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Jewish World Review / July 1, 1998 / 7 Tamuz, 5758

Clarence Page

Clarence Page Get off your, uh, couch, America!

WASHINGTON - I admit it. When I hear someone ask me what I think about ignorance and apathy, my first impulse is to respond with the old gag line, "I don't know and I don't care."

But these days I can no longer dismiss the call to fight ignorance and apathy so casually and neither should you. Too many intelligent voices of all political stripes are talking about it, mostly in the form of complaints.

Harvard professor Robert Putnam got the ball rolling in many ways three years ago with his provocative article, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" in the Journal of Democracy. Just as bowling teams have largely given way to individual bowling in recent years, Putnam wrote, so has involvement in the various civic activities that form our social and civic glue. The results: social fragmentation and destruction.

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
Now reactions to Putnam are blooming all over. For example, syndicated Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr., author of Why Americans Hate Politics, has released a new book that might well be called, Why Americans Hate to Get Off the Couch.

Titled Community Works: The Revival of Civil Society in America (Brookings Institution Press), it offers 18 essays that explore the breakdown or corruption of civil society in America in recent years and how we might build it back.

It includes voices that range from liberals and moderates like Dionne, retired Gen. Colin Powell and former Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey to more conservative voices like Princeton political science professor John J. DiIulio Jr., social critic Gertrude Himmelfarb and Republican Senators Dan Coats of Indiana and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Each laments in different ways a breakdown in civil society, which Dionne describes as "the organizations and places where everyone knows your name, and probably a good many other things about you, and your commitments, and your family." They are the community associations outside of government and the economic markets - churches, PTAs, Little Leagues and so forth.

Himmelfarb, a fan of Victorian morality, breaks from the rest in questioning the new concern about civil society precisely because "people of such diverse views can invoke it so enthusiastically." She argues that current civil society may be "part of the problem rather than the solution" and calls for the more difficult task of "moral reformation," a vigorous stigmatization of illegitimacy, promiscuity and chronic dependency as vices.

Elsewhere, two former presidential hopefuls, former senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, a Democrat, and William J. Bennett, the former drug czar and secretary of education, a Republican, last week released a report financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts called "A Nation of Spectators," which also lamented a national decline in civic involvement. The two men are co-chairs of the National Commission on Civic Renewal, a bipartisan group of public officials and scholars.

On a third front, we have "Governing America: Our Choices, Our Challenge," the latest in a series of National Issues Forum reports prepared by John Doble Research Associates, under auspices of the Kettering Foundation. Also released last week, it observes, "Despite peace and prosperity, people continue to feel alienated and disaffected."

Oh? Maybe people continue to feel alienated and disaffected precisely because of the nature of the currently robust peace and prosperity.

There has been a decline in voluntarism as American workers have gotten busier, commuting longer distances and working more hours. Dionne points out that working women quite correctly have called for proper compensation for their labors, depriving many voluntary organizations of the free labor many women used to perform. Traditional community stability and cohesiveness also has suffered in the wake of increased mobility by many families in search of work.

But, as DiIulio's essay points out, as much as team bowling has declined, church attendance is up and the social activism of those churches is vigorous, although sparsely publicized. DiIulio cites a 1990 study of more than 2,100 urban black congregations that found about 70 percent sponsored or participated directly in community outreach activities, including day-care facilities, substance-abuse prevention, food banks and homeless shelters.

We tend to take such church work for granted, but, as DiIulio points out, imagine the increased cost to taxpayers if all the churches, synagogues and temples that now offer help to the poor, the young, the elderly and the distressed suddenly stopped offering it.

Maybe the answer to this predicament is right beneath the noses of the experts. Instead of trying with varying degrees of success to replace traditional civic institutions, government should be directed to form more partnerships with them, particularly in areas where poverty has become concentrated most heavily.

To understand why people are apathetic, look at what gets them involved. When Americans know their efforts will make a difference, they turn out in great numbers to help. When they don't know, they won't care.


6/29/98: Have conservatives won the media game?

©1998, Tribune Media Services.