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In This Together?

Roy Christman is a retired political science professor and has a farm in Pennsylvania.

"We are all in this together." Signs with that message began popping up in my neighborhood a few weeks after the --lockdown this spring. The signs featured a group of diverse people standing together.

The sign was a lie. We are not a community, but rather a collection of people who live in proximity to one another. Before you write to tell me about your wonderful volunteer fire department, or the way your neighbors all came together to fill sandbags when the flood waters rose, I recognize we can find neighborhoods or organizations of people who care about each other. Unfortunately, the pandemic has exposed just how fragile and rare those communities are.

Robert Putnam noticed this a decade ago in his book Bowling Alone. Putnam pointed to a decline in face-to-face groups of all types, including religious organizations such as Knights of Columbus, labor unions, parent-teacher organizations, fraternal organizations like the Elks or the Lions, and, of course, political parties.

The AARP and the Sierra Club have both grown in the last 20 years, but that does not negate Putnam's conclusions. I belong to the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and the ACLU, but I have never been to one meeting of any of those groups. I have what is called a "checkbook affiliation." I mail in my contributions, and the organizations send me newsletters, calendars and appeals for funds. Those bonds are weak.

One of the saddest manifestations of the decline of community is the idea of "facebook friends." That phrase should always be surrounded by quotation marks, because those people are not really your friends. Not only can you not borrow a cup of sugar from them, but you can also unfriend them with the click of a key.

I'll admit that the internet has allowed people to find and bond with like-minded individuals. Unfortunately, these people may be white supremacists, pedophiles, anti-vaxxers, or conspiracy theorists.

Our institutions are growing larger and more impersonal every day. We don't visit our local hardware store, we go to Lowes. If we have a corner store, it's a Dollar General or Dollar Tree.

Our family doctor is probably associated with a giant regional hospital. Our cabbage and carrots are trucked in from the Salinas Valley, our chicken from Tyson, our ham from Smithfield.

The pandemic is accelerating all the bad trends. Even if your town has a local bookstore, you may opt for safety and purchase from Amazon. If your local movie theater has shut down, sit on your couch and order from Netflix. These are behaviors that will last after Covid 19 is history.

Can a democracy exist without face-to-face interactions? Again, even before the pandemic few people were attending local government meetings, voting turnout was abysmal, and people didn't open their doors to political canvassers.

While the Black Lives Matter demonstrations brought a wide variety of people together, those were largely transient events. I've been in enough demonstrations to know that while many of them are rather fun, they do not replace the hard work of political organization. If you doubt this, think about "Occupy Wall Street." The BLM movement has certainly raised the consciousness of racial injustice and already resulted in important policy changes, but check back a year from now.

When discussing the decline in community spirit and social bonds, consider the mask controversy. If we were a nation of people who cared about one another, mask wearing wouldn't even be an issue. We would be like South Korea or Japan, with the virus under control, the kids getting educated, the old people safe, the economy rebounding.

Almost 200 years ago Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote about the willingness of Americans to volunteer and work together to solve problems, was also concerned about the tendency of "...each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows" and leave the greater society to look after itself.

We are ditching the community and turning inward. Obviously, it is not working.

~ Roy Christman





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