Civilization still has its discontents
A civil assembly of books about the nature of citizenship and the
IS AMERICA BREAKING APART? By John A. Hall and Charles Lindholm Princeton University Press 162 pp., $19.95.
THE SECRET LIVES OF CITIZENS: PURSUING THE PROMISE OF AMERICAN LIFE By Thomas Geoghegan Pantheon Books 241 pp., $25
FREEDOM IN CHAINS: THE RISE OF THE STATE AND THE DEMISE OF THE CITIZEN By James Bovard St. Martin's 326 pp., $26.95.
CIVIL SOCIETY: THE UNDERPINNINGS OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY By Brian O'Connell University Press of New England 148 pp., $30
COUNTRY OF EXILES: THE DESTRUCTION OF PLACE IN AMERICAN LIFE By William Leach Pantheon Books 274 pp., $24
It is hard to decide which is more dismaying: the low standard of ethics that seems prevalent in much of America's public life or the cheap cynicism of a public that is prepared to tolerate such low standards.
Many people are distressed by the loss of civility in our daily lives: endemic rudeness, road rage, talk-show revelations, and a general lack of respect. What is less often remarked on is the relationship between civility and citizenship. For, if many people have lost their faith in public, collective enterprises and retreated to the narrower concerns of their private lives, it should not surprise us that they are less prepared to show consideration for others in their quest for self-advancement at any cost.
Posing the question Is America Breaking Apart?, two professors, sociologist John A. Hall and anthropologist Charles Lindholm, answer their own query with a qualified "No." The authors seek to allay the fear that the rise of group identities - racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural - could be turning America into a nation of warring factions. The arguments they present, however, are not as reassuring as one would hope.
Some of their points are worth bearing in mind: Conflict, they remind us, is not necessarily a sign of irreparable divisions, but part of a process of negotiation. Americans join groups to work for certain goals and to get a feeling of belonging. But American group allegiances are fluid, shifting, and not likely to lead to the kind of intransigent conflicts that occur between European groups.
Unfortunately, the authors offer almost no evidence to support their case, although their book is written in a kind of faux-objective style that masks its essential insubstantiality. Indeed, this brief book is so full of social-science jargon and hair-splitting arguments that it's not likely to afford much reassurance to anyone worried about the serious issue it raises.
A more dispiriting picture is painted by Thomas Geoghegan in The Secret Lives of Citizens. A lawyer, essayist, and former civil servant, Geoghegan considers himself a child of the New Deal. In this impressionistic, highly personal, and distinctly offbeat blend of memoir and social commentary, he tries to figure out what might be done to recapture what the influential progressive thinker Herbert Croly called "The Promise of American Life."
Geoghegan went to work in Washington because he hoped to follow in the footsteps of the New Dealers, using a strong federal government to improve the lives of ordinary people by regulating big business, strengthening labor unions, and counterbalancing the power of the corporate elite. What he found instead was an overwhelming trend toward deregulation, devolution of power from the federal government to the states, and a worship of the bottom line.
He visits public schools where teachers boast of plans to equip students with hightech skills for the job market. But he points out that there is actually a greater demand for unskilled labor. Inevitably, a sizable portion of the population will be employed as busboys, custodians, store clerks, fast-food servers. The real problem is not to train everyone to be an engineer, but to ensure that all working people receive a living wage. What these kids need, he argues, is to be taught how to find out what's going on the world, vote in their own best interests, and organize to secure a fair share of the pie.
Geoghegan is appalled by the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, a problem that he feels is not only ignored by most Republicans, but no longer seriously addressed even by most Democrats. He longs for a return to the traditions of American progressive politics, the line of Herbert Croly, Theodore Roosevelt, John Dewey, and Franklin Roosevelt. That such a return seems unlikely in an era where so many people have (rightly or wrongly) lost faith in their national government gives him grave doubts about the future.
Ironically, James Bovard's Freedom in Chains: the Rise of the State and the Demise of the Citizen is precisely the kind of antigovernment diatribe that has helped create the climate of opinion that Geoghegan so deplores. Still, it does show some of the unfair things that can happen to ordinary citizens when governmental authorities get carried away. The trouble with this approach, however, is that we are always going to hear a lot more stories from citizens who have a beef with the government than we are from citizens whose lives have been improved by the government and who, therefore, have nothing much to speak up about!
By far the most constructive approach may be found in Brian O'Connell's calmly pragmatic Civil Society: the Underpinnings of American Democracy. An activist and leader in the campaign to promote citizen service, O'Connell explains the various intersecting components that make for a strong civil society: individuals, families, communities, churches, businesses, unions, government, and voluntary associations. He urges people to get involved, and shows how they can do so. John Gardner's foreword aptly sums up O'Connell's aim: "It is not a liberal or conservative issue.... It is a question of whether we are going to settle into a permanent state of self-absorption or show the vigor and purpose that becomes us."
Perhaps the most searching and thoughtful examination of the specific causes that may underlie the current prevalence of incivility is William Leach's Country of Exiles: the Destruction of Place in American Life. Leach notes that we are living at a time when countless commentators - both liberal and conservative - are singing the praises of mobility and self-invention. Some praise the courage and resilience of immigrants and pioneers.
Others go so far as to celebrate the "freedom" of trailer-park life. But is rootlessness always a good thing? What will happen to the sense of "place" that inspires people to value and respect the particular spot of earth they make their home? And how many people have been driven into a rootless lifestyle, not out of their own desires, but because of economic forces beyond their control? Can people be truly civic-minded if they are denied the opportunity to form a stable bond with the city, town, or countryside where they live?
These are the issues that Leach raises and ponders. His analysis is eye-opening. "Today, many people look on cosmopolitan consumerism as a good thing," he warns. "But market cosmopolitanism, unchecked by any countervailing power, is the most exclusionary of all cosmopolitanisms. Whole worlds that do not have market value are exiled.... Thus, in the name of freedom and choice, market cosmopolitanism tends to exclude those things that give the most meaning to life for most people - the fullest possible sensual experience of the world; vocation; spiritual life; pursuing a goal or truth regardless of costs; friendship, family, children; and, of course, place itself." Words worth pondering.
*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.