Places, not Programs

There’s an excellent group interview with Yuval Levin of National Affairs about his book The Fractured Republic up at the Mere Fidelity podcast. It’s worth listening to in full, but this section was one that particularly resonated with me [my transcription]:

Levin: There’s been a back-and-forth between the desire for some form of solidarity and the desire for some kind of liberalization…we’re living in a moment now where that challenge is especially clear and you can see the tension between liberalization, both social and economic, and solidarity. We are intensely divided. There is a polarization in American life that people call partisanship, but it’s happening at the same time as we have very very weak political parties, very weak institutions in general, so it’s a challenge to see our way forward.

Interviewer: You talk a lot about the importance of institutions and mediating structures within our society, things like families and churches, the sort of things that provide alternatives to extreme individualism as well as centralized statism. I was wondering if it is possible to have strong mediating institutions in an age where our technological structures have prevented these institutions from exerting the same kind of pull as they once did. We can opt out of going to one church and drive to the next town, we can detach ourselves from our immediate local community and connect to people online, many of the communities that in the past we would’ve been bound to them, in various ways by the inertia of distance or transport, now we have so many ways to opt out how could we form the strong mediating institutions in the presence of a high mobility society where there is mass communication?

Levin: In a sense, this is a solution to the tension between liberalization and cohesion, and this is very much the argument of the book, can be found by redirecting ourselves more to these mediating institutions; by thinking more locally as a way of turning down the temperature of these huge national debates that can’t really be resolved in the forms they now take, and instead try to solve problems at a more interpersonal level. Where you actually see other humans eye-to-eye, where you don’t have to settle problems theoretically before you can settle them practically, and so it becomes much easier to actually settle human problems. But as you say, those communities are not just sitting there waiting for us to come back to them. The ways in which modern life is different are enormous problems for any kind of return to local community and local mediating institutions. We have so much choice now that in order for us to return to these mediating institutions, from the family, the community to religious and civic institutions, to local government and local politics, to educational institutions that can shape our character, we would return to these if we chose to, the challenge is that we have to want them. That’s a problem because there are a lot of other things competing for our desire and our attention…there’s a way that public policy can help, if more of it were channeled through these institutions, but that’s limited. You need to convince people that they’re valuable- community as community, not just as a platform for self-expression, which is what the things we call communities online really are, at the end of the day.

I completely agree with this, but let me make some rather simple minded comments that I think tend to get overlooked in these discussions. Mark Zuckerberg gave $200 million in an attempt to “strengthen the local, mediating institutions” of Newark Public Schools, to no value whatsoever except for putting the school district and the parent body more at each other’s throats. George W. Bush gave roughly a billion dollars to programs intended to strengthen the mediating institution of marriage among low-income parents, to negative effects. The overwhelming tendency of attempts to “strengthen mediating institutions” is to do so through programs that attempt to change people’s behavior (and fail.)

Let me propose an alternative set of criteria for any attempt to strengthen local community:

  1. There has to be a place for people to go.
  2. It has to be safe.
  3. There preferably needs to be bathrooms and water available there.

Schools fulfill this list, which is one reason they are still among our few remaining sources of shared meaning and in-person community. As Christ Arnade has often remarked, McDonalds fast-food restaurants fulfill this list, and are therefore undervalued sources of community in low-income communities. (The young black guys in my Philadelphia Americorps program would not-entirely-jokingly allude to McDonalds as the central hub of the weekend social/dating scene, where only one’s most immaculate clothing- a brand-new shirt, purchased  just for the occasion- would suffice.) Howard Schultz, for all his occasional bouts of madness, understood from the beginning that Starbucks would succeed by becoming a “third space” between work and home, which the coffee chain for all its faults has indubitably become for many people. Ivan Illich argued that the streets themselves in poor countries once, but no longer, acted as the same kind of collective commons.

Even when we are, in theory, on the side of those local, mediating institutions Levin speaks of, far too often we view public expenditure and public policy as a matter of manipulation rather than as a way of providing a space for shared life and getting out of the way. There still may be fundamental barriers- due to the “cost disease” or our collective laziness- to providing and making use of these kinds of spaces, to figuring out a way to let elementary school kids spend the afternoon deciding what they want to do in the library rather than establishing a Awesomely Transformative After-School Program, or to resisting the insane legalism that prevents parents from letting their nine-year-olds play in perfectly safe parks, but any road to revitalized community has to lead through us, whether children or adults, simply being together in the same place.

6 thoughts on “Places, not Programs

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