In a New York Times column (“How to fix politics,” April 12, 2016), David Brooks picks up an interesting theory regarding “middle-ring relationships” from Marc J. Dunkelman’s book The Vanishing Neighbor. According to Dunkelman, the middle ring of society—the neighborly, civic sphere—is vanishing, even as family ties (the inner ring) and Facebook/friendship ties (the outer ring) are generally holding steady.
Tellingly, notes Brooks, the inner and outer rings are extensions of ourselves, which is why, of course, they are maintained. The middle ring is different—it’s where citizens used to interact for the common good in public meeting places like the local Shriners club or the PTA. Brooks mourns the loss of these middle-ring relationships because they were effective training grounds for compromise and collaboration. He links their disappearance to today’s increasingly strident political polarization. What’s to blame for this loss of civic-mindedness? Brooks faults the “individualistic/autonomy mind-set that has overtaken American society.”
There may be other reasons as well. Did people connect more readily with their neighbors in the past because their neighbors were pretty much just like them? Is racial or ethnic diversity to blame for our abandonment of the middle ring? Is our manic pursuit of affluence and entertainment a symptom or a cause of our idolizing of self? Perhaps what’s really vanishing is a common Christian heritage with its “love thy neighbor” principle.
Dunkelman describes what he calls a distinctly American foundational core of “townshipped” society, vigorous throughout the Agricultural (First Wave) and Industrial (Second Wave) Revolutions, with political power emanating from the municipal to state and federal levels. This foundation forced diverse neighbors into regular contact and cooperation.
Now, however, we are headlong into a Third Wave revolution comprised of three interlocking strands: (a) technological and economic shifts, (b) enhanced physical and social mobility and (c) a radical transformation of family life. This newborn culture has itself already engendered two sweeping consequences. One, our world has become much bigger. Two, how we spend our time and energy has been radically altered. Together these effects have obliterated community chemistry.
The technological/economic shifts include globalization, digitization, and the expansion of a service economy. Dunkelman notes, “We’ve moved away from lifelong relationships with our employers to plug-and-play sorts of arrangements” (20). Cumbersome travel used to keep communities intact, forcing citizens to patronize local merchants and attend parochial churches. But today, “Limits to the average routine—where we shop, what we might eat, whom we might know—are gone” (26). Social barriers against people of color, women, and sexual minorities have been or are being dismantled by civil rights movements.
I was interested in what Dunkelman had to say about women and family. He addresses the topic at length, concluding, “Viewed collectively, changes in the role of women, the sanctity of marriage, the process of adolescence, the permissibility of divorce, and the proliferation of single-parenthood mark a veritable revolution in American family life” (30, 31). Rather than the fulcrum of flourishing middle-ring relationships, as I would have thought, he presents the contributions of women as one factor among many others.
Even as Dunkelman confirms that women’s employment opportunities have expanded, the value of middle class earning has decreased. To compensate, both men and women work more hours than ever before. But the U.S. remains an affluent nation and, with basic health and safety needs met, consumer appetite is ballooning: “Americans can shop more discerningly for what they want; they can associate more freely with whomever they like; they can live more exclusively among the neighbors they prefer. Each individual American now has much more choice in crafting the life he or she wants” (49).
In this self-crafted life lies the pivotal contrast. Townshipped society—“where communities of people with different skills and interests, disparate concerns and values, collaborated with their neighbors in the pursuit of the common good” (xiii)—has evolved into a networked society honed to the individual’s good.
This desire to shape one’s own life and privilege one’s own values has created a huge sociological shift in almost every area. Despite public avowals of the value of diversity, Americans relentlessly seek out and align themselves with others who think the same way. Hence the palpable polarization noted by David Brooks. The great divide. Fox News and MSNBC. Christians aren’t immune from the influence, either. We increasingly gravitate to churches based on individual preference, willing to drive outside of our own area to find what suits us. Dunkelman highlights the irony of this networked life: “Empowered with the opportunity to connect with people who reflect our values and outlook, we’ve become more microscopically homogenous amid a sea of diversity” (48).
Dunkelman concludes his book hopefully. Understanding the problem—the fact that we’re transitioning from a townshipped social architecture to a networked one—means we can make adjustments and amend our direction. He’s skimpy on practical solutions, though. After his incontrovertible analysis of contemporary trends, his optimism appears featherweight.
Plus, I still don’t find his original premise convincing. While it may be true that neighbors were less able to ignore one another in a townshipped community, Dunkelman doesn’t prove his assertion of cooperative diversity. Women, blacks, aboriginals, and immigrants were clearly marginalized throughout First and Second Wave society. Middle-ring collaboration was shared by a far narrower slice of the population, I suspect, than Dunkelman implies. Moreover, he studiously avoids addressing the fact that the broad culture was predominantly Christian, or, at the very least, held in common a Judeo-Christian morality that facilitated compromise.
However, I applaud his desire for a resurrection of social trust. As a Christian, I want to do my part. A blog post by Rebecca Korselman ushers Dunkelman’s theories right to my own front door. She relates a talk she had with a student:
Through the course of our conversation, we agreed that as we age, most of us keep selecting workplaces, neighborhoods, jobs, social activities, and even churches that reflect our same ideas and opinions. Which means we don’t choose to spend time with and rub shoulders with people who think, act, and behave differently than we do. Most of us do not choose to invest our time and energy into the people we see as “difficult.”
But what happens if all we do is spend time with people we like and who see the world in a similar way that we do? I have had a number of people discuss the current presidential race and ask questions like, who is actually voting for Trump? I don’t know anyone who is admitting that they voted for Trump, so how is this happening? How is this possible? It seems to me that if we don’t understand a popular cultural movement, maybe we need to spend more time with people who live, work, socialize, and worship in a world that is unlike our own. It might be difficult, but a valuable experience.
Korselman offers a starting point for a Christian response, a challenge to simply connect with our neighbors. To gain insight. To offer friendship. Maybe we’ll find we can be Christ to the person next door. Or maybe we’ll find that they can be Christ to us.