Jewish World ReviewJune 7, 2000 / 4 Sivan, 5760
It's like knocking on a
A number of possible reasons have been given for
the apathy, indifference, and downright contempt
with which many Americans have greeted this
year's national census.
The forms are too complicated, some people say.
Citizens no longer trust the government, others
say-- and certainly don't trust the government
enough that they are willing to answer personal
questions about their lives.
The idea of strangers going door-to-door and
expecting to be welcomed-- even if the strangers
carry official Census Bureau identification-- is
outmoded and not realistic, still others say.
It's the bureaucracy's fault-- the mechanics of this
census were not properly thought out, some say.
All of this, to varying degrees, may be contributing
to the troubles the government is having in
completing an accurate census. But there is another
reason-- one much more basic-- that may be
playing a bigger role in the rejection of Census
2000 than has previously been discussed.
The entire precept behind census-taking-- the
principle that propels it-- is based on the
assumption that few things are more significant to
Americans than a sense of place.
That's what the national census is built upon-- the
bedrock belief that, as large as the United States is,
it is basically local. We identify more closely with
our towns, our neighborhoods, our specific blocks,
than we do with the country as a whole. There's no
place like home-- and our homes are the centers of
That is why the Census Bureau has always been
able to count on ... well, to count on counting
correctly. A sense of place is so vital to Americans'
individual identities that they are willing, even eager,
to let the census-takers know the minutiae of the
places where they reside. The citizens have been
told that unless an accurate census can be
compiled-- unless every household is counted--
then their specific localities may be shortchanged
when it comes to government programs. To
cooperate with the census is, in the truest sense, to
stand up for the home team.
So what's going on?
Well, maybe it has something to do with Americans
beginning to believe what the culture has been
drilling into them for most of the last decade-- what
the culture, with the drip-drip-drip insistence of
water torture, has been trying to persuade them to
It is a theory-- the theory that place no longer
means very much.
We can be anywhere, we are told-- there are no
boundaries, no meaningful borders. At least that is
what the most powerful cultural voices have been
preaching for years. We are not limited by
geography-- we are free as the wind.
This is not seen in just the obvious places-- in
promotions for computer and software
corporations, promising us that with the tap of a
key we can be transported halfway across the
globe. It is also evident in such accepted daily
staples of life as easily accessed interstate
highways; bargain airfares; diminished loyalty
between companies and their employees. The
mobile society-- which started out as an alluring
dream-- has become a noncontroversial reality.
Americans are not tethered, in any way-- we can
get away on a moment's notice and be out of the
state within hours, we can travel anywhere we wish
and not consider the trip to be worthy of serious
reflection, we can and do change towns and jobs--
and marriages-- with considerably less
hand-wringing than did our parents' and
We are almost proudly unrooted. There's nothing
tying us down-- or so we proclaim. We have all
become-- in the most profound sense-- temps.
Oh ... that's not quite right. We haven't all become
transient-- there still are many people who are as
tied to their blocks and neighborhoods, who define
themselves by their addresses and their domiciles,
as did their mothers and fathers, grandmothers and
grandfathers. The sense of place is still a big part of
the national fabric.
But not to the extent that it once was. The temps
among us-- the Americans who never quite
unpack-- are a larger part of the country than ever
before. They have so bought into the idea of
boundaries not being binding that they, more than
the rooted Americans, are increasingly defining
who we as a people are. We're passing through;
there's something better waiting, or so we seem to
constantly hope, and whether we're pecking at a
computer keyboard or checking the job
opportunities in other states, we're ready to go.
The census? It's built upon the idea of people
willingly freezing in place to pose for a national
snapshot. The snapshot may be destined to be
blurred from now on. The subjects won't sit
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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