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Jewish World ReviewJune 7, 2000 / 4 Sivan, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports

It's like knocking on a revolving door -- 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 our lives.

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 accept.

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 grandparents' generations.

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. Always.

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 still.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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