“Apart from authority, as even the great anarchists have insisted, there can be no freedom, no individuality.” – Robert Nisbet.
It’s a given fact that community health has declined drastically in the U.S. since World War II. More people live alone, live isolated, and suffer from depression, than in any other time in US history. Even though the country has seen dramatic improvements in technology and a reversal of institutionalized racism in the government and public and private sectors since the 1950s, and this is undoubtedly positive, society itself has never been so divided, fragmented, and atomized. We live with road rage, mass shootings, depression and suicide epidemics, drug addiction, multi-generational poverty, ever-declining schools, political polarization, and social isolation and alienation on a scale unlike anything we’ve known as a nation, or even as human beings.
Community health is as important as nutrition, fitness, health care, the environment, or any other aspect of health. I would argue that it is the most important part of health, the one that binds the others together. A person without a healthy community or culture is not healthy. Healthy communities build healthy citizens, people who feel both a sense of belonging and a sense that their lives have meaning and are worth living.
In this series of essays, I’ll be summarizing a well-known and pivotal book on community by the former UC Berkeley sociologist Robert Nisbet, called “The Quest for Community” which was published in 1953. It’s unlikely that this book, considered by many to be the definitive work on community in American history, makes it into many Public health curriculums. I could be wrong, but modern American education, particularly public education, is administered in purely “utilitarian” terms and avoids value judgments of any kind at all costs. So in that sense this book is a “conservative” book, not in the modern left / right dichotomy or political sense, but in that it sees valuable things about the past like community, which have been lost in modernity.
Modern public health discourse is completely relativized of moral or value judgements, because that’s the postmodern world we live in- moral judgements, unless they are part of the zeitgeist- the “march of history” of dogmatic progressivism, are not allowed. For example, If men and women are statistically happier, healthier, and wealthier if they get married as husband and wife before having kids, and stay married and stay employed, this is effectively “off the table” in public health discussions because under modern public paradigms of social discourse this reinforces the “patriarchy”. In discussions on public health and community health, tragically, moral discussions, about what we “should do” and “ought to do” are off table.
The “Quest for Community” is therefore a different kind of book than what we’d see coming out of a top tier university today. Perhaps because it was written in a different era, 1953, a professor at an Ivy League-caliber (Berkeley) institution was allowed to publish it, with great influence. It’s doubtful that he would have been able to now, in 2020. Books with moral overtones about community health coming out of leading Universities are now few and far between.
I’ve thought long and hard about community health my whole life. I’ve even struggled with the concept myself, how to live it myself and how to teach it as something worth working for. Maybe it’s because of the way I was raised, in a small town, where my parents still live in Alabama, attending the same church they have attended my whole life, 43 years. Maybe it’s because so many people in my community- teachers, neighbors, family members, and friends helped raise me and I feel a certain moral responsibility to pay others back through community. Or maybe it’s because my family goes back to the founding of America, and has been in the Southeastern Appalachians since the country began. Regardless, culture and community have been a concern of mine since I was young.
Community seems to have declined even more since I was a child growing up in the 80s. I can remember when town squares were vibrant, when family reunions were big, and when High School football games were the biggest thing all year. And I can remember like yesterday a day when I as an 8 year old child, would leave my house and visit every single house on our street, and go inside each house. What sane parent would do that nowadays? What the hell happened over my short lifetime? What happened to our communities? It’s a dark theme and I’m not sure we want to know. I think sometimes we’d rather watch TV or stare at our phone.
Sure the internet made an impact. The growing sprawl of isolated suburban-style living didn’t help build community. Abundances of smartphones and entertainment didn’t help either. But there’s more going on than that with the almost complete collapse of community. So follow along as we make our way through Robert Nisbet’s “Quest for Community.”
I will summarize each chapter as I go, pointing out highlights and giving you some quotes. One thing to keep in mind is that the book was written originally in 1953, although the preface was updated in 1970 by the author, as the U.S. was going through the “Cold War” with the communist Soviets which dominated the nation’s attention. Nisbet’s ability to see through to the deeper parts and problems of this era with keen insight and depth, is what inspired me to write a summary of it. Communism was a revolutionary movement, another in a long historical line of revolutions which began with the French revolution.
Man is a communal creature. If he doesn’t get community in a healthy way, in families, neighborhoods, guilds, crafts, churches, social roles, or hobbies, he will get it in darker ways, like revolutionary movements. Revolutions, good or bad, are definite and concrete ways to belong to something, and the war mentality associated with revolutions can be a fulfillment of moral longing for community, which has been slowly disappearing in modernity. Nisbet saw this clearly in the Revolutionary movements of the 18th, 19th and 20thcenturies- the French Revolution, Fascism, Communism, and various other groups and cults. At their core, though they may have started with legitimate political complaints, these revolutions were also ways of people belonging to something. Most people during the Cold War didn’t see this part of it. The communists, as well as other fascists and revolutionaries, though some were certainly gangsters and sociopaths, were also atomized and deracinated people looking for culture and community in industrialized societies, caught up in a demonic political hurricane they eventually couldn’t control.
I think about what Nisbet wrote when I watch the news today, because the news today seems always on the verge of Revolution, left or right. I think it’s easy to latch on to one movement, one political party, or one group when what we see in front of us pushes us that way. Especially when the concept of the Nation, in our case the USA, which is a modern political way of belonging, has had its essential story changed and now shamed. It is no longer seen as a flawed but ultimately great and admirable country which we can belong to and be proud of. The story has changed from what started as a flawed but essentially good historically European nation which eventually would get things right, to the current story of an inherently evil nation, tragically flawed and in need of overthrow by the guardians of progress.
Under this circumstance, in 2020, many are looking for somewhere else to belong. Not able to latch on to a sense of national pride, modern community has suffered even more than when this book was published. At least in the 1950s we still had the Cold War against the communists to bring us together. Patriotism is dead or dying, killed off through narrative combat. Luckily many are still looking in positive and healthy places for community, in workplaces, in neighborhoods, hobbies, or in churches and other civic organizations. But many millions more seem to be either becoming radicalized or becoming violent, from self-imposed but also culturally encouraged isolation, loneliness, atomization, and a sense of nihilism and doom. I’m writing to stop that destructive trajectory. Perhaps the smallest bit of work can turn things in the right direction, in the direction of positive, constructive and healthy forms of community.
Let’s see what we can learn from Robert Nisbet’s “The Quest for Community” which might speak to our time. Enjoy this e-book and share it with a friend.
P.S. Stick with it. The tone of the first parts of this e-book will be somber, and might seem negative, but I’ll offer some constructive tips at the end on how to build community health.
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