Thursday, April 19, 2012

The first link

"To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong
to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public
affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed
towards a love to our country, and to mankind."
Edmund Burke

Gertrude Himmelfarb on the perilous state of civil society as an alternative to both radical individualism and statism:
....Individuals are increasingly removed from the traditional networks of “civic engagement”—family, friends, neighbors, professional organizations, and other associations. This erosion of civil society results in a decline of “social capital,” which bodes ill for democracy at home and for democratization abroad. ....

In the new technological as well as global world, the world of television and the Internet—of surfing, blogging, tweeting, texting, linking, and Facebooking—civil society is increasingly tenuous. People are not so much speaking to each other as speaking across each other, befriending each other in such quantities as to belie the very idea of friendship, violating the confidences of acquaintances and any presumption of privacy, using language that makes a mockery of what used to be called civic discourse.  ....

Religion is surely a valuable prop of civil society, creating and sustaining a variety of civic as well as religious institutions. But here too there has been significant erosion. Traditional denominational, neighborhood, family-centered churches are being threatened by two rivals: megachurches, consisting of thousands of people brought together by a single charismatic preacher, which do not survive the death of the preacher; and small, transient, nondenominational churches, some professing to be “spiritual” rather than religious, which are unstable in doctrine as in membership. The effect of both is to undermine the commitment of congregants and the effectiveness of the churches themselves, making religion a less effectual force in civil society.

Even more ominous is the condition of the family. The most fundamental component of civil society, it has also become the most vulnerable. Civil society is often identified (thanks largely to Tocqueville) with “voluntary associations.” But the traditional family is not, or at least did not used to be, a voluntary association. Indeed, it is important precisely because it is not voluntary, performing the natural, elemental, even biological functions of bearing and rearing children. Today, as a result of divorce, remarriage, cohabitation, single-parent families, and single-sex parenting, the family has become, in a sense, voluntarized. We are sometimes assured that these “alternative lifestyles” are merely variations on the old, serving the same purposes as the “nuclear” or “bourgeois” family. In fact, these families—“broken families,” like “broken windows”—are often literally “dysfunctional,” incapable of performing the natural functions that define the family. .... [more]