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One nation indivisible; THE SPLINTERING OF AMERICA

By Geoffrey GodsellStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 1981

In a recent discussion on US public television, one of the country's most distinguished commentators, Eric Sevareid, said he thought the big story of the 1980s would be the threatened fragmentation of American society -- particularly with the pressure on it from the fast-growing Spanish-speaking segment within it. Behind Mr. Sevareid's concern, of course, lay his perception of the growing emphasis on ethnic and culltural differences within the US. Alongside this, and often related to it, is the jarring presence of single-issue politics.

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For those Americans finding comfort in nostalgia, it may seem that a jinni has been let out of a bottle and that the problem is simply to get it back before it does any more damage. Others, looking at the Promethean history of the US during its short two centuries of independence, may recognize that the American people are again at one of the great hinges in their hitherto remarkable saga.

Some even wonder whether the strains from the present divisive tendencies in American society will come as close as did the Civil War to wrecking the Union.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, D.C., says reassuringly: "We are not at the danger point. What we are seeing is part of the activism that only a very rich and secure society can afford."

Less optimistically, Philip Perlmutter, director of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Boston, had an article in the September issue of Commentary magazine about the threatened "Balkanizing" (or fragmentation into hostile ethnic units) of America.

"As this Balkanization of America comes to pass," he wrote, "our nation will be plagued with all the suspicions, resentments, and conflicts which the constitution and the Bill of Rights sought to avoid and which today characterize so many part so of Europe, Asia, and Africa."

Harold Isaacs, professor emeritus of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has written (in the American Educator, Spring 1978) of this "time of great change" in American society as being "positive and fruitful in scope and consequences despite all its formidable incompleteness and continuing turmoil and confusion." On the negative side, he singled out "the breakdown of old patterns of racial-ethnic-religious status and behavior" and "a far more inclusive erosion during these same [recent] decades of moral, social, and cultural norms of every kind."

Irving Levine, director of the American Jewish Committee's Institute on Pluralism and Group Identity in New York, says this activism is paradoxically both "legitimate and dangerous." It has within it, he adds, an inexorable dualism like the yang and the yin (positive and negative) symbols in Chinese philosophy. Emphasis on ethnicity can lead to destructive chauvinism. It can also lead to comfort.

Martin Kilson, professor of government at Harvard and like Mrs. Norton a black, pins his faith in what he calls "the great cooptative and building capacity of American culture." Yet he, too, adds a caveat about "the potential for crisis and conflict" in the ferment of today.

It is into this situation of flux and uncertainty, where single groups or single interests vie fiercely with each other to make sure they do not end up losers, that Ronald Reagan is about to step as 40th President of the US.

In talking in recent weeks with men and women at different levels of government and with political scientists in the academic world, this writer found most of them saying repeatedly that American society is in fact at least a decade and a half into an unsetting process that had started back in the 1960s, with no end yet in sight.

What was it then that came together in the 1960s to start the process and unleash the centrifugal forces which are putting such strains on American society today?

Professor Isaacs hinted at the components in the passage quoted above. That confluence, in greater detail, must include:

* The impact of the technetronic revolution -- to borrow a phrase coined by Zbigniew Brzezinksi in his academic days -- which brought with it instant communication and the seductive tyranny of television.

* A movement of industry in two senses: first, geographically from urban centers of the industrial age to new expanding suburbs of the space age; and the second, in techniques, from labor-intensive systems to selective computer controls. This has been as socially wrenching in the latter part of the 20th century as was the original urbanization of once basically rural societies in the 19th.