Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Lonely American

"Knowing, in a deep-down sense, where you are from contributes not only to your sense of identity but to your sense of community." ~Vance Packard, A Nation of Strangers

Last night I picked up the current Utne to read an article called "The Lonely American." The article begins with some grave statistics, cited for you here:

Two recent studies suggest that our society is in the midst of a dramatic and progressive slide toward disconnection. In the first, using data from the General Social Survey (GSS), Duke University researchers found that between 1985 and 2004 the number of people with whom the average American discussed “important matters” dropped from three to two. Even more stunning, the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled: In 2004 individuals without a single confidant made up a quarter of those surveyed. Our country is now filled with them.

The second study was the 2000 U.S. census. One of the most remarkable facts to emerge from this census is that one of four households consists of one person only. The number of one-person households has been increasing steadily since 1940, when they accounted for roughly 7 percent of households. Today, there are more people living alone than at any point in U.S. history. Placing the census data and the GSS side by side, the evidence that this country is in the midst of a major social change is overwhelming.

The article is excerpted from the book of the same name by Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz, whose aim appears to be to show how the American lifestyle leads to social isolation.

They note that socializing is not the priority it ought to be in our culture. They cite the frenetic pace of life driven by materialistic pursuits as part of the problem. They also note that social isolation is damaging to both health and ecology, though I didn't make the full connection on this last assertion.

What I found absent in the article, and hope it is not deliberately ignored in the book, was any reference to the groundbreaking work by Vance Packard on this topic, A Nation of Strangers.

Olds and Schwartz may be correctly sounding alarm bells regarding isolation, but what they're seeing is the fruit of what Packard cited more than forty years ago. In his 1962 analysis, "Personal isolation is becoming a major social fact of our time. A great many people are disturbed by the feeling that they are rootless or increasingly anonymous, that they are living in a continually changing environment where there is little sense of community."

Before citing more from Packard, though, it could be that this is simply the fruit of acidity of modernity. Existential philosophers like Camus and Sartre observed this "alienation and despair" as an isolating phenomenon which for many is the human condition in our Western world. The problem with the "existential hero" is that he can't connect, and thus claims it noble to stand alone.

The reality is that we weren't created to stand alone. Families, communities, tribes, clans, associations, friends... we need them because life is hard. And we're not gods, we're mortals who have a lot of hard things to deal with from time to time.

One of the things I remember most vividly from Packard's book was that people are more mobile in our modern (Fifties/Sixties, USA) society than ever before. With the free-wheeling lifestyle glorified in books like Kerouac's On the Road, young people left their stifling rural communities in droves and went to the big city where the lights are bright on Brodadway. The critically acclaimed Midnight Cowboy (Jon Voigt, Dustin Hoffman) portrayed one pair of lost souls in this exodus. And the theme song by Nillson says it all, "Everybody's talkin' at me, I don't hear a word their saying." Seeker Joe Buck finds himself alone in a big world, and it's a hard world.

But Packard cited other causes for this rootlessness, much of it work related. In the course of my life I've been aware too that military kids and preachers' kids are often the victims of mobile lifestyles that make it challenging to develop connections. It's almost a byword now to say, rather flippantly, you have to go where the jobs are.

For more on Packard, and an interesting application of Packard's observations to the Red States / Blue States divide, check out this perspective by the Brothers Judd.


LEWagner said...

According to the Brothers Judd, the rootless, drifting, and valueless social misfits in the 6 points below were supposed to have been the Gore voters?
Hmmmm. The Bush administration sure turned out to be a fine example of traditional, moral, moored-in-values behavior, didn't it?
That review also refers to something called "Al Gore's attempted electoral coup".
It posted a county by county map, showing just small little blue areas compared to huge red areas -- and even had graphs showing square miles of counties, populations of counties, and growth of counties, that Gore and Bush won.
I'd like to hear an explantion of how anything in any of that, showed in ANY way, an "attempted electoral coup" on Gore's part.
Bush carried WAY more square miles than Gore did. Wow!
No mention whatsoever that Gore won the popular vote THROUGHOUT the country, by a half a million votes, or that the Republican-appointed majority of the US Supreme Court stopped the recount in Florida, to make SURE that Gore didn't win, there.
BAH! What insulting propaganda. Yes, there WAS a electoral coup in America in 2000. It was committed by the Republicans.
It resulted in the death of huge numbers of innocent people in a war started on lies, and a world-wide economic crash, based on the Bush administration's refusal to enforce any values or ethics at all in the banking and insurance industries' wealth-to-the-top Ponzi schemes.
I showed my commitment to social values by voting AGAINST the war criminal and corporate crook.

"(1) They tend to "do things they wouldn't normally do back home" due to a "lessened concern about social consequences and the lessened awareness of social disapproval." They are simply
not emotionally, politically, or morally invested in their temporary communities.
(2)They tend to be less well socialized, becoming either isolated or instantly and artificially gregarious. They just aren't an integrated part of the community.
(3)The likelihood that they will be moving on leads them to take a "peculiar approach to
establishing and finishing a home." They don't put down lasting roots in the community.
(4) They manifest an "indifference to local happenings and to social life.
(5) They develop an "uncertain sense of self." (see his quote above.)
(6) Their values are loosed from any moorings, just as they themselves have been."

LEWagner said...

>>>>>>Bush carried WAY more square miles than Gore did. Wow!

Bush DID carry way more square miles, nation-wide, while actually getting less votes than Gore...
Which tells us, obviously, that on the average, Bush votes lived way farther apart from each other than Gore voters.
What a amazing twist of logic to come to the conclusion that these Bush voters were more "well-socialized" and "integrated parts of the community" than the Gore voters.
And what's even more amazing, is when Obama ran for president 8 years later, these same two-faced right-wingers screamed "socialist" and "communist" at him, as if those are terrible things that the American people should be AGAINST.
It's as weirdly grotesque as seeing Linda Blair's head twist around a full 360 degrees in the movie "The Exorcist" -- but this is in real life.

ENNYMAN said...

Welcome back.

I suppose I could have chosen one of the alternate essays on Packard's book. I was surprised at how little there was. His book The Hidden Persuaders has probably had a longer shelf life, but this one certainly made an impact.

As for the application by brothers Judd, I just found it amusing. They did do a good job of summing up some of the book's premises, which I think are valid. I personally do not believe Red States or Blue States have a corner on the Loneliness market.