- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2003

Relationship books. Junk food for the soul. You know the genre. How to get, keep, get rid of, get along with, intimidate, bewitch, bother and/or bewilder a lover, spouse, boss, adult child, childish parent, annoying in-law, co-worker, and/or other pest who won’t go away. Eleven times out of 10, such books are as harmless as they are pathetic.

In recent years, however, a new genre of relationship book has arisen that may be pathetic, but is far from harmless. These might be termed “communal relationship books,” as in “Better Together: Restoring the American Community.” Of late, we’ve witnessed a mild pandemic of such volumes, a few gaining transient public attention. They’re sappy, written by intellectuals who might study, but would themselves probably not care to associate too intimately with the real and fictive communities they extol.

They’re also, apparently, much funded by foundations whose enthusiasm for community-building (again, real and fictive) has led them to place only minimal emphasis on literary quality-control. Of course, if the project is headed by a Big Name, and the book is done by a Major Publisher, maybe nobody will notice how awfully boring it all is … and how pernicious it can be.

Robert Putnam is a big name, a Harvard professor of public policy.

A few years ago, he came out with “Bowling Alone,” a jeremiad over the disappearance of “community in America”— a book consisting of a few catchy phrases and a mind-numbing tonnage of statistics. Americans, he moaned, were no longer Joiners, as exemplified by the decline in bowling league membership. A few astute reviewers pointed out that Americans weren’t bowling alone at all, they were doing it with family and friends.

But it was the melancholy image of the solitary bowler that stuck.

Now Mr. Putnam heads the “Saguro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America,” described as “a gathering of leading thinkers and activists from many fields who for three years collaborated to develop a national agenda to build social capital.” Social capital, unlike physical and intellectual capital, is the power that comes from building communities. Mr. Putnam and his coauthors consider themselves “social capitalists,” a label that has less to do with capitalism than, perhaps, with distancing themselves from the dismal communitarian movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The book’s first paragraph sets the tone: dull, flat, weary, stale but (How much did the authors get in grant and advance money?) not entirely unprofitable. “In Better Together, we invite you to join us on a journey around the United States. You will visit big cities, suburbs, and small towns and meet people engaged in a wide variety of activities …”

Is this the best that Simon & Schuster can find to publish?

Twelve chapters of community-building sagas follow. The cumulative effect seems (to return to the junk food analogy) akin to swimming in a vat of soft vanilla ice cream. Please note: This says nothing about the persons described, or the validity of their work. It’s just that they come across more as stage props, or perhaps icons, than real people. The authors present all but three of the sagas approvingly, if not without an occasional pro forma caveat on the problems of cohesion versus diversity, etc.

Only the evangelical church and the United Parcel Service rate a certain muted sneerage. As for “cybercommunities” — ixnay. “Real” communities require physical contact and lead, in the authors’ vision, to activist mindsets and works (and “federations”) that, most often, might be described as liberal or far left.

And also, authoritarian.

And that’s my hiccup with the whole communal relationship movement.

Yes, America could do with a bit more community, especially in the inner cities. And yes, life is better when people say good morning and pull each other out of fires. But utterly lost in all this is the dark, oppressive, intolerant side of the “community” they wish to restore, and against which they measure our present civilization.

Or maybe, not so lost. For by “community,” Mr. Putnam and the rest of the communitarian/social capitalist movement mean far more than voluntarism. They mean, ultimately, community pushing their own agendas. The activities described in “Better Together” are sometimes necessary, sometimes interesting, occasionally admirable. But the tenor of the authors is not. It’s the old liberal social control and social engineering agenda, this time, reliant on the kind of authoritarian communities America neither can nor should resurrect.

Philip Gold is president of Aretea, a Seattle-based policy and cultural affairs center.

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