18 March 2011

Sociability, Ideology and the Privatization of Experience

Michelle Cottle's essay on the need for greater congressional sociability, which I commented on earlier this week, picks up on a theme that is being played a lot lately. From David Brooks' The Social Animal to Tina Rosenberg's Join the Club, writers are reasserting society's dependence upon sociability, people's willingness (or need) to be with and define themselves in relation to other people. Brooks, according to early reviews, argues that the emotional ties that draw us together are a stronger cohesive force than the abstract reason favored by intellectuals and ideologues alike. Rosenberg argues in favor of a benign "peer pressure" in collective ventures through which teamwork improves each person's individual effort. In both cases, I suspect, there's an unspoken yet implicit critique of an anti-social individualism that has grown more intractable the more social media have allowed us all to retreat into personally-constructed affinity-based virtual communities. The great worry is that society is balkanizing into homogeneous subcultures, leaving people increasingly ill-equipped or ill-inclined to deal easily with others who think or act differently. I've done that worrying here several times myself while contemplating a worsening privatization of experience. In the past I've blamed the apparent trend on marketing imperatives and a cultural aversion to solidarity among capitalists, but I also like to believe that I've tried to be careful not to turn it all into a vast right-wing conspiracy.

Elaine Tyler May doesn't share my reticence. She was last year's president of the Organization of American Historians, and her presidential address appears in the latest Journal of American History, while a shorter version can be found here. May describes a right-wing assault on the very notion of public life that dates back to the Cold War, when any trend that seemed to tend toward collectivism was suspect. In May's account, Americans increasingly defined themselves in contradistinction to Communists as essentially individualistic people. At the same time, fears of Communist conspiracy, supplemented by fears of rioting and urban crime, drove many Americans to adopt a bunker mentality with a seemingly greater emphasis on personal gun ownership and the need to defend one's home from attack than ever existed before. May links this to a bias in favor of families building their own fallout shelters rather than rely on supposedly "collectivist" municipal facilities. She contends that, by adopting an ideological imperative to do things themselves, Americans grew more alienated from and distrustful of one another, to the point in the 21st century when many readily acquiesced in the excesses of the Patriot Act while resisting movements for greater democracy -- which for May means greater equality and inclusiveness -- as threats to individual liberty.

To my mind, May consistently overstates the extent to which this trend was an ideologically-driven agenda. There's nothing inherently right-wing or conservative, for instance, about preferring owning your own home to living in an apartment complex, yet May suggests that there is. She also sees some implicit conspiracy behind Americans' growing fear of crime. Since that fear is irrational in the face of the low probability of any person becoming a victim of violent crime, May assumes that the fear was manufactured to further a political agenda, specifically Richard Nixon's. We should remember, however, that many Americans believe that they can win the lottery. Once they began to see urban violence regularly on the news, they could easily imagine it happening to them despite the actual odds against it.

Most importantly, May betrays her own ideological bias by looking to the right for all the sources of today's anti-social individualism. It should be self-evident to any objective observer that the trend has at least some roots in an anti-conformist rebellion identified broadly with the country's cultural left that continues today in any celebration of difference as an end unto itself. In our desire not to be held accountable to the village elders or gossips, many of us have come close to denying accountability to anyone, the law aside. For every person who doesn't want to be held accountable to a bureaucrat, there may be another who doesn't want to be held accountable to the neighborhood, the extended family, etc. While our grandparents may have had a legitimate complaint about the terms of accountability that prevailed in the "conformist" Fifties, mutual accountability itself is part of the essence of democracy. Ideally, it's through democracy that we negotiate the terms of mutual accountability. Unless we all agree to be answerable for any behavior that has or might be seen to have a social consequence, democracy may never live up to its potential to improve life for all its members. Will greater sociability restore our sense of mutual accountability, or at least remind us of our obligation to listen to each other? Perhaps. Some hope that practical experience will break down ideological and other prejudices. That might happen, but the test, if it comes, may also determine whether ideology can harden hearts and minds to the point where sociability and collective endeavor become impossible. Given the imperative necessity of collective endeavor at this point in global history, we'd better get the test over with sooner rather than later.

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