The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community
a book by Marc J. Dunkelman
(our site's book review)
Marc J. Dunkelman is a Research Fellow at Brown University’s A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions and a Senior Fellow at the Clinton Foundation. Dunkelman's tome discusses the same old familiar community breakdown issues using a few new contexts—most notably a three-ring model (family=inner, neighbors=middle, electronic=outer). Admittedly the middle ring is pretty broken, but then so is the inner ring, to which he dedicates only token notice. The book has good community sociology but no breakthroughs.
But then he steps in it bigtime: "The disappearance of these once-central relationships—between people who are familiar but not close, or friendly but not intimate—lies at the root of America's economic woes and political gridlock. The institutions that were erected to support what Tocqueville called the 'township'—that unique locus of the power of citizens—are failing because they haven't yet been molded to the realities of the new American community."
Dunkelman steps in it bigtime when he says disappearing neighbor relationships lie at the root of America's economic woes and political gridlock
Wouldn't it be cozy and convenient if the issues we like to think about and talk about or the ones we studied most in college are "at the root of America's economic woes and political gridlock"—basically the reason for America's decline, degeneration and regression? He seems to be getting his misinformation from reading CW (conventional "wisdom") pieces that give accepted political and economic excuses for "economic woes and political gridlock."
An example of CW misinformation is that Bush invaded Iraq over WMDs, but all informed readers and researchers know it was not WMDs (the cover story) but rather it was not only about oil but about wanting a war to stuff the wallets of the oligarchs who run things (NOT the presidents). But this is neither CW nor taught in universities. It is, however, in thousands of books, articles, and websites (even including mainstream media opinion pieces in the New York Times website: Errors and Lies, by Paul Krugman, NY Times). This is an example of the wider big picture perspective missing from Dunkelman's book, which leads him to faulty or at least incomplete cause-and-effect assertions.
Having the disappearing neighbor relationships be the key to our country's community and/or social problems, gets closer to the truth, but having them lie at the root of America's economic woes and political gridlock is simply flat-out wrong. This website is full of articles about the keys to our country's community and/or social problems—not just what they are but how best to deal with them or even fix them. We also look at America's economic woes and political gridlock, what causes these, and what are the best workarounds. But connecting up these disparate issues with misplaced causality accusations is irresponsible. Admittedly, we all tend to look for the causes we're most comfortable with and ignore the causes that make us queasy to ponder, but, like good investigative journalists, we must go where the facts lead us.
If he wishes to talk economic woes and political gridlock, he needs to read something outside of mainstream CW approved propaganda that fails (purposely) to see the bigger picture of what is really happening. Academia is not discussing the real gridlock and economy problems, but just the theoretical ones found in textbooks and research papers. One issue is that although authors like Dunkelman are extremely well-read and knowledgeable in their area of expertise, this focus prevents them from seeing some of the uncomfortable realities transcending mere sociological issues.
Both parties have been spending money we don't have on wars we don't want, and if this was a democracy the people would be able to vote to stop neocon warmongering. But it is not, so we cannot. The people do not want all the tax breaks for the rich that Reagan started and everyone continued, and if this was a democracy the people would be able to vote to stop tax breaks for the rich. But it is not, so we cannot. So we are 20 trillion dollars in debt and the banks are getting fabulously rich leveraging this debt. We'll be spending over $1 trillion a year on interest on the debt by 2020, which is $1 trillion we can't spend to educate our kids or to replace our badly worn-out infrastructure. We've traded these things for wars we don't want and to enrich already filthy rich oligarchs. And we cannot vote to prevent them from screwing up our economy this way. Some "democracy"! And of course big corporations offshoring jobs, and unwarranted inflating of cable bills and insurance premiums by huge cable and insurance companies contributes to citizens' economic woes as well.
The doomsday clock is currently set at 3 minutes to midnight
Unless American citizens start defecating money, the debt has put us all in deep doo-doo
Gridlock was engineered by the Republicans from the 80s to the 90s, using the ploy of social issues in a culture war fanatically supported by fundamentalist extremists who were tricked into voting against their own interests by cynical Republican leaders whose goals were lowering taxes on the rich and on the corporations of the corporatocracy, even though they represented themselves as moral champions stopping the evil Democrats from pushing abortions on the unwary. Uneducated people fell for this authoritarian nonsense in droves thinking of it as their religious duty (even though they didn't make religion political in the 60s and 70s). And in the 21st century the G.O.P. radicalized so that they no longer care about the environment or climate change or women's rights or regulation or birth control or teaching sex ed. and they believe in Creationism, the Rapture, school prayer, etc. They've deteriorated from the party of the rich to an apocalyptic cult that still happens to favor the rich and the extremists. See The New Know-Nothings: The Political Foes of the Scientific Study of Human Nature and The Age of Bifurcation: Understanding the Changing World.
And the Democrats went crazy for politically correct excess such as forcing P.C. on universities and police departments so that instead of teaching, professors obsessed on every word and microexpression for fear of being fired for not being P.C. enough, and cops were racist if they looked at blacks the wrong way or if they protected themselves using reasonable self-defense. Black Lives Matter signs popped up everywhere and the silly liberals popping them up never seemed to realize that there was an unspoken racism in the signs that disparaged whites as people who mattered LESS! (If you run around saying that green is a great color, everyone will be hearing, logically, that you like it more than other colors. Black Lives Matter signs have the same problem. They are more likely to increase racism than decrease it.) In a 2015 poll released by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a whopping 43 percent of Americans told researchers that discrimination against whites has become as large a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minority groups, and to these 136,000,000 Americans, these signs make their case. There's a student actually facing a 50-day suspension for saying "All Lives Matter"! Politically correct tyranny is afoot at the University of Houston. So much for our First Amendment rights! And nearly every liberal news website you can find has a story telling us how terrible we are if we utter words like All Lives Matter—hello white shaming, goodbye common sense. NOW you see why the liberals look just as wacko as the conservatives to those of us who are sick of all this polarization: they're on the verge of creating the thought police!
Beware of the thought police if you dare to have a politically incorrect thought!
So while community-focused Dunkelman insists the gridlock and economic woes are from community deterioration, those that have read and researched more widely see that he's being like the astrologer who insists that our woes have to do with the alignment of the planets or Marx who insisted our woes are about class struggles. I.e., just because you're always cogitating about your pet subject area does not mean that there's a cause-and-effect relationship between that and other areas of our existence. This is the logical fallacy of false cause: just because there is a relationship between things doesn't mean that one is the cause of the other. There are a ton of things community breakdown is causing, but gridlock and economic woes? A bit of a stretch to say the least!
Don't look at me—those other ants ate the antelope; I wasn't hungry, so stop pointing at me!
The author says that CW accepts that partisanship in Washington has deepened because of some combination of money in politics, gerrymandering, lobbyists and filibustering, yet he says, no, it's disappearing neighbor and community relationships that lie at the root of America's economic woes and political gridlock. (He chose dramatic appeal over factual accuracy by making such a claim.) Sure, community degeneration contributes to nearly every problem in the country. Granted. Neighbors are no longer neighborly and it sucks. Granted. But his demonization of disappearing neighbor and community relationships as the root cause of America's economic woes and political gridlock is like coming upon an army of killer army ants in the jungle who've just finished devouring an antelope they've felled and pointing to one of the ants and exclaiming "he did it!"
"The essence of the Vanishing Neighbor argument is that, for a number of reasons, principally the Internet, the middle rings of our interpersonal relationships have dramatically lessened over the last twenty years. 'The same influences that have worked to flatten the globe … have made strangers of the people next door' [says Dunkelman]." Dunkleman believes that three factors will determine whether we’ll be able to adapt:
- The extent to which networks [the Internet] continue to subsume [replace] townships
- How capable we are of establishing patterns in networked society that reflect the benefit of township familiarity
- Our capacity to re-form [not reform] the political system to fit the twenty-first century community.
In essence, will the effects of the Internet continue to be negative toward middle ring contacts and will be continue to insist on living in homogenous communities? If not, then our politics, political institutions, a ton of our public policy will need to be reshaped to better fit with the new realities. (Source: The Vanishing Neighbor, by Ron Coan, the Economic Development Curmudgeon)
Shadow government neocons run the U.S. like a puppet government
Note that our nation "adapting" is 1/3 dependent upon political re-forming. Yet the public is out of the loop as special interests of the corporatocracy buy elections, the shadow government neocons run the U.S. like a puppet government, happily transferring middle class wealth into the pockets of the oligarchs in charge, the corporatocracy greases the palms of politicians and leaders to such an extent that NONE of the following have any incentive to "re-form the political system to fit the twenty-first century community":
- Shadow Government Neocons
The above list of entities are screwing us royally—it is WE who must act if we are to solve any of our social problems
There's hardly a U.S. citizen alive who hasn't noticed that virtual/cyber community is replacing f2f community at an alarming rate. Outer ring rules as middle ring disintegrates. No news there, but the author seems to think it is news. (To whom?) Is this middle ring disintegration important? Very. Does it need addressing? Yes. Is it leading to needless suffering and unhappiness? Plenty! Dunkelman's point that we need to address it is important and his book nicely makes the case for these issues. His book has no real solutions to this middle ring disintegration that would work, but good generalities that establish a relevant context.
He says "Our national angst has less to do with what politicians, corporate executives, bankers and other bigwigs are doing (or failing to do) and more to do with subtle changes in American routine," which shows he just doesn't see the big picture regarding how our citizens are being screwed, but only sees (accurately) how community is disappearing at the same rate cybercommunity is taking over. See Why Do We Need Communities?.
In truth, our national angst has mostly to do with what politicians, corporate executives, bankers and other bigwigs are doing (or failing to do). Democracy is gone, the free press is compromised, lying is everywhere, the mainstream media gives us propaganda more often than facts, our rights are disappearing, a warmongering neocon shadow government rules and tells the elected leaders what to do, the citizens want peace, not war, but the neocons force them to war nevertheless, and our representatives in Congress represent only the corporatocracy, not citizens.
Our citizens want peace, not war, but the neocons force them to war nevertheless—using them as cannon fodder
When asked about building community-level strength, Dunkelman unfortunately sings the liberal politician theme song even though he isn't a politician: "There’s no single bill that will re-enliven the middle rings in one fell swoop. We’re going to need to adapt the institutions of American government to the new realities of American community." Note that he again heads toward CW perspectives, citing the use of bills in Congress to fix things legislatively, which, however well-meaning, is ridiculous. A thousand "bills" cannot hope to fix or even greatly affect disappearing neighbor and community relationships problems. Society is evolving away from f2f community and f2f neighbor relationships. The first thought that should have come up for him is grassroots movements, not social engineering via the legislature.
The people are seeing the true nature of politicians and the establishment as where the problems are, not where the solutions are. But the author has yet to catch up and catch on. It is NOT just Trump voters who see the system as broken. Nearly everyone does. The polls don't just say this—they scream it! See The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, The Concise Untold History of the United States, Democracy—an American Delusion, and Freedom of the Press—an American Delusion.
Republicans went crazy, Democrats became useless, and the Middle Class got shafted (or is it Trumped?)—so the author expects these people to address community breakdown?!
(Mike Lofgren, in The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, points out that the G.O.P. was and is pushing policies that are enriching the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. And to put the frosting on the cake, the party found a way to exploit the ignorant masses so cynically that it actually got them to vote against their own interests by creating diversions and distractions in the form of hot button issues like abortion, school prayer, creationism in schools, and birth control. The economic parts of the Republican policies would screw these millions of ignorant heartland sheep royally, but the PR experts [hired by Reagan's handlers in the late 1970s] and speechwriters of the G.O.P. got the sheep frantically obsessed with the social issues [that were previously not very important to them] so they were numb to their own impalement when it came. An elegant sleight-of-hand of the most cynical and revolting kind, these charlatans pretended to care about social issues while behind the scenes the actual event occuring was robbery on a massive scale, and the rich happily walked off with the loot they'd tricked the sheep out of. And the Democrats? They were the G.O.P.'s enablers.)
G.O.P. policies from 1980 on screwed millions of ignorant heartland sheep royally, but the PR experts and speechwriters of the G.O.P. got the sheep frantically obsessed with the social issues so they were numb to their own impalement when it came
The issue here (which the government will never admit since it would be the kettle calling the kettle black) is that it has been obvious for some time that the government isn't about to fix anything for us because their tampering just makes things worse and we all know it, so if anyone will be fixing anything it won't be them—it will be US or no one! Hell—these government bunglers can't even fix themselves, so how could they EVER fix community breakdown?!
Washington stinks—it is hopelessly corrupted by money and greed; if anyone will be 'fixing' anything it won't be them—it will be US or no one
We were happy to see him borrow from Alvin Toffler, the best futurist that ever lived. However, we find Toffler's books more insightful, more complete, and less repetitive than Dunkelman's.
The Third Wave presaged a dramatic shifting in social architecture that continues to radically remake society. The Third Wave, which included modern societies bending over backwards trying to accommodate the sudden appearance of the Information Age, is the shift to the technological society which produces massive shifts in the nature of our social architecture, upending the dominant township understanding of community and belonging. The technological revolution and its concomitant information age are re-making our social architecture.
In order to understand just how this is happening Dunkelman introduces a second framework: the middle ring, the township, the neighborhood, whose rhythms Robert Bellah dubbed Habits of the Heart. This middle ring has gotten upended, eroded, and destroyed. This death-of-community concept is decades old but important for us to keep hearing until we find an appropriate way to respond. (Which we have: see The Big Answer.)
Dunkelman responds by saying we can use existing institutions and socially engineer our way back to vibrant community and township realities, and we wish this were true but it is not. There are a lot of reasons the First and Second Waves are fading fast and the Third Wave is a happy replacement, but it seems futile to try to shoehorn some Waves of the past into the present Wave. It's like nostalgically beating a dead horse.
It's futile to try to shoehorn some Waves of the past into the present Wave—it's like nostalgically beating a dead horse
We, on the other hand, have watched politicians, social programs and social engineers muck up all over the place for decades trying to put bandages on spurting wounds and putting fingers into gushing dikes, and we say what Dunkelman seems afraid to say, probably because he is a liberal progressive: GOVERNMENT IS NOT THE ANSWER. This is difficult for tax-and-spend liberals to hear (so they rarely do), but if one looks at all the money the government has poured down the infinite black holes of well-intentioned programs with perverse incentives and bad results, one has to ask oneself: when will they face their failures and try something else?!
We've watched politicians, social programs and social engineers muck up all over the place for decades trying to put fingers in gushing dikes, failing to learn that GOVERNMENT IS NOT THE ANSWER
While Dunkelman is saying that we can use existing institutions and socially engineer our way back to viable community and township realities, we are saying poppycock: the social engineers have already proven they can do no such thing. There's no money for yet more heroic gestures anyway, so the whole thing is a moot point.
There's no question that if we use the right methodology we CAN regenerate healthy communities and neighborhoods like Dunkelman and we want; but he's just betting on the wrong horse
Now, even though the author is saying that social engineering might fix things, and we promise him it will not, this doesn't mean it's hopeless. He's just betting on the wrong horse, although some of his book sounds like there are no solutions, while hinting about "bills" suggests political saviors doing social engineering. There is absolutely no question that if we use the right methodology we CAN regenerate healthy communities and neighborhoods. Nor is there any question that this author has the best intentions and his goals are laudable. Nor is there any question that his quest for community revitalization and neighborhood empowerment is critically important, valid, and entirely necessary.
The important thing here is to avoid allowing the government to try (and once again fail) to pull a rabbit out of a hat—government is not the answer
It's important to get the government the hell out of the way—making sure they keep their mitts OFF the community restoration solution
The important thing here is not to get the government to try (and once again fail) to pull a rabbit out of a hat that fixes our communities, but rather to get the government the hell out of the way—making sure they keep their mitts OFF the community restoration solution! What, then, is the community solution? Forget government and let a grassroots movement of lifestyle empowerment take hold, at the level of empowering families and neighborhoods into vibrant microcommunities and when there are a few near each other, you will have evolved not just the townships Alexis de Toqueville (and Dunkelman and Bellah and this website's authors) love and admire, but the community revitalization and then national revitalization we all want, and it will be BETTER than the old-time functional communities dear to Dunkelman's heart! See all over this website (The Big Answer).
Uncle Sam wil not be riding in on a white horse to save us—if anyone will be fixing anything it won't be him—it will be US or no one!
Over two thirds of Americans believe government is elected by and for the few in 1991 [and in 1999 it was 75% and in 2012 it was 80%], and most feel powerless. Signs of apathy and alienation are hard to ignore. Polls in 1987 and 1990 showed an increase in the number of Americans who agree that "success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control" and that "hard work offers little guarantee of success." In the 1990 poll, 82 percent, a record high, agreed that "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer." (Source: Uebling, Mark, "All-American Apathy," American Demographics, November 1991, pp. 30-34)
Time editor-at-large Fareed Zakaria argued that “a ‘can-do’ country is now saddled with a ‘do-nothing’ political process, designed for partisan battle rather than problem solving. By every measure—the growth of special interests, lobbies, pork-barrel spending—the political process has become far more partisan and ineffective over the last three decades.” (Source: The Crisis of American Exceptionalism, by Marc Dunkelman)
The Pushmi-pullyu—the perfect metaphor for political gridlock
"The Vanishing Neighbor is a lucid guide to more than 60 years of social science research. Dunkelman has performed an exhaustive review of the literature and relies on it throughout. As a textbook on American community life, you could scarcely ask for better. . . . [However,] Dunkelman offers some solutions, though few seem directly relevant to the dearth of middle-ring relationships in America. Where they do seem relevant, they are unsatisfactory. A proposed system of community forums seems suspiciously like town hall meetings; a proposed 'universal national service' program for young people is unabashedly a return to conscription." (Source: Blogging Alone, by Blake Seitz, in the Washington Free Beacon)
"Dunkelman is less adept at solutions. The disappointment about The Vanishing Neighbor is that it doesn’t offer any. . . . Dunkelman appears reluctant to point to any fixes that have been tried or proposed in the past. At one point, he mentions national service as a practical way to bring diverse people together, which has some merit—but he backs away from the idea. 'Is there something that we might do to mold the nation’s citizenry to build more familiar connections to a wider range of acquaintances? Before answering that question, we need to determine whether, in fact, compelling Americans to rebuild village-oriented relationships is even a worthy goal.' Dunkelman never answers his question—apparently he believes that goal is not worthy. Unpacking those two sentences, Dunkelman uses words like 'mold' and 'compel' that imply Americans would have to be forced to reestablish 'village-style relationships.' On the contrary, I think that Americans are desperate to do so, but are held back by barriers in our modern society—some of our own making." (Source: The missing middle of our social lives, by Robert Steuteville, in Public Square: A Congress for the New Urbanism Journal)
What Dunkelman and Steuteville are missing is that nearly all of us like the idea of village-style relationships, but we know of few people we want in our village—we have yet to meet them. So we use the cybervillage of the Internet, create a village of likers and frienders and posters and chatters and tweeters peopled by superficial friends with whom we at least have interests in common. It is easy to find people we want to "village" with online. But rots-o-ruck finding those we want to "village" with in the real f2f irl world. No matter how much Dunkelman's tome disparages only showing interest in people like ourselves and rejecting those whose values differ widely from our own, this is the most reasonable successful f2f irl village plan for the 21st century, given modern realities. Steuteville says these barriers are of our own making, not noticing we make them on purpose for security, comfort, safety, peace of mind, and efficiency. It takes too much time to pursue relationships with those we're not like as well as with those we are like, so we opt for the latter so there's something to talk about. (However, in an MC context, creating deep friendship bonds with those we share values, interests, childcare and elder care with pays off huge dividends and has only upsides—no downsides. It even saves money. See The Big Answer and The Forest Through The Trees.)
The Vanishing Neighbor argues that to "win the future" we need to adapt yesterday’s institutions to the realities of the twenty-first-century American community. Although it would be great if such an adaptation occurs, it won't be "winning any future." And institutional adaptations will not be coming about because of legislature or politics or social programs. Instead, grassroots movements with articulate leaders hold out far more hope, regardless of any author's opinions to the contrary, especially since it's a moot point—there is no money available to play social engineer with anyway.