Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cars, Community, and the Snowmapocalypse

Back in the 1990s, there was a little book by Robert Putnam, a Harvard political science professor. The book was entitled "Bowling Alone," and chronicled a strange movement in American life. Americans had always been social people, community oriented and engaged. We seemed compelled to gather in voluntary organizations, which were the seed beds of our democratic inclinations. We also gathered to pray and play, and the bonds of our local organizations wove us together into a whole.

Putnam documented a shift in the American ethic, as more and more neighborhood associations withered and died. We seemed to no longer care about our communities, or about the folks immediately around us. Even community pools and bowling leagues seemed to be drying up. We would "bowl alone," rather than in leagues. He argued that this was a trend, and that it was unsettling. It got buzz. Some folks agreed with him, and fretted. BowlAmerica disputed his premises. He did the talk show circuit for a while, which is pretty much unheard of for political scientists. He milked it for a while, and then faded off into comfortable academic obscurity.

But for all the buzz and hubbub amongst the talking classes, Putnam's thesis of social and political disengagement had...well...a little flaw. When folks would ask him why this was happening, he had absolutely no clue. None. No governing thesis. No subtle intuition. The closest he got to it was to suggest that maybe we watch too much teevee.

This last week, those of us who live in and around Washington DC got a hint as to the real cause of the decline in our civic life, which seemed to elude Putnam. It isn't television.

It's the automobile.

For one week, we've been without consistent access to our cars in this town, as the Snowmapocalypse (tm) has pounded the bejabbers out of our road system. I've driven our car just twice since last Friday, once to go get a couple days supply of pizza on the night of the first storm, and again so that the family could just get the heck out of the house in the lull between the first and second storms.

In that time, I've repeatedly met and talked with neighbors as we shoveled and walked to the nearby grocery store. For days, folks were exchanging greetings, talking about both the snow and life in general. The neighborhood was suddenly not full of cars. It was full of faces. Yes, they were under hats and wrapped in scarves, but the neighborhood stopped being filled with passing Toyotas and Hondas and Fords. It was populated, suddenly, with human beings. Who, naturally, we'd want to nod or smile or talk to.

As we drop back into our sealed transport pods, we're going to lose a little something. Yeah, I know, we get our social primate jollies other places now. Here in the blogosphere, for instance. Or on Facebook or Twitter. We also get in our transport pods and go to far flung activities for the kids, or to the mall, or to our Jesus MegaCenter to share some inspirational screen time with three thousand strangers. There's a sort of community there, right?

Perhaps. But it isn't the same. Being sealed away from our neighbors as we go about our business has an impact on our communities. It undercuts our situational awareness of one another, and dehumanizes a huge proportion of our daily lives. A nation that has conformed itself to the culture of the car will, inevitably, be a little less social. A little less community-oriented. A little less open to the give and take that is at the heart of democracy.

A little less American.