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Community, Comity, and Conservative Propaganda January 9, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Politics, Popular Culture, Tea Party, Television.
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A Facebook friend of mine complained yesterday that America has become a culture of takers, with no or little sense of community or comity. (“Comity” is a friendly social atmosphere in a loose, widespread community based on common social institutions, like houses of worship and schools.) He blamed the poisonous hyperpartisanship that the Republicans have introduced and cultivated, transforming politics from a game of negotiation into nuclear warfare.

My friend is correct, of course. As the author of Bowling Alone points out, social organizations like bowling leagues, service clubs, PTAs, garden clubs, and religious bodies are all shrinking dramatically. Since 9/11, attendance at my resolutely apolitical downtown mainline church has dropped by almost two-thirds (!), and other houses of worship also report drops.

More and more, we live like strangers who aren’t planning to stay, not bothering to get to know our neighbors, not bothering to join local organizations, to vote (“why bother, they’re all crooks anyway”), to get involved with the arts, events, and celebrations of local community life. (I pick up cigarette butts from the street and the sidewalk and throw them away, and my neighbors pity the loony crank. Why bother, when there’ll be ten more tomorrow.) We shop in huge box stores that are identical to huge box stores on the other side of the country, and we never bother getting to know the sales clerks or the other shoppers. We eat in chain restaurants that are similarly interchangeable. We spend our time watching TV and surfing the Net, replacing the neighborhood hangout “where everyone knows your name” with Cheers, replacing the corner store where everyone knows you hate colas with a soulless minimart identical to all minimarts where you’re lucky if the clerk even notices your existence.

There are several factors that have led to this breakdown, not just the 35-year GOP campaign to transfer all assets of the United States into the hands of the oliGOParchy (which currently controls roughly 90 percent (!) of the nation’s assets, ladies and gentlemen, while claiming that pointing out the undeniable fact that 52 percent of Americans live in poverty (!) is “class warfare”):

  • Advances in technology have made living alone much easier. In 1930, only 2 percent of Americans lived alone; in 2000, that had become 10 percent. A large proportion of theses “solos” consists of elderly people, mostly women, who in earlier generations would have moved in with their offspring. Those commercials that advertise services that singles can subscribe to so “you’re never alone” whitewash a lot of loneliness.
  • Modern technology encourages isolation in many other ways:
    • Air conditioning. Time was when people sat on their front porches in the cool cool cool of the evening, gossiping about their neighbors with other neighbors strolling by. If a couple had a fight, every child in the neighborhood heard it. People made excuses to go to the park, to walk by the lake, to stroll down to the neighborhood eatery and have “an ice,” and in all of these places they socialized daily with others in their community.
    • Refrigerators. Before refrigerators, if you wanted unspoiled food, you had to shop every day. You saw the same grocers and butchers every day, and you saw the same fellow customers. You could tell them about Pat’s measles and Gran’s complaints, and they could tell you about the kid who got run over two streets away, we really need to get the city to put a stop sign at that intersection. Today what do we have? The Real Housewives of Deplorable Overconsumption.
    • Television/the Internet.Time was when people participated in or sat in the audience of school plays, church pageants, little theater, bandstand concerts, summer stock. Today we prefer slick, mass-produced entertainment that costs millions to produce — millions recouped by advertising that encourages over­con­sump­tion, unethical behavior, and self-delusion. Or we sit alone in front of our computers, “chatting” with “friends” halfway across the world whom we’ve never met in The Real World and who certainly won’t come to our house and comfort our sobbing when the one we love most in all the world dumps us and runs off with that bleeping sex addict. In researching this section, I ran across an unintentionally hilarious study conducted by the Center on Media and Child Health. Here’s an amazing scientific discovery: the more time you spend watching television, the less time you spend having fun doing stuff with your friends!
    • Working at Home. Advances in technology have made working at home more feasible than ever. Around 28 million Americans work at home. This provides obvious freedoms, such as flexibility and independence; but it also means the worker loses out on social interactions and colleague networks. It’s much harder to make dozens of “business friendships” with nothing but your computer, your phone, and maybe Skype.
    • The Automobile.Cars give us freedom, true. But this freedom comes with a price.
      • Moving Away. We change jobs every few years, refusing the kind of roots that Dagwood has developed with Mr. Dithers. And we move, an average of every five years. Why put down roots when you’re just going to move again? And why go to all the trouble of making a casserole to welcome that new family across the street when they’re just going to move away in a year or two, and you’ll never see them again?
      • The Suburbs are the blessing and curse of the automobile. Most houses in the suburbs are set well back from the street, with no sidewalks or porches. The homeowner goes to the garage, gets into the car, opens the garage door, and drives away; that way they don’t have to talk to their neighbors. Perish forbid. Moreover, since birds of a feather yadda yadda, most suburbs tend to be homogenous clusters: whites live primarily with whites, religion A lives primarily with religion A (never call them ghettoes), rich people live in gated communities, poor people live in the scary part of town. Both law and custom discourage places where people can get together to meet and get to know each other, like bars, cafés, libraries, and coffee shops. Both social isolation and suburban homogeneity work to make people less empathetic, as an excellent article in AlterNet pointed out in September 2011. I recommend “What Awful Reality TV and Suburban Living Have to Do With the Tea Party.”
  • Isolation Within Families. Many spouses are too busy or self-absorbed to pay attention to their families; mothers who work outside the home in particular tend to be dramatically overworked and overstressed. On average, modern parents tend to spend 22 fewer hours a week with their children than parents did just 50 years ago. Children tend to divide their time between highly structured group activities in supervised child-centered environments, like Little League, and spending an average of six hours a day watching TV, surfing the Net, playing video games, or reading, alone. And we don’t need to begin with divorce. . . . Even architecture encourages isolation with families. The gigantic houses that people were encouraged to overspend on before the crash lead individual family members to stake out their own spaces, rather than sharing. (“Don’t go into Daddy’s man-cave,” “This is MY room, keep out!”) Privacy fences make these big houses feel like fortresses, and swimming pools, barbecues, jungle gyms, and trampolines make it unnecessary for these families to ever leave home.

The loss of comity that my Facebook friend talked about is particularly troubling. Sociologists see it as the result of our increasing social isolation. There’s no need to feel empathy for the suffering you see on your TV screen because you don’t see it in your immediate vicinity, so that makes it fiction, entertainment. The director will yell “Cut!” and those flood victims will go back to their trailers for the makeup artists and costumers to get them ready for their next scene.

People are less and less civil to each other. (About two months ago, a telemarketer called me, and when I later reminded her that I had not initiated the contact, she hung up on me!) People are way, way less empathetic. Disaster victims, the desperately poor, the elderly, the long-term sick, the disabled are all “moochers” and “leeches” who should either work hard and provide their own assistance or die. We must dismantle the welfare state. We must return to the Gilded Age of the 1890s, when robber barons ruled with almost the greed and arrogance of Donald Trump. We must hand over wealth and power to the 1 percent, because social conscience is “socialism,” caring about justice is “class warfare,” and a man who “earned” $250 million by buying troubled companies, firing half or all the staff, sucking the companies empty, and tossing the husks away is the very man we need to rescue the nation from Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, unemployment insurance, and worst of all, the dreaded “Obamneycare.”

Because, remember: Life begins at incorporation.

Worst of all, we allow and even encourage people to segregate themselves into communities that live inside bubbles. The most famous of these bubbles has been created by years of propaganda from Fox News, the Heritage Foundation and similar right-wing “think” tanks, hate radio, and astroturf organizations like the Tea Puppets, who obediently chant the Party Line of the oliGOParchy and can be relied on to vote against their own best interests every time.

You can see our loss of comity in some of the audience reactions to that hilarious new reality show, “The Real Candidates of Despicable Lies & Smears.” Gov. Perry is responsible for several hundred deaths, some of them innocent men? YAY! Should the life of an indigent 30-year-old be saved? BOO! Should you be barred from serving your country, or God, because of whom you love? No, you should be shot at sunrise! Yay for torture! Yay for the rapacity of the 1%! I’d be willing to bet that a lot of those who actually believe Faux News is “fair and balanced” are home-schooled, further eliminating any knowledge of what community even IS.

It’s early 2012, and the Citizens United tsunami of conservative lies and smears began about three months ago. My husband and I gave up on the evening news about a month ago; we’ll start watching again in mid-November. Others have guessed that this year is going to be so vicious, it will make 2010 look like a love-in. In a way, I sort of hope so. It’s going to take a national atrocity to get that atrocious ruling overturned by an act of Congress, and the 2012 campaign season is shaping up to be just that.

Actually, I hope I’m wrong. Humans are naturally gregarious. Kids are using the new technology to connect with each other in ways I never dreamed of. The January 8 issue of the Tampa Bay Times had a heartwarming story about a young woman who was robbed of husband, possessions, and Christmas. She posted about it on Facebook, and “hundreds” of her old school friends — friends she had made in The Real World — sent an outpouring of gifts and money so generous the woman had plenty to pass on to others in need.

I believe humans need a feeling of community to be truly happy. Studies have shown that religious people are happier and healthier, tend to be more successful, and are demonstrably more active in their local civic life. Obviously these benefits can be attributed to the attention they pay to their spiritual lives, but what if they also accrue to membership in a faith community? When my father died, I phoned the priest of a church I had joined a month earlier at 8 a.m. and wailed “My daddy is dead!” She came right over to comfort me and my father’s sister, and she was wonderful. Who is an atheist going to phone at 8 a.m.? Richard Dawkins? Who is going to bring you chili when you’re stressed to the breaking point over your mother’s slow dying?

I think the Occupy movement might be an ideal vehicle for the creation of secular communities. Nonviolence and consensus are excellent axioms to coalesce around. But I also think we need a whole new paradigm, one that doesn’t accept conservative premises as a given. Maybe tax gifts to the wealthy are not the be-all and end-all of politics. Maybe socialist democracies like Sweden have happier, healthier, better-educated citizenries because they don’t label democracy “socialism” and kleptocracy “democracy.” One of the worst crimes the GOP has committed in recent years was the libeling, vilification, and hounding out of existence of ACORN. ACORN was innocent of all the crimes the GOP fantasized, did good work, and was killed out of sheer Republican hatred of Obama.

Maybe Democrats’ 2012 slogan should be, “Tax cuts never built a bridge, rescued a flood victim, or saved a nation.”

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