Drawing Connections

The Connection Gap: Why Americans Feel So Alone By Laura
Pappano. Rutgers University Press, 224 pages, $26.00

Better Together: Report of the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 108 pages

More than 100 years ago, Friedrich Nietzsche
observed the gradual turning inward of the German population, away from an open
neighborliness. He noted in Human, All Too Human that the clearest sign of
this increasing social alienation was that people say "ironic things to the
other, but neither of the two feel the other's irony." This sort of keen insight
into daily life can reveal larger changes in the culture. Though the social
worlds of latter-day Germany and present-day America are disparate, there are
similarities, at least when it comes to the way a nation's culture helps to
create an inward turn in the lives of its citizens.

In cities throughout the United States, some social observers claim,
we've become less interested in the welfare of our neighbors and families. This
trend has many worried, and in journalist Laura Pappano's book The Connection
the quotidian details of middle-class American life are held up and
examined from several angles. Pappano points out that we are spending more time
in front of electronic screens than in front of people, more time obsessed with
speed than with taking our time, more time thinking about ourselves and our
images than about others and their well-being, and more time routing our lives
around market values such as efficiency and convenience than around the human
values of loyalty, trustworthiness, and empathy.

An elaboration upon an essay originally published in The Boston Globe
Pappano's book exhibits both genuine concern and brave
vulnerability in the face of America's waning civic engagement. Often the
author's observations are rendered as nationally shared feelings: "We want to
connect." "We feel vulnerable." "We shop for lovers and friends." "We live and
consume our lives in the same breath."

She notes that the word community gets kicked around a lot. But unlike the
communities that evolve from a shared experience of place and history, the
current use of the term frequently involves only a "group of people" connected by
an ethereal commitment to a certain brand, or participation in a shopping club or
Web site chat room.

There's quite a bit of outside confirmation of Pappano's observations that our
social health is ailing. It's not been this ill since the end of the nineteenth
century, according to the recently published report Better Together, issued
by the Saguaro Seminar, a group of 33 luminaries at Harvard University's John F.
Kennedy School of Government. The report, the largest scientific survey ever
conducted on civic engagement in America, was spearheaded by Robert D. Putnam
(author of the much-discussed Bowling Alone). Findings of the multiyear
study of tens of thousands of Americans reveal a dramatic decrease in what Putnam
calls "social capital," a term that the Bowling Alone Web site says
"emphasizes not just warm and cuddly feelings, but a wide variety of quite
specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and
cooperation associated with social networks."

The authors of Better Together reveal that simple events like dinner
parties have declined 25 percent since the mid-1960s; the number of people who
serve as club officers, attend school or community meetings, frequent political
events, or work with political organizations has dropped by 35 percent; and the
number of times that friends get together during a typical week has dropped 45
percent since the mid-1970s. Furthermore, the report indicates that only about a
third of Americans feel they can trust one another and asserts that Americans'
perception of their fellow citizens as moral and honest individuals has fallen
dramatically since the early 1950s.

The decline in civic engagement, the authors claim, is the result of
several factors: television taking the place of social gatherings as a form of
relaxation; a shift from a more civic-minded generation of adults to a
generation of baby boomers who are less so; the expanding load of work hours; and
women's entry into the work world--an event, they purport, that has sapped
neighborhoods of once-vital civic leadership. As well, car-centered cities and
insufficient amounts of communal space have had the effect of degrading and even
preventing daily public interaction.

Pappano's method of close observation gets at some daily social ills
and civic ailments, too: lack of general neighborliness, focus on the self over
others in the supermarket line, time constraints on leisure activity and
community involvement, "play dates" scheduled for children, the need for speed,
the devaluation of everyday conversations, and the atomization of home and family
life by media technologies. Her approach--as opposed to the more academic tone of
the Saguaro report--takes into account the nickels and dimes of social capital,
putting an individual, contextualized face on what can sometimes seem like an
abstract phenomenon.

To convey how longing for connection can result in divulging personal
details to strangers, Pappano relates a tale about doing just that with a
saleswoman at a clothing store. As an illustration of separate lives that inhabit
the same social space, she recalls waiting in her obstetrician's office and
listening in on the phone call of a woman who was speaking about the death of a
friend. She reflects on the experience of online shopping and on the moral
ambivalence of consumer culture, claiming that her "wallet, in fact, is bursting
with cards showing that [she is] part of the family at half a dozen stores."

In addition to such observations and the statistics she gleaned from the
Departments of Commerce and Labor, some of Pappano's evidence about what might be
called the "social disconnect" derives from examples of television and print
advertising. She views the marketing efforts of companies like Pottery Barn,
Crate and Barrel, and J. Crew as an attempt to foster a sense of personal
authenticity and long-standing connection by selling furniture that is
"weathered" or has the look of yesteryear--of ancestral commitment. Pappano notes
that car advertisements increasingly "focus on interior amenities ... [such as]
leg room, head room, cup holders, global satellite positioning systems, video
players, fanny warmers, and the like ... [and] never show the car's exterior
profile." Such a concentration, she speculates, highlights the personal, hermetic
space of the car as more important than the safety of the car's overall
construction. She believes that such advertisements alternately prey on desires
for connection and nourish dreams of individual escape: "A recent television ad
for Volvo depicts a single man driving a Cross Country station wagon to a remote
spot to go canoeing."

If Pappano's book is to be faulted, it is on this point. Perhaps she puts too
much credence in the belief that advertising is a good reflection of what is
happening in a culture, that it is a good barometer of our national identity or
our social cohesion. This is especially so when considering her focus on J. Crew,
Pottery Barn, or Volvo, companies that cater to the affluent. Though she notes
early on that she is looking mostly at the lives of "the most upwardly mobile
members [of the middle class]," she claims that all Americans aspire to this
standard of living. Unfortunately, none of the aspirants who are still shopping
at Wal-Mart make it into Pappano's narrative; attention to their lives might have
lent more texture to the book. Nonetheless, as a testament to what it is like to
experience one's larger culture--and, more important, to project one's
culture--from a specific class, race, and geographical place, The Connection Gap
has a voice of fresh honesty, fallibility, and humanness that bears witness
to cultural changes that affect a very visible and important segment of the
American population.

On the broad scale, the book revisits some important questions:
Are modern-day Americans increasingly less engaged with fellow citizens in
everyday life? Have technology's gadgets done us a disservice by promising
efficiency and order but delivering unreal expectations and complications? Are
real communities replaced by allegiances to imagined identities? Has the desire
for physical things replaced the appreciation of people's qualities in our
lives? When considering such concerns, Pappano, while being careful not to wax
nostalgic about the past, muses about why social connection matters. She implies
that the need for connection is a hardwired existential or spiritual need.
Appropriately, the book ends with the chapter "Bridging the Gap," in which the
author offers solutions on how to mend the social fabric. She encourages, among
other things, reviving the art of conversation in the home and on the street,
volunteering, becoming involved in local schools, deliberately slowing down
during the day, and more generously extending one's time and energies to others.
Regardless of larger cultural influences, that's good advice.

The Connection Gap might occasionally exaggerate the degree to
which Americans are suffering from lack of connectedness. The Saguaro report's
Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey indicates that nationally 80 percent of
respondents said that people in their neighborhood gave them a sense of
community. Of respondents who had Internet access, 17 percent reported that they
got a sense of community online. In addition, the number of charitable
organizations created in recent years has dramatically increased.

It's been pretty clear for a while that Americans do have some real
civic-engagement problems. Yet it is also encouraging that according to recent
studies of civic innovation the tide is slowly turning, owing to the efforts of
secular and faith-based grass-roots community organizations. In the end, there
remains a resonant ambiguity when weighing Pappano's observations with the
findings of the Saguaro report. In both our public and our private lives, we are
left to resolve--and mend--the tensions that exist in the state of our shared