Din and Discord

Jan. 13, 2013, 11:27 p.m.

In last week’s column, I suggested that the origins of this nation’s unusually high levels of gun violence may lie partly in the erosion of the human connections that make America cohere. This week, I’d like to examine more deeply the dangers of social dislocation in a nation grounded firmly in diversity and individualism – and to ask, as Lincoln once did, whether any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.

The relative absence of unifying coercive mechanisms or natural cultural affinities in this country has generally meant that the ties that bind us to our fellow Americans must be forged freely and voluntarily. “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations,” observed de Tocqueville in 1835. “They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.”

The unifying social purpose of the German Volk or the Soviet proletariat has been fulfilled in America by the church, the sports team, the labor union, the company, the family, the Elks Club and the millions of other associative groups that give individual lives a larger meaning.

But amid the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, many sociologists argue, that old communal order began to crumble, replaced by an increasingly atomized society that valued solitude over togetherness and withdrawal over engagement. “I am a rock/I am an island,” sang Simon and Garfunkel in 1965. “I’ve built walls/ A fortress deep and mighty/ That none may penetrate/ I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain/ It’s laughter, and it’s loving I disdain… I touch no one and no one touches me.”

With each man his own island, the institutions that had bound society together began a long slide into obsolescence, with communities drifting further apart from one another even as their own members fled in droves. Political scientists, for instance, have noted a marked uptick in political party polarization, with Democratic and Republican legislators further apart on the ideological spectrum than they have been at any time since the 1920s. At the same time, a wave of political “dealignment” since the 1960s has sparked an exodus from both major parties, with the number of independents – at 40 percent, an all-time high – now outnumbering both committed Republicans (27 percent) and die-hard Democrats (31 percent). The parties don’t trust each other anymore, and we sure don’t trust them.

The U.S. military, once the crucible of the Greatest Generation, has undergone a seismic shift of similar proportion. The abolition of the draft has transformed the army into a professional, all-volunteer force, increasingly sequestered from civil society – with dangerous consequences. Lamenting “the modern military’s disjunction from American society,” Stanford History Professor Emeritus David Kennedy has observed that “history’s most potent military force can now be put into the field by a society that scarcely breaks a sweat when it does so. We can now wage war while putting at risk very few of our sons and daughters, none of whom is obliged to serve.”

The citizen and the soldier have split; so have an increasing number of husbands and wives. The meteoric rise of divorce rates since 1965 has resulted in a significant increase in the number of single-parent families – even as the number of Americans living completely alone, neither married nor cohabiting nor sharing a space with roommates, has reached an all-time high of 28 percent.

Not only do we increasingly live alone, we dislike talking to people who don’t agree with us. Not talking to them, as legal scholar Cass Sunstein points out in his book “Republic.com 2.0,” has become easier than ever, thanks to the comfortable “echo chambers” and “information cocoons” of the internet, which shelter us from the unpleasant cacophony of dissenting voices. And income inequality is at an all-time high, dividing rich and poor into extremes of stupendous luxury and grinding poverty.

None of this, predictably, bodes particularly well for society as a whole. Psychologist Muzafer Sharif’s classic Robber’s Cave experiment demonstrated the perils of inter-group competition and celebrated the benefits of intra-group cooperation: people are happier and less violent, in short, when we feel connected and dedicated to a common goal. The less united we feel, the more prone we are to societal violence.

The very nature of voluntary social disintegration, unfortunately, makes it one of the problems least amenable to solution by political means. Forcing people to associate violates core American traditions and values; the strength of our communities has been reinforced, as de Tocqueville noted, by the fact that we actively and freely join them. Next week, I’ll take a look at analyzing some tentative solutions.

“No man is an island,” wrote English poet John Donne. “Any man’s death diminishes me,/because I am involved in mankind./And therefore never send to know for whom/ the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

How right, and how prescient, he was.

Make a connection with Miles at [email protected].

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