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Civil Society Reconsidered

Little platoons are just the beginning.

Apr 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 30 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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Three years later, George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, in the Atlantic Monthly, described a similar situation in “Broken Windows.” The article is based upon a study of broken windows in particular neighborhoods, but the phrase is a metaphor for disorders of a similar nature—vandalism, public drunkenness, obstreperous panhandling, and the like—minor infractions of the law which generate an atmosphere of lawlessness that is an invitation to crime, requiring the intervention of the police. More than a dozen years later, when “broken windows” had become a catch phrase, John DiIulio echoed it in “Broken Bottles,” demonstrating that a multiplicity of alcohol stores in a neighborhood acted as a “multiplier of crime,” resulting in regulations limiting the number of such stores.

The “broken windows” phenomenon is often cited as a prime example of civil society in operation (although the term itself does not always appear in these essays). In each case, however, the problem turns out to be within civil society itself—disorderly and criminal elements within the community, often among the young. And the solutions, or attempted solutions, come from without—not from families, neighbors, churches, or voluntary associations, but from the police and other public agencies; and not by invoking the manners and morals, habits and customs, of the community, but by the more rigorous enforcement of the law or the enactment of new laws and regulations. What the broken-windows syndrome demonstrates is that when civil society itself is in disrepair, public authorities (local ones, preferably) and legal (or quasi-legal) sanctions are called upon to help restore the fabric of society.

Another study, with an equally provocative title, raises still other questions for civil society. “Bowling Alone,” by Robert Putnam, received the same acclaim in 1995 as “Broken Windows” earlier. Expanded five years later into a massive tome, it acquired a somewhat more optimistic subtitle: “America’s Declining Social Capital” became “The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” But the message is the same. More Americans than ever are bowling, but they are bowling alone rather than as members of leagues. And so with other activities: 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.

Putnam’s data have been disputed and his conclusions qualified, but at least one part of his thesis is more pertinent than ever. 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. In this sense, people are bowling alone, so to speak, more than ever. A friendly commentator might look kindly upon this as liberalism at its best, giving free rein to the individual as against a conformist and oppressive society. A harsh critic would find it uncomfortably reminiscent of the “state of nature” that civil society was meant to supplant.

Compounding the problem is the fact that as the culture becomes more aggressively individualistic, so the state becomes more aggressively expansive. “Obamacare,” perhaps the most ambitious enlargement of the welfare state since its inception, has provoked sufficient attention and concern, but the latest manifestation of it is conspicuous, if only because so unexpected. It is a long time since birth control was a subject of dispute; it is legal, available, not too costly (sometimes free), and widely used (even by those who have theological objections to it). What is new is the provision of Obamacare mandating that all institutions, including Catholic ones, provide it free (or under compulsory insurance policies)—legitimizing, in effect, a practice they regard as theologically sinful and morally abhorrent. The ensuing controversy has focused on religious liberty and the separation of church and state. But another issue is at stake. If ever there was a subject belonging within the province of individuals, families, churches, and communities—in short, civil society—it is surely contraception. This latest episode reminds us why the idea of civil society was invented in the first place, and why it is still our main recourse against an increasingly intrusive state.


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