaim—such as weighty and heavily-sourced proclamations of apocalypse tend to attract—but skepticism among academics.
Putnam argued that “social capital” (in other words, meaningful community connection) in the United States was in steep decline, with potentially dire consequences for all. No one doubted Putnam’s facts—the title refers to the decline of bowling leagues, held up as exemplars of the sort of rich social ties Americans used to have before we shredded them all to watch TV and go online—but his interpretations were seen by many as going a bridge too far.
One type of organization, for example, held up by Putnam and others as an example of what’s been lost was the fraternal organization: the Lions and the Elks and the ilk. Certainly, local Rotaries are not what they once were—but my academic advisor, Jason Kaufman, published an entire book arguing that fraternal organizations are not to be mourned. For one thing, Jason pointed out, the decision to join one of those organizations was often as much about pragmatics (they provided early versions of health insurance) as about any sort of desire to build social ties.
More damningly, Jason demonstrated how deeply segregated those organizations were by race and ethnicity (in many neighborhoods at the turn of the century, Italian immigrants didn’t just, you know, hang out with Irish immigrants) and by, of course, sex. Americans weren’t bowling alone in those supposed glory days of yesteryear—they were bowling with other Americans who were of the same class, ethnicity, and sex they were!
Scialabba also cites other facts from Putnam that sound terrible until you take a second and think about them. “Frequency of having friends to dinner dropped by 45 percent” (now, we eat out), “card parties declined 50 percent” (God forbid), and “reported incidents of aggressive driving rose by 50 percent” (even if we take this to be an actual per-capita increase in aggressive driving rather than just the reporting of aggressive driving, consider that America has been rapidly urbanizing, so you’re less likely to know personally that driver you’re cutting off).
But then we get to the crux of Putnam’s argument: the supposed consequence of this declining social capital. “Americans’ declared readiness to make new friends declined by 30 percent. Belief that most other people could be trusted dropped from 77 percent to 37 percent.”
According to Berman via Scialabba, this rush to disconnected individualism has always been embedded in the national DNA, in America’s “innermost principle, its animating Geist. What he finds at the bottom of our culture’s soul is…hustling; or, to use its respectable academic sobriquet, possessive individualism.” If that’s been America’s “soul” from day one, why have we seemingly hurtled so far towards our dark destiny in the last 20% of our national history?
I think Putnam, Berman, and Scialabba tell too tidy a tale. Just as humans want to believe in gods, we want to believe that nations have “souls” that shape destinies. We love Freud’s idea that preverbal conflicts seal our individual fates, and we’re all ready to sign on to an argument that somewhere in the genesis of American society is the master key that unlocked our intemperate response to the challenges of recent decades, thus insuring our decline and fall.
America has certainly fucked a lot of things up in recent years, but a naive nostalgia for the golden years of card parties and bowling leagues will not help us solve any of our problems. Urbanization is a reality. Advances in communication and transportation technology are also real. An increasing need for an educated workforce and the challenge of adjusting to that new economy are real. Those are challenges faced by countries around the world, and blaming America’s hollow “soul” for its failure to respond as well as it might have is a neat rhetorical trick, not a statement of fact.
Look around your American community, if you’re in America. There are still community meetings, and parties, and bars and restaurants bustling with patrons. Dating sites are bursting with singles striving to make connections, and social media are tying us ever more closely to our local, national, and international neighbors.
And don’t tell me that tweeting with an interesting friend in another country via my damned “flickering screen” is by definition an inferior sort of social connection when compared to joining a bowling league with the other white guys in the neighborhood. Scialabba’s dismissal of “idiot deans, rancid rappers, endlessly chattering sports commentators, an avalanche of half-inch-deep self-help manuals; a plague of gadgets, a deluge of stimuli, an epidemic of rudeness, a desert of mutual indifference” is a poetically written but profoundly condescending and reactionary appraisal of American social life that would crumble to bits if tested against actual anthropological evidence about the ways people navigate their daily lives.
The world, America included, is alive with social connections, with promise and possibility. The average American is less likely to want to make friends—well, how many friends does the average American have these days? It’s hard to believe the number is less than the corresponding number for someone living in a 1950s suburb. Maybe we have enough friends.
As for trust…well, yes, our communities are less homogeneous. I don’t trust the guy across the street as much as my parents trusted their guy-across-the-street, but I hardly feel that’s because I’m isolated in my studio-apartment bunker, afraid to go out and bowl or play cards or whatever. I live in the big city now, and so do most people my age and younger. You’ve got to watch your back—but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re selfishly and fearfully turning it. Unless, of course, you think it’s time to give up on America and become a monk.
- Jay Gabler