The Polis in Post-Modernity (I): Migration and New Media
In the summer issue of National Affairs, Marc Dunkelman offers a diagnosis of the American polity via America’s communities:
Over the past few decades, technological, social, cultural, and economic changes have revolutionized the structure of American community. Globalization, the information revolution, and the emerging pre-eminence of the service economy have begun to undo the bonds that long defined American villages, neighborhoods, and suburbs — relationships that survived the nation’s evolution from a collection of agrarian colonial outposts into an industrial global colossus. The transformation we are living through is, in many respects, changing American life for the better — but not in every respect. And whether the long-term effects augur a brighter future or not, one thing has been made clear: Many of our public institutions are failing to adapt.
Broadly understood, the developments of the past few decades have served to weaken the ties that once bound local communities together. In their place, we are, on one hand, now choosing to invest more time and energy in keeping in touch with our closest friends and family members, and, on the other, in trading bits of information with people we do not know very well but who share some single common interest. As a result, the relationships that stand between our most intimate friendships and our more distant acquaintances — the middle-tier relationships that have long been at the root of American community life — have been left to wither. By any measure, that transition has empowered us to be more socially discerning. But the end result has been a social framework that tends to be deep at the expense of being broad, and that is frequently internally cohesive without being particularly diverse.
There are myriad advantages to the new architecture of American community. Among its drawbacks, however, is the threat it now poses to the ability of our politics to solve the problems government needs to address. The new framework has created a political dynamic in which leaders inWashingtonfind it much more difficult to collaborate. And it threatens to undermine some longstanding assumptions, embraced on both the right and the left, about how to shape effective solutions to the challenges that will face us in the decades to come.”
Forgive the long quotation. If you skimmed it, or just skipped it, the following glosses might be of use, though their primary purpose is as a kind of segue: Tocqueville, Dunkelman writes, noted an American community in which the “middle rings” were thriving—and this was the key difference between the “little platoons” of America and of Europe. In the latter, one’s little platoon was one’s class; in the former, it was one’s place-bound community. Today, though not at that class-bound platoon, we’ve slipped from place-bound community to something that is on the one hand more concrete—the nuclear family and closest of friends—and, on the other, like class, more ephemeral—a community of interests.
The change he describes could also be put into pseudo-Buberish terminology: we have lost our interest in coming to greet our neighbor—by the sole virtue of his being our neighbor—in any form of the second-person, whether Thou or You. The second of these might be the more important; though, several years back, Helen Rittelmeyer framed her objection to Buber in blunt terms,
Sure, I “use” the man at the corner deli for cigarettes and sandwiches; I treat the clerk at Adam’s like a book-dispensing machine; when I listen to a beloved professor give a lecture, I’m using him like a brain-whore and leaving the money on the admissions office nightstand. Is that so wrong?
her subsequent sentences actually indicated that it is, in a way:
There is such a thing as treating a person like a person, of course, but developing that kind of three-dimensional relationship with someone (through friendship, romance, brotherhood, etc.) should be regarded as an achievement. Civility takes the remainder; that’s what civilization means.
A machine is not a citizen; a person, even one with whom you have no deep, three-dimensional relationship, can be. We show concern for our relationships with those closest; we have put more effort into interactions with those distant; but because there has been less and less that demands we pay attention to those in the middle ground—the relationships and community founded, above all, on particular situation of one’s life—those relationships have withered.
Much of the cause (or blame, or credit; take your pick) for this is attributed to the development of new media: first the cell phone and e-mail; then the text message and instant-messaging; now Facebook, Google, Amazon, and our little web-based platoons-of-interest. Everything leads to a radical shift in the nature of the American polity, poorly understood because still in-progress.
But while much of what Dunkelman notes has likely been sped-up or intensified by the technology of the millenium, the complaints feel older. As in fact they are. The 1960s, 70s, and 80s saw similar sociological complaints, whether the atomization of the city or Wendell Berry’s jeremiads on behalf of a dying rural way of life. Even as early as 1953, we can see Saul Bellow’s Augie March, finally wearied, wizened, and ready to settle into a role as a citizen, as a member of a polity founded on his particular situation, realize sadly that life will not cease to force him to bounce about. When he sits in a Paris park and pens that famous first sentence (“I am an American, Chicago born…”) this declaration has become his last and only available means of (re)joining the American polity. He can neither return nor participate; he can merely assert.
Surprisingly absent from Dunkelman’s analysis is the question of migration, of Augie March’s wanderlust. Between 2009 and 2010, approximately 10,577,000 Americans, or 3.52% of the total population, moved from one city to another. Perhaps this is an historical norm; I haven’t been able to dig up the numbers. Approximately 35% over a decade, however, seems like a number from the 21st century, not the 19th or 20th. When the range of Americans is narrowed to those between 20 and 35 years, the number spikes: 7.69% moved between cities, states, or regions of the U.S. Extrapolated over a decade, the number reaches over three-quarters. Now, no doubt, that number is too high; there are those (like your humble author) who will have been on the move several times. But the numbers would appear to support this conclusion: moving among cities—among local communities—in one’s early adulthood is more common than settling, or staying settled, in one. Perhaps it’s the new economic and professional necessity; perhaps its just a new, stronger iteration of the itch that sent Huck Finn down the Mississippi or the free-style motion of Augie March’s youth. Whatever it is, the meaning is plain: the community of our circumstances, of our particular situation, is fluid in a new, tremendous way.
The middle-rings have dropped out because those who would make up the middle-rings are in flux. One knows one’s extended family by sharing a place with them, more than by sharing holiday cards from across the country. The new media allow give us a means to nurture and continue, with effort, of course, those primary relationships across distance. They make it easier to build and sustain interactions—and, indeed, to create relationships—along that tertiary set. But they can do nothing to change the fact that, without a consistent particularity, those types of relationship dependant on particular circumstances must be inconsistent.
(Next: A polis was possible for Homer and in 1776 — is it possible in 2011?)