Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

After having finished Hope against Hope which spoke of the condition of Russia in 1930's, I decided to swing in the opposite direction with the next book. In this case, Bowling Alone maps the sociological progression of the American community after World War II by examining the external relationships that Americans have with one and another. In 1930's Russia, no clubs, teams, or organizations could exist except one - the State. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the USA, where people are given the full freedom to take part in any community-based organization that exists. And, if one does not exist, we are entitled to create our own. This freedom of social involvement is one of the most crucial aspects of a vibrant democracy. Unfortunately, it has been in consistent decline since the late 1960's. Putnam attempts to seek out why this is the case and what can be done about.

The first part of the book introduces an important theme running through America. There are more clubs and organizations now than there ever were in the preceding decades. How then can one say that club memberships are down? What Putnam shows is how the dynamics of membership in these clubs are different. Today, there are all types of clubs imaginable. Organizations like Greenpeace, the NRA, or the Sierra Club have millions of members. However, the vast majority of these members will never actually come together to discuss a new approach to recycling or the caliber of their assault rifle. Instead they will rely on these organizations to act as lobbies mainly for political purposes. It is the other type of clubs that Putnam says are at risk: local Kiwanis, Boy Scouts, and Knights of Columbus.

Why have these organizations seen their memberships decline? Putnam plows through piles of data in search for the answer. However, like much in life, there is never just one justification. Instead, he identifies a few key contributors, which come as no surprise. Longer commutes, television viewing, duel income households and a generations shift, e.g. Americans in the 1940s were united by World War II. All of this leads to a reduction in social capital, which along side human and physical capital are crucial components of a successful society.

People that interact with others often are happier, more civic and less likely to commit crimes than those who are isolated. The communities in which social interconnectedness is strong, is a better, safer place to live than a less connected society. And, what I found to be most interesting is that encouraging certain aspects of social capital will lead to positive effects in what, at first glance, would seem not related.

For example, North Carolina scores 41st in the nation on SAT scores in High school while Connecticut scores 8th. According to Putnam, "by controlling for all the other ways in which the two states differ (wealth and poverty, race, adult education, and so on), for North Carolina to see education outcomes similar to Connecticut's, according to our statistical analysis, residents in the Tar Heel state could do any of the following: increase their turnout in presidential elections by 50%; double their frequency of club meeting attendance, triple the number of non-profits per thousand residents." As he goes on to explain, these factors above have a greater effect on test scores than many traditional, and often costly, education policies such as reducing class room size. Social capital is more difficult to measure but its presence in our lives cannot be ignored when attempting to tackle many of the problems facing our schools, inner cities, or entire states.

The question that I kept waiting to be answered is - so what do we do now? It never really was. I have a hard time believing the findings of this book came as a huge surprise back in 2000 when it was written. Has the situation improved since then? Have the I-pod or Facebook done more to worsen the situation? Has September 11th brought us together like World War II did in to previous generations?

On an even more philisophocial level, are these devices and trends simply a reflection of our society and the direction in which we want to go? Is it wrong if we find more satisfaction in isolating ourselves from others than in meeting with others? I, personally, believe it is. However, more importantly, my human instincts often act as my guide pushing me towards interaction with others. For me it is the best guide. However, I am not burdened by many of the damaging factors Putnam atributes to the reduction of our social interaction, namely a grueling commute or excessive TV watching. Eliminating these two factors would certainly open a new world up to hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. It seems like a good start could be to put down the remote. Let's start there.


Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstam

Saturday, March 21, 2009

One of the reasons I decided to write this blog was to become a more critical reader. Now as I read a book, I begin to formulate the arguments that are then discussed on this page. My most recent read proved to be a difficult text on a few different levels and as I type these words I am still unsure how to encapsulate the subject matter. Therefore, I now understand why George Steiner of the New Yorker is quoted as saying, "nothing one can say will either communicate or effect the genius of this book. To pass judgment on it is almost insolence-even judgment that is merely celebration and homage." I was not able to fully grasp the genius of this memoir written about Russia in the 1930's but I can relate in the difficulty of actually passing judgment on the work.

A dear friend of mine with a deep knowledge of communism has always told me that Marx's political ideology was never meant for a country like Russia. Certainly the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 led way to a complete transformation of a society at all levels - from economic to cultural. However the tactics used by Stalin to "pacify" society for the betterment of all led to a nation gripped by fear who saw millions of its citizens sent to the forced labor camps to die.

Within this period any type of expression deemed disruptive to the state was not tolerated. Those involved risked death. The intellectuals who supplied cultural material to the country did so either in a state-sponsored position or underground. The first approach meant that all poems, books and music were subject to government approval while the latter meant living a transitory life with no security, money, or assistance. Many of these individuals were seen as a nemesis to the state and were arrested and sent to camps.

Hope Against Hope could be the best and most humanistic account we have of what life was like during that period for someone who opposed the state. It is the memoir written by the wife of Oris Mandelstam - one of Russia's most famous poets. These two individuals spent their entire marriage on the run mainly due to one poem Mandelstam wrote which included two negative lines about Stalin. A poem! Arrest! What absurdity.

Our history of Russia and the will of man are both richer thanks to this book. Having access to this period cannot be taken for granted because so many millions of pages of text, be it poems, biographies or novels, never made it beyond the eyes of the secret police who confiscated and later destroyed them. The fact that this memoir survived is a miracle in its own right.


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