Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Marc Dunkelman's "The Vanishing Neighbor" and the paradox of the township world of De Tocqueville

Author: Marc J. Dunkelman

Title: “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community

Publication: W. W. Norton, ISBN 978-0-393-06396-7, 291 pages, hardcover, 3 Parts, 15 chapters, with Introduction (20 roman pages), and Conclusion.

Amazon link is here. 
The author is a Research Fellow at Brown University and a senior fellow at the Clinton Foundation.
Numerous authors, ranging from libertarian (Charles Murray) to socially conservative (Rick Santorum) have described the gradual erosion of “social capital” in American society, and a disinclination of self-defining individuals (perhaps with some concentration of women and “creative” (whether gay or not) men to accept goals that follow common structures in the larger community.  Call this a decline in “eusociality” if you like.

Dunkelman believes that most people remain socialized closely with immediate family or life partners, and in novel ways as “global citizens” with others now through social media. What has declined is the “middle rings” of relationships with neighbors or accessible townspeople, which straddle real friendship with acquaintanceship.  It occurs to me right now that I touched on this in a freshman English theme that lost fall semester at William and Mary in the fall of 1961, where we had to “define” something, which I chose to be “friendship”.  I got an A- on that theme, to the consternation of my roommate.

Dunkelman does review the role of the township in American life, as it drew the attention of Alexis de Tocqueville (“Democracy in America”)

The author gives several interesting narratives of how some sociological processes work.  He says that “inefficient” physical social structures sometimes lead to a town or an area’s economic growth, as he compares Allentown, PA (which is diverse) to Youngstown OH (which is more conventional and therefore stagnated).  He explains why New York City and especially Manhattan grew faster than nearby New Jersey.  That reminds me of what Paul Rosenfels often referred to as the “bumping frequency” of loose friends who live in neighborhood (like the East Village, in his case) in a large city.  That is different from “neighbors” in a suburb, who are tending to view neighborliness as lack of offense.  (Oh yes, the whole “neighbor’s tree” problem).  My parents saw the suburbs as virtue-producing, as they demanded a family-centric personality that could forego the endless interpersonal opportunities of the large city.  But for so many years, the burbs were about “taking care of your own first.”

He also suggests that the weakness of “middle ring” ties relates to political gerrymandering and helps explain the hyper-partisanship of politics that has become very dangerous, as with the debt ceiling debate, at least twice.

He goes into some detail over the growing crisis over eldercare (the “giant sucking sound”), where savings can not forever stop the “pension tsunami” or keep Social Security and Medicare afloat, and where looser extended family and neighborly ties leads to institutionalization of the severely disabled (as with Alzheimers) while family members who try to take care of their parents wind up as the “sandwich generation”.  He never gets around to filial responsibility laws, which, though rarely enforced, could make new norms of family responsibility, especially for the childless, mandatory.

The builds a case that rebuilding “middle rings” will require more “grit” from individual citizens, which has to start with how we educate kids and teens (which he introduces with the “marshmallow test” for deferred gratification).

One can ponder what Jesus means by "neighbor" in the Gospels. 
Second picture is Kipton, Ohio (Camden Township), 5 miles west of Oberlin, where I spent summers as a boy (picture in 2010).  

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