Chapter 1: The Loss of Community
The New York Times, once the leading newspaper in the US, but relegated now to a small slice of influential readers, has been publishing a series of articles and stories under the title “The 1619 Project” which seeks to reframe US History solely through the lens of slavery. According to their website:
“The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
This type of reductionism characterized by a disintegrating politics, picking up in intensity since Nisbet first published “The Quest for Community” in 1953, has recently even increased in intensity. Disintegration is the new norm, and under this way of thinking, calls for unity and solidarity are ironically seen as oppressive and backwards. For some at the heights of institutional power in America, at corporate boards and elite universities, an undermining of the patriotic national ethos and national myth of previous eras has become a qualifier for admission to the club. I can only think of how much this “woke” type of attitude and program has made real community that much harder to achieve since the time of Nisbet’s writing. Ironically, MLK wanted us together, but today’s would-be leaders who hold the levers of power like the NY Times want us apart. We've seen a reversal in values since the 1950s:
- to drive people apart through diversity is the new effort to achieve a type of balkanized "community" of non-community
- calls for national unity are seen as oppressive and regressive
In the 1st chapter, on the loss of community, Nisbet offers us a historical account:
“One may paraphrase the famous words of Karl Marx and say that a specter is haunting the modern mind, the specter of insecurity.”
“In the nineteenth century, the age of individualism and rationalism, such words as individual, change, progress, reason, and freedom were notable not merely for their wide use as linguistic tools in books, essays, and lectures but for their symbolic value in convictions of immense numbers of men.”
“All of these words reflected a temper of mind that found the essence of society to lie in the solid fact of the discrete individual—autonomous, self-sufficing, and stable—and the essence of history to lie in the progressive emancipation of the individual from the tyrannous and irrational statuses handed down from the past. Competition, individuation, dislocation of status and custom, impersonality, and moral anonymity were hailed by the rationalist because these were the forces that would be most instrumental in emancipating man from the dead hand of the past and because through them the naturally stable and rational individual would be given an environment in which he could develop illimitably his inherent potentialities. Man was the primary and solid fact; relationships were purely derivative. All that was necessary was a scene cleared of the debris of the past.”
Nisbet sites Huckleberry Finn, the quintessential American novel, as a fine example of a prior confidence in the unrooted individual, the young child of nature revolting against the confines of village, place, convention, and family. This is portrayed by Twain confidently, with the pioneering spirit of the individual revolting against the past. Huck Finn was only one of countless novels and stories of this time with that optimistic theme. In this era, the 1700s, 1800s, and on into the 1900s, the optimism remained, then later began to wane.
“Between philosophers as far removed as Spencer and Marx there was a common faith in the organizational powers of history and in the self-sufficiency of the individual. All that was needed was calm recognition of the historically inevitable. In man and his natural affinities lay the bases of order and freedom.”
Fast forward to today, and Nisbet says our discourse is characterized by another set of words: disorganization, disintegration, decline, insecurity, breakdown, instability, and others.
“The modern release of the individual from traditional ties of class, religion, and kinship has made him free; but, on the testimony of innumerable works in our age, this freedom is accompanied not by the sense of creative release but by the sense of disenchantment and alienation. The alienation of man from historic moral certitudes has been followed by the sense of man's alienation from fellow man. Where the lone individual was once held to contain within himself all the propensities of order and progress, he is now quite generally regarded as the very symbol of society's anxiety and insecurity. He is the consequence, we are now prone to say, not of moral progress but of social disintegration.
Frustration, anxiety, insecurity, as descriptive words, have achieved a degree of importance in present-day thought and writing that is astonishing. Common to all of them and their many synonyms is the basic conception of man's alienation from society's relationships and moral values.”
When I read that paragraph I can’t help but think of the stereotypes of our age:
- The growing number of depressed and lonely single ladies who prioritized career over family and who are now childless and without family.
- The young man who still lives at home at 26, with no job and no motivation.
- The angry male “lone wolf” who lashes out in anger and violence towards others.
- The distant teenagers glued to video games for hour upon end.
- The gangs, unemployed, and imprisoned who never had strong communities or families.
- The middle eastern immigrant drawn to revolution.
- The cultureless and atomized millennial flirting with political socialism and revolution in the US.
- The MGTOW – Men Going Their Own Way group who have basically checked out of society.
- The “mean girls” who get their sense of identity in cliques and in “likes” on social media.
- The woke social justice warrior, lacking any true culture, crusading for the last and most recent version of progress, with help from multi-national corporations.
I think you get the point. Nisbet has certainly hit onto something here. During the period called the “Enlightenment” and “Modernist” it was thought that progress was inevitable, history was over, and utopia was just around the corner. Obviously, these pie-in-the-sky thinkers were wrong. To be fair, industrialism played a primary role with this isolating development. People leaving homes, villages, towns, and cities, to pursue better lives and better jobs, naturally have a harder time building community. That’s one reason the nation-state was such an important development, it gave people something to belong to, an identity to share together. Which is one reason things like the “1619 Project” are so detrimental to efforts to build community- they delegitimize one of the ways modern people find community, through the nation.
Nisbet also offers us a widely shared view that both Protestantism, with its emphasis on individual religion, as well as Western culture’s focus on individualism as a whole, is partly to blame:
“Today there are many leaders of the Protestant churches who have come to realize the inadequacy and irrelevance of the historic emphasis upon the church invisible and the supposedly autonomous man of faith. “It is this autonomous individual who really ushers in modern civilization and who is completely annihilated in the final stages of that civilization,” declares Reinhold Niebuhr.5 Behind the rising tide of alienation and spiritual insecurity in contemporary society, more and more theologians, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant alike, find the long-celebrated Western tradition of secular individualism.
The historic emphasis upon the individual has been at the expense of the associative and symbolic relationships that must in fact uphold the individual's own sense of integrity. Buber, Maritain, Brunner, Niebuhr, and Demant are but the major names in the group that has come to recognize the atomizing effects of the long tradition of Western individualism upon man's relation to both society and God. “When the relation between man and God is subjective, interior (as in Luther) or in timeless acts and logic (as in Calvin) man's utter dependence upon God is not mediated through the concrete facts of historical life,” writes Canon Demant.
And when it is not so mediated, the relation with God becomes tenuous, amorphous, and insupportable. For more and more theologians of today the solitary individual before God has his inevitable future in Jung's “modern man in search of a soul.” Man's alienation from man must lead in time to man's alienation from God. The loss of the sense of visible community in Christ will be followed by the loss of the sense of the invisible.
The decline of community in the modern world has as its inevitable religious consequence the creation of masses of helpless, bewildered individuals individuals who are unable to find solace in Christianity regarded merely as creed. The stress upon the individual, at the expense of the churchly community, has led remorselessly to the isolation of the individual, to the shattering of the man-God relationship, and to the atomization of personality.”
Finally, Nisbet teaches that the isolation and inwardness of modern man, with few communal and religious outlets, turns into neurosis and paranoia with a distrust of institutions, and a preference for distraction, versus engagement. Where prior men and women wanted salvation, modern man wants therapy.
“Ours also is an age, on the testimony of much writing, of amorphous, distracted multitudes and of solitary, inward-turning individuals. Gone is the widespread confidence in the automatic workings of history to provide cultural redemption, and gone, even more strikingly, is the rationalist faith in the individual.”
A completely isolated and alone person was unheard of for most of human history. Western civilization had always valued individualism, since the early Greco-Roman period, but there was always a larger sense of community. After the Reformation and on in to the modern era, there was a great confidence that utopia for "free" individuals was just around the corner. Man isolated from everything and everyone was what we had all been wanting and waiting for. But slowly and surely over time, we realized this was a dream.
Nisbet, Robert. The Quest for Community . Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.
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