Thursday, February 16, 2012

Coming Apart in the Suburbs

A few interesting comments to this article from David Brooks about the new Charles Murray book, Coming Apart. I'll have more to say on this, but these commenters get one part of the puzzle: the way we inhabit the land has something to do with the decline of social cohesion and the "coming apart" of the United States. The question is, how much can we come apart and still remain a nation or even a coherent society with some sort of shared purpose?

For those of us living outside the city, I would add that the rise of the suburban nation contributed much to the decline of social cohesion. Americans (indeed everyone across the globe) once enjoyed compact living arrangements having access to everyday needs, social interaction and cultural activities, whether in a big city or small village. Not so anymore.

Suburbanization has pushed people apart, physically and socially. The simple fact of having to jump into a car to go anywhere or do anything that doesn't involve the people right next door has put us in a state of contiguous isolation.

For those of us living in the city I think that the flight of decent paying jobs to off-shore locations does in fact play a large role in social dysfunction. The job used to be a couple of subway stops away, now it's in China or Mexico. People who find themselves jobless and cut-off from mainstream society will quickly develop social pathologies that are hard to change.

What to do? We need to start down the long road toward changing our living arrangements from the dispersed suburban model to the historical compact model. And we need to bring jobs back home.

Whether in a city or village, we need to once more start living in places that foster social interaction and provide employment.

In addition to suburbanization, central air conditioning and TV have a had an impact on social disintegration. People stay inside in the comfort of their homes, especially in summer, rather than sitting on the stoop talking to their neighbors and keeping an eye on the neighborhood.

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If God had meant for people to live in suburbs he would have made much better television.

The reality is that with the moving of people to soulless meaningless suburbs with the megamalls and isolation has been a dismal sociological failure but has done wonders for American corporate elites. When consumption is valued more than community everyone suffers. The American suburb is the number one destroyer of families, to blame anyone or any political philosophy for this tragedy. Scoring political points by Mr Brooks is not surprising but failing to see a correlation between the first generation to grow up in suburbs and an inability to live in harmony with others is simply unforgivable.

I can't help but think about my own response to communal breakdown in the US and cannot to better than Bill Clinton's campaign response "It is the economy stupid." An economy based on isolated living will perforce create isolated individuals.

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Moe, I think you're right. We don't need a lot social analysis to recognize that technological changes, such as cars, suburban homes and interstates, can cause social changes by making it easy to move away from a community to an anonymous house in a place with no town square. The family started to break up, because it could. The car became a good place to get away from family and its traditions and responsibilities.

While poverty is corrosive and destructive to families and communities, it was wealth and elderly care programs that allowed children to migrate hundreds of miles from their parents and grandparents.


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Here we're absolving the one-percent for any responsibility in creating the social malaise that has made people lose hope. It's not about unfunded wars, decaying infrastructure, loss of jobs, homes, health insurance, affordable education, and other external factors that caused the moral doldrums in recent decades. It's just that several million people all decided, individually, to stop acting responsibly. Sure there's no hope, but that's no reason for a young person to drop out of an underperforming, under-funded high school, in which teachers are demonized as being incompetent liberal union activists. To do so demonstrates a moral failure.


And the cure for our ills is a large, paternalistic government, re-educating the masses, and gently "inducing" people to behave responsibly, as defined by our benevolent leaders. But based on recent pronouncements by conservative social thinkers, there might not be room for gay people who want to marry, or women who want birth control or to have some say over their bodies. There might be room for a few immigrants who make it over the electrified fences, but mostly the hard labor of brining in crops will be performed by high school graduates who can't find other employment.


This philosophy will be a realization of an amusing sign that used to hang in our office: "The beatings will continue until morale improves." Except this time, it won't be funny.

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The columnist is one among thousands looking for a bumper sticker slogan that cures all ills.

One of the problems with today's conservatism is that it doesn't recognize, or at least doesn't admit to, the complexity of modern society. A large, or very noisy, percentage of conservatives espouse the idea that, "If you had done as I did, you'd have done as well as I did", which is utter nonsense because many of the people who didn't do so well never had the option of doing as he did. Not even close.

This theory of choice implies everyone has equal resources, both intellectual and fiscal, if not physical. That has never been true, and is less true today than ever before. Hold the life of TV families up as exemplars of what is possible, then refuse the chance to reach for, never mind reach, that goal, and afterwards chide the person who has quit reaching.

The Republican Party has fallen into its own pit.

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