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Where Goes the Neighborhood?

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Consider how our definition of “neighborliness” has evolved. Once upon a time, being neighborly meant “reaching out to the people who lived next door” by, among other things, “offering to watch the kids in a pinch.”

Now, “being ‘neighborly’ means leaving those around you in peace.”

Or think about reSTART, the nation’s first rehab center for technology addicts who get so hooked to online games that their lives fall apart as their capacities for decision-making and self-control atrophy. As Hilarie Cash, a co-founder of reSTART, puts it: “We end up being controlled by our impulses.”

These insights come from two important new books that I hope will spur the creation of reading groups that span our ideological divisions. Both provide fresh thoughts about community in America that might win assent from left and right alike. And both help explain why we are so divided in the first place.

The initial observation is from Marc J. Dunkelman’s “The Vanishing Neighbor.” He argues that one of the most significant changes in the United States in recent decades is the decay of what he calls “middle ring” relationships. These involve people who are “not as close as kith or kin, but not as distant as a mere acquaintance.”

Middle ring relationships characterized the inner actions in the “townships” that Tocqueville lovingly described and that Dunkelman sees as the basis of our old-fashioned neighborhoods. These days, we spend less time with neighbors and more with groups closely tethered to our own interests — and, typically, to our own politics. By contrast, Dunkelman says, the “traditional” social architecture imbued Americans “with a certain familiarity with people from different walks of life” and allowed them to develop “a better understanding of where their acquaintances were coming from.” We are not doing this very well now.

The rehab story opens Paul Roberts’ “The Impulse Society,” which will be published in a few weeks. (I have an endorsement on the cover.) Its subtitle captures its theme: “America in the Age of Instant Gratification.” Roberts’ thesis reverses the hallowed Rolling Stones line. These days, we can usually get what we want, very quickly. But we can’t always get what we need to lead fulfilling lives or to construct a society we’re satisfied with.

Roberts is candid that he’s “an unapologetic liberal” who is “deeply distrustful of laissez-faire economics and the reflexive leap for quick, efficient returns that is grinding entire economies and cultures into the dust.” But contemplating the problems of a culture driven by impulses, he says, led him to certain “distinctly conservative” conclusions.

He writes: “The social elements that are most essential to maintaining a stable, sustainable society — among them, the emphasis on strong families and intact communities and an appreciation for personal virtues such as self-discipline — these are traditionally conservative objectives.”

Both authors acknowledge debts to earlier influential jeremiads (including “The Lonely Crowd” for Dunkelman and “The Culture of Narcissism” for Roberts) and both draw on the invaluable research of Bill Bishop and Robert Putnam. The typical knock on books focused on the decline of community is that they are nostalgic for an idealized past that was, in fact, quite flawed. Few of us would trade the progress we have made when it comes to choice, tolerance and equality of race and gender for the old order we have left behind.

Dunkelman and Roberts are careful to recognize the dangers of nostalgia, but their arguments are valuable precisely because they remind us of the connections we have lost and thereby challenge an easy complacency about how advanced and liberated we are. Cool stuff, like those video games that Roberts talks about, can crowd out warm personal bonds. The sum of the choices we consciously make and celebrate as individuals can have unanticipated social outcomes that we don’t like at all.

It’s easier and less challenging, for example, to engage with those who share our attitudes than to lend an ear to a neighbor who might be skeptical of our views on politics or religion. And as Bishop’s now classic book, “The Big Sort,” made clear, so many of us have chosen to live near people unlikely to disagree with us on much of anything.

Individual choice certainly has big advantages over a rigid collectivism. But solidarity sure beats impulsiveness, self-involvement and fragmentation. Right now, we’re much better at choice than we are at solidarity. We could use a neighborly national discussion about how to restore the balance.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.

© 2014, Washington Post Writers Group

E.J. Dionne Jr.
Columnist
E.J. Dionne Jr. is a writer with the Washington Post Writers Group. Considered among the best of America's new crop of columnists, E.J. Dionne combines his passions for people and politics with his keen…
E.J. Dionne Jr.

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