- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 2, 2001

Friends matter. Not so long ago we used to follow the adventures of that supposedly all-powerful institution, The FoBs, or Friends of Bill. Hardly a newspaper in Britain at the moment is complete without a reference to the alleged falling-out between Tony Blair and his Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown or to the impending demise of the TV show Friends. Now that we find ourselves at war, friends play an even greater role in our lives. (Greater perhaps than family, as many of us discover every year after 24 hours' close confinement with relatives over Christmas.)
But how often do we really pause to think about the nature of these relationships? In London, as in Washington, people take pride in their ability to cultivate acquaintances, the more powerful the better. E-mail allows us to gossip across time zones and thousands of miles of ocean. Yet do most of us have the time or, more to the point, the inclination to indulge in more than a little networking?
The question is posed in a provocative new book, "Losing Friends," by Digby Anderson, director of the Social Affairs Unit. At a time when so many think tanks prefer to engage in furious bouts of computer-generated number crunching, Mr. Anderson and his organization have made a point of keeping their eye on the personal as well as the political. Think of him, if you like, as a British equivalent of Gertrude Himmelfarb, always ready to pick away at the contradictions in liberal orthodoxy. He and his colleagues made themselves very unpopular in some quarters when they held up the Princess Diana phenomenon to scrutiny in "Faking It: The Sentimentalisation of Modern Society." Other titles such as "Gentility Recalled: 'Mere' Manners and the Making of Social Order," may have a whiff of tweeds and plus fours about them, but there is no question about Mr. Anderson's determination to open up new debates.
"Losing Friends" touches on some of the same civic issues as Robert Putnam's study, "Bowling Alone." Mr. Anderson's premise, starkly put, is that "being friendly is not the same as being friends." Although we may have lots of names on our Christmas card list, we find it much harder to sustain the level of commitment to a friendship that was common in previous eras. Mr. Anderson's models range from Aristotle to St Augustine, Montaigne to Thomas Jefferson. His melancholy conclusion is that the new "F-word" represents one of the most neglected virtues of our times:
"We have diluted friendship so that it is now largely a matter of recreation, passing an evening together plus sharing the odd minor confidence. We enjoy it but put little into it … Friendship, unlike the family and community is not accepted as an agreed foundation of society, as a legitimated publicly functioning institution. Even conservatively inclined scholars who talk endlessly about 'civil society' and the importance of social institutions between the individual and the state such as churches, neighbourhoods and local communities rarely mention friendship. Left-inclined thinkers, who used to make so much of solidarity, fraternity and comradeship … also ignore friendship. Indeed it begins to look as if there is something secret and even subversive about friendship today."
Not all of Mr. Anderson's arguments stand up to examination. One of the book's main weaknesses as he admits himself is that it concentrates on male relationships. You don't have to be a feminist to agree that women have done a pretty impressive job of creating and sustaining their own circles of friends often as a conscious counterbalance to the traditional old boys' network. You could also object that Mr. Anderson is too passionately attached to an ideal of friendship inspired by classical philosophy and a long-disappeared aristocratic model of society.
But he is surely right to make the basic point that we seldom give the question the serious attention and respect that it once enjoyed. More controversially still, he wonders if modern family life bears some of the blame too: Marriage and the ideal of romantic fulfilment have the effect of turning couples in upon themselves. In the process Mr. Anderson finds support in Mary Wollstencraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Women": "[Sexual] love from its very nature must be transitory. To seek for a secret that would render it constant would be a wild search for the philosopher's stone or the grand panacea: and the discovery would be equally useless, or rather, pernicious to mankind. The most holy bond of society is friendship."
All these questions have seemed more pressing since I discovered that so many of my friends, especially those who make a living in the media, have come out against the U.S. war on terrorism. What to do when a disagreement goes to the very heart of matters? After a flurry of arguments over the dinner table, we appear to have reached an unspoken agreement not to speak. Not the perfect option, perhaps, but I cannot think of a better one for the time being.
I have found some solace, though, in rereading "On Not Being A Dove," John Updike's reflections on the Vietnam era in his wonderful memoir, "Self-Consciousness," published more than a decade ago. A lifelong Democrat but a supporter of intervention in Indo-China, Mr. Updike found himself at odds with virtually all of his literary peers, many of his small-town friends and even his wife. His judgment on the peace movement speaks to us just as eloquently today, even down to the reference to the Lone Star State:
"The protest, from my perspective was in large part a snobbish dismissal of [Lyndon] Johnson by the Eastern establishment; Cambridge professors and Manhattan lawyers and their guitar-strumming children thought they could run the country and the world better than this lugubrious bohunk from Texas. These privileged members of a privileged nation believed that their enviable position could be maintained without anything visibly ugly happening in the world."
Peace, he observes later, is not an entitlement but "an illusory respite" that we must earn: "On both the personal and national level, islands of truce created by balances of terror and potential violence are the best we can hope for."
I have not seen any interviews with Mr. Updike since September 11th. I would love to know if he is experiencing a sense of deja vu.

Clive Davis writes for the Times and the Sunday Times, London.


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