Posts Tagged ‘community’

Historian Richard Brown recounts, in his important 1989 book, Knowledge is Power, how Americans of the early nineteenth century learned to take in the torrent of information that had been unleashed on them.

In the mid-eighteenth century, most Americans learned the news, be it about colonial wars, tragic shipwrecks, or new ideas about liberty, by word of mouth. Someone in the village received a personal letter or a newspaper that he would read to others in the town square. Or tavern habitués heard the “latest” from a traveler who had heard it in another tavern in another town. (See this earlier post: “18th-Century Twitterfeed.”)

Within a couple of generations, there were many more newspapers, a national postal system, lecture societies, mass public speech-making, traveling ministers sermonizing, lending libraries, novels, almanacs, and the like. This produced, Brown argued, the democratization of knowledge on the one hand, but also its privatization on the other. Individuals learned news on their own rather than in the company of others; it brought, wrote Brown, a certain loss of community.

A new, massive study by sociologist (and my Berkeley colleague) Heather Haveman provides a detailed account of one those new forms of media–the magazine. Her book, Magazines and the Making of America: Modernization, Community, and Print Culture, 1741-1860, tells how this innovative “social media” flourished and influenced American society two centuries ago. It also draws a different lesson about media and community.


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For most of the twentieth century, Americans took a certain social geography for granted: the well-off lived in the suburbs, encircling poor city centers. When I wrote a book on “The Urban Experience” forty years ago, most Americans viewed that experience with trepidation. The image of city life as bleak, dilapidated, and dangerous became entrenched. Moving to the suburbs, which the American middle class had been doing for generations, turned into “flight.” But those scary years were unusual. Historically, cities have been wealthier, safer, and more welcoming than their surroundings.

Now the wheel has turned again. The city is glamorous again; filmmakers are having trouble finding stereotypically grimy alleys in Manhattan. Today’s political fights are not about stemming urban decay but about stemming urban upscaling. What happened?

See my column on this question at the Boston Review: here.

Update (Dec. 4, 2017):

From an NBER Working Paper, titled “Urban Revival in America, 2000 to 2010“: “This paper documents and explains the striking rise in the proclivity of college-educated individuals to reside near city centers… We find that changing preferences of young college graduates for… amenities like restaurants, bars, gyms, and personal services account for more than 50 percent of their growth near city centers.”

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(This awkward title is one solution to complaints about “American Exceptionalism.” As discussed in a 2011 post, the phrase has recently come to mean, to some political partisans, “American Superiority.” For generations, however, students of American society have used the first dictionary definition of exceptionalism: “the condition of being different from the norm” [Merriam-Webster], more specifically meaning that the U.S. is an outlier among — way different from — other western nations.)

My take on the how and why of American Way-Differentism appears in the book, Made in America. Parts of the argument are summarized in a new essay for a joint project of the Smithsonian Institution and Zócalo Public Square on “What It Means to Be American.” The essay is here (and here and here as well).

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When Americans talk about seeking the “common good,” what’s the “common” they are talking about? The eminent American historian, William H. Chafe, writing in the journal, Daedulus (pdf), argues that two “overriding paradigms have long competed in defining who we are. The first imagines America as a community that places the good of the whole first; the second envisions the country as a gathering of individuals who prize individual freedom and value more than anything else each person’s ability to determine his own fate.” For Chafe, the common is the “whole” of “America as a community.”

Boston Common 1906 (LC-USZ62-102342)

Chafe then tells a familiar “declension” story: that settlers – notably the Puritans seeking to found a “citty upon a hill” – had come to America to build community, but selfish individualism undermined community. (Puritan ministers started telling this story to chastise their congregants not long after landfall.) Ever since, Chafe writes, it’s been a struggle between “the common good and the right to unbridled individual freedom.” That struggle has played out, he argues, between those advancing national, government programs for all citizens (like regulating work conditions and establishing Medicare) and those resisting the programs in defense of  individualism.

I think there is an error here. Many, perhaps most Americans, who have resisted the national programs that Chafe likes (and that I like, too) are not defending libertarian individualism – although they sometimes invoke that language. They resist because the common good for them is not that of the national community; it is common good of the small, local, voluntary community. And the national state is a threat to that common good


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