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Our dangerous distance between the private and the commons

Americans have retreated into cocoons of the like-minded where all they hear is echoes of themselves.

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There were contrary views, of course, and these soon gained the upper hand, being more congenial to moneyed interest. But the sense of affiliation with a whole persisted, in folkways as well as public policy. There were the frontier barn raisings and harvest bees in which work and time became a commons neighbors could draw from. There was the Main Street culture that combined the commercial with the social and civic. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held their famous debates at county fairgrounds and town squares throughout Illinois.

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Democracy wasn't separate from the setting in which it occurred; and farmers and townspeople, many with little formal schooling, sat in the baking sun for hours to listen.

The next hundred years brought unprecedented change. Yet even as the new commercial culture wove webs of self- obsession, residues of the older thinking remained. People shopped on Main Streets. They visited with neighbors on stoops and porches. Entertainment was a social experience, at bowling alleys, movie theaters, and ball parks. Such remnants were a resource on which the nation could draw in times of need, such as World War II. When FDR declared that sacrifice in the cause of freedom was a "privilege," and that he stood for "equality of privilege," his words touched something Americans already believed. The top income tax bracket went up to over 90 percent, and ordinary workers paid the tax for the first time. Young men were subject to a universal draft. Millions grew vegetables in Victory Gardens and turned in used cooking oil and old pots and pans to supply war materiel.

There was grumbling and cheating to be sure. But the residents of one Kansas town probably echoed the prevailing view when they observed in a newsletter to their sons on the front: "We do not have everything we want. We do have everything we need."

Today, that sentiment seems to come from another galaxy. When brave, young Americans went off to fight in Iraq, there was skittish concern in Washington that the rest of us actually might have to sacrifice something to support them. Political leaders cut taxes and urged us to go shopping. Not only is there no draft, but an increasing share of the burden is shunted to mercenaries.

Whatever one thought of the invasion of Iraq, when patriotism becomes a market transaction, purchased by most on the cheap, that's cause for concern. Some will blame the '60s, Eastern intellectuals, and the rest. But the true source of this shift lies in the pathways of daily life.

We live, after all, in suburbs conceived as staging areas for personal consumption rather than for social interaction. We move about in the hermetic enclosures of cars, shop in malls designed to exclude anything that might interfere with the buying mood.

We barricade our attention in electronic cocoons of iPods and cellphones. Family car trips once were occasions for storytelling that built a narrative bond between generations. Now kids sit in back and watch DVD's. Then we wonder why parents have trouble communicating with kids - why we feel lonely, isolated, and depressed.

Step by step, the paths through our "rice fields" have become walled corridors of one.

A reason for today's bitter, polarized politics is that people don't have to talk with those they don't agree with anymore. They just retreat into their cocoons of the like-minded where all they hear is echoes of themselves. They lose the capacity to tolerate - let alone listen to - anyone who thinks differently.

Common space itself is under assault, from noise, development, and commercial importuning. Giant Coke bottles that now stand atop the storied left field wall in Boston's Fenway Park are more than an advertisement. They're a symbol of dominance - a kind that extends to virtually every corner of our society. From patent claims to body parts and the gene pool, to proposals to auction off the sea, there is a pervasive grabbiness that causes the private to devolve into its linguistic root "privation."

Not surprisingly, there are increasing efforts to restore balance. The environmental movement is evidence of this, as is the resistance to ads on bases at baseball games, to cellphone noise in public places, to privatizing water, and to the patenting of life. Linux, the computer operating system developed entirely through a commons on the World Wide Web, bespeaks a desire to reclaim the free open spaces of the mind, without either governmental restriction or private claim.

Politicians haven't paid much heed. They still talk as though life were a contest between government programs and market forces, with little besides families around and between. But that will change.

The quest to reclaim the commons is America's new freedom movement, and increasingly its pursuit of happiness as well.

Jonathan Rowe, a former Monitor writer, is director of the Tomales Bay Institute.