Opinion: Community ‘weavers’ create stronger social fabric
Washington — Eventually, someone who writes on public policy comes up against the limits of words. There are only so many times you can urge, condemn, cajole, wheedle, praise, remind, prod, propose and coax before your vocabulary and patience both give out. This is not to say that public argumentation makes no difference. But for a columnist, that influence consists mainly of throwing 750 words over a high wall and hoping they land with a pleasing thud on some doer or decider.
Having mastered the arts of opinion writing, cultural criticism and human decency, David Brooks of The New York Times is now undertaking a project at the Aspen Institute called “Weave” (link: http://tinyurl.com/y6xlhrrv), designed to recognize and help people directly involved in social repair. In the work of lighting candles to push back the darkness, Brooks wants to be a lamplighter.
The metaphor Brooks prefers is textile production. Many people are involved in the unholy work of ripping and shredding our social fabric — through dehumanizing language, racial prejudice and other evidence of tribalism. The groups Brooks highlights are the weavers, laying down the warp and weft of communities. They promote community dialogue and deal with various categories of need from youth development to suicide prevention. But they share the goal of strengthening human ties, trust and reciprocity as alternatives to isolation, loneliness and despair.
I’ve been familiar with, and occasionally involved in, efforts to praise and encourage the work of community and religious groups providing compassionate social services. I’ve been involved in efforts to promote volunteer service as a method of social mixing and an alternative to the general selfishness of our culture. Brooks’ effort involves a more ambitious framing, designed to be the intellectual scaffold (to employ another metaphor) on which a movement is built.
In his manifesto, Brooks argues for what he calls “relationalism” as opposed to the “hyper-individualism” of a society based on the maximization of choice and self-actualization. A critic might respond that liberal individualism has done a pretty good job as the basis for democracy, capitalism and pain-free dentistry. But Brooks is diagnosing an excess of individualism leading to “social isolation, distrust, polarization, the breakdown of family, the loss of community, tribalism, rising suicide rates, rising mental health problems, [and] a spiritual crisis caused by a loss of common purpose.”
In Brooks’ relationalism, the answer is not found in a political ideology, but in an alternative way of being human. In this view, success is not measured by the goods we accumulate but in the number and quality of the relationships we form. Such relationships tend to push our attention outward, toward the welfare of others. “The central journey of modern life,” Brooks argues, “is moving self to service.” And a rich, relational life delivers a deeper, more satisfying form of happiness than consumerism. We are actually liberated by the deep commitments we make in life.
Relationalism had clear (and acknowledged) debts to the Catholic idea of the common good, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s conception of “the beloved community,” to Alexis de Tocqueville’s celebration of American volunteerism and to Edmund Burke’s preference for the small and natural over the large and ideological. Some political conservatives may object to Brooks’ critique of modern capitalism as potentially soul-destroying. Some liberals may object to his focus on incrementalism and the human scale rather than on structural injustice.
None of this makes much difference to the extraordinary weavers across the country Brooks has chosen to highlight. They are following an entirely different prompting — a love that leads beyond egotism and into the lives of others.
Brooks’ message is likely to resonate precisely because it is not political. The atomizing tendency of American life does deepen and complicate problems such as drug addiction and suicide, in which isolation can contribute to a downward spiral of self-destructive behavior. But many Americans can identify with the broader challenge of loneliness, which seems to be the flip side of autonomy.
Brooks is making the case that there is already a movement of human connection in this country, among people who don’t yet recognize themselves as part of one. He has served this movement by giving it a compelling, nonsectarian, nonpartisan frame, allowing diverse groups to consider themselves part of each other. In this case, the frame serves the picture well.
— Michael Gerson is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.