The fading of community

Sam Smith – After three and a half years of turning our country over to a manic narcissist it may be time to rediscover the advantages of sharing one’s goals, concerns and ideas with rational others. Of all the changes that have occurred in America in recent years, one of the least noted has been the decline of community. We have in many ways become three hundred and thirty million individuals taught to pursue our own purposes, the virtues we believe they contain and to share these primarily with those who have in common our color, our culture, our employment and our education. We have developed not only identity politics but identity living.

The factors causing this change are numerous; As America has become more urbanized, those who live in a recognizable community have declined, offering much less joint substance. Fewer neighborhoods offer moral and social support thanks in part to the decline of local groups that brought residents together. Churches have drifted away from being not only religious but also neighborhood institutions, illustrated in my former home of DC by their role as meeting places for various causes in the 1960s.

There was also in activism in of that time a broad sense that to win you not only had to assemble the convinced but convince the unassembled. Instead of identity politics leading the way, you sought ways to identify with those who didn’t look or talk like you but who nonetheless were potential allies. This was not so much a moral choice as a pragmatic one because we wanted not only to be right but to win. Change demands not just one’s virtue but the pragmatic application of arguments and actions in its behalf. Today we find, for example, Internet havens of own niches and many who hardly break out into the larger worlds.

I discovered community early in part because I went to a Quaker high school in Philadelphia. Although Quakerism may seem just an esoteric religion to many, it in fact has a strong pragmatic side. For example, unlike most religions that put virtue ahead of action, the Quakers were more like existentialists – emphasizing actions reflecting their virtues. Thus the Quaker meeting that ran my school had come out against slavery in 1688.
The Quakers also believed in reciprocal liberty, the idea that if I am to have my freedom you have to have yours even if I don’t agree with all of it. Thus the Quakers got along with other cultures – such as Pennsylvania Germans – far better than say, New England pilgrims worked with other religious groups.

As described in Four British Folkways in America

The founders of Pennsylvania were a different group of Englishmen…. Their idea of liberty was not the same as that which came to other parts of British America. The most important of these differences had to do with religious freedom-“liberty of conscience,” William Penn called it. This was not the conventional Protestant idea of liberty to do only that which is right. The Quakers believed that liberty of conscience extended even to ideas that they believed to be wrong. Their idea of “soul freedom” protected every Christian conscience.

I have found some of this spirit in Maine, where I moved full time eleven years ago in part because DC was becoming a increasingly simplistic haven for power over decency and status over friendliness. Maine, where I had gone many summers, was infinitely more communal even if I was “from away.” Folks respected one another and treated them fairly. For example, I came to realize that you couldn’t do business without an anecdote, a simple tale to connect you with someone personally as well as to transact with them. I also realized that speaking truthfully was important. Bulls in the barn and field were the only creatures generally allowed to spread BS.
Community builds trust, mutual reliance, understanding and sympathy of others, as well collective power. We don’t have to agree on everything, just discover what it is we have in common.

When I think of communities of which I have been a part, happy visions come to mind. Although most of my writing and work have involved larger issues, I have refused to turn my back on the local and communal. It leads me to wiser places on the larger subject. Thus, I do a Facebook page for my current Maine neighborhood that has over 550 readers. I was an elected advisory neighbhood commissioner in DC. When I think back to my days as operations officer aboard a Coast Guard cutter I’m reminded of how a sense of community among those 50 guys helped get our work done well. And when I went out for lunch from my Dupont Circle office of over 20 years, even the street panhandlers were friendly.

In politics more than almost any place else we need to rediscover the virtue of community. The color of your skin or the nature of your politics will not do the job by itself. Just consider the numbers. For example, blacks, latinos and working class whites are a majority of our population, but despite the problems they have in common you’d never know it.

When I think of those who have helped create my passions and values, I find myself quickly leaving my own identity and reflecting on those with whom I worked and enjoyed things including black urban activists and white Maine farmers as well as roommates with all sorts of different stories and neighbors who were also close friends.

Good politics is like that as well. Keep and celebrate your own identity for sure. But share it with others for common goals, such as the new shared national identity we desperately need.

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