Zygmunt Bauman and Eric Hobsbawm on identity and community

“As Eric Hobsbawm recently observed, ‘never was the word “community” used more indiscriminately and emptily than in the decades when communities in the sociological sense became hard to find in real life’: and he commented, ‘Men and women look for groups to which they can belong, certainly and forever, in a world in which all else is moving and shifting, in which nothing else is certain.’ Jock Young supplied a succinct and poignant gloss on Hobsbawm’s observation and commentary: ‘Just as community collapses, identity is invented.’

‘Identity’, today’s talk of the town and the most commonly played game in town, owes the attention it attracts and the passions it begets to being a surrogate of community: of that allegedly ‘natural home’ or that circle that stays warm however cold the winds outside. Neither of the two is available in our rapidly privatized and individualized, fast globalizing world, and for that reason each of the two can be safely, with no fear of practical test, imagined as a cosy shelter of security and confidence and for that reason hotly desired. The paradox, though, is that in order to offer even a modicum of security and so to perform any kind of healing or pain-soothing role, identity must belie its origin, it must deny being ‘just a surrogate’ – it needs to conjure up a phantom of the self-same Community which it has come to replace. Identity sprouts on the graveyard of communities, but flourishes thanks to the promise of a resurrection of the dead.

A life dedicated to the search for identity is full of sound and fury. ‘Identity’ means standing out: being different, and through that difference unique and so the search for identity cannot but divide and separate. And yet the vulnerability of individual identities and the precariousness of solitary identity-building prompt the identity builders to seek pegs on which they can together hang their individually experienced fears and anxieties, and having done that, perform the exorcism rites in the company of other similarly afraid and anxious individuals.”

Simone Weil on “roots,” and community

“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations of the future … Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw wellnigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.”

Jane Jacobs on the death of “community”

“Two parents, to say nothing of one, cannot possibly satisfy all the needs of a family-household. A community is needed as well, for raising children, and also to keep adults reasonably sane and cheerful. A community is a complex organism with complicated resources that grow gradually and organically. Its resources fall into three main categories.

First, there are resources that all families need and that virtually none can provide for themselves, nor can any but the largest, richest, and most institutional households provide them. These resources are mostly tangible. They include affordable housing for all the community’s members; publicly funded transportation (even privately owned cars need roads, parking lots, and police forces); water and sewage systems; fire protection; public health and safety inspections and enforcement; schools; public libraries; large-scale public recreation facilities; parks; ambulances and other emergency services.

Items in the second category are provided more informally by a community but are also mostly tangible. They consist of convenient and responsive commercial establishments, plus noncommercial (nonprofit) services initiated and maintained by volunteer citizens’ groups. These last may, or may not, overlap with publicly provided resources, depending upon differences in government programs and local cultures: for instance, old people’s homes and activities; churches or other community gathering centers; concerts, festivals, sports tournaments; language classes; and job training centers.

The third and final category of community resources is thoroughly informal, thoroughly intangible, and probably the most important: speaking relationships among neighbors and acquaintances in addition to friends.

Everyone needs entrées into networks of acquaintances for practical as well as social purposes. Think what the adults in a nuclear family -just the two of them- are expected by society to provide:

Knowledge and experience sufficient to use simple home remedies in cases of trivial illnesses or wounds, and -more important- the ability to judge correctly and quickly when ills or wounds are too serious for home remedies, maybe even life-threatening. Ability to tutor children needing help with homework. Ability to be a soccer mom and a hockey dad. Skill and tact at training children to shun drugs and to be cautious of strangers but not to mistrust everybody. Ability to purchase responsibly, make bill and tax payments, and in general handle money realistically in spite of blandishments to gamble or become profligate. Make ordinary home and equipment repairs and keep abreast of maintenance chores. Deal knowledgeably with banks and bureaucracies. Pull a fair share of family weight in community betterment efforts and neighborhood protection. Deal civilly with people whose upbringing, cultures, and personalities are at odds with the traditions and customs of one’s own nuclear family, and teach children to be both cosmopolitan and tolerant. Without this last ability, nuclear families can be irreparably torn asunder when relationships develop between their children and lovers from other ethnic or religious backgrounds or, if the family is very stodgy, simply from other educational or income groups.

Who are the paragons that, unaided and unadvised, can earn a living and also provide all this and more? Few of them exist. Only membership in a functioning community makes handling these responsibilities feasible. Another thing: the neuroses of only two adults (or one) focusing relentlessly on offspring can be unbearable. The diverse viewpoints and strengths of many adults can be educational and liberating. Two adults who have too little adult companionship besides themselves can easily drift into isolation from society and become lonely, paranoid, resentful, stressed, depressed, and at their wits’ ends. Sitcom families and “reality” TV can and do fill isolated hours, but cannot offer the support of live friends and the practical information of varied acquaintances.

One can drive today for miles through American suburbs and never glimpse a human being on foot in a public space, a human being outside a car or truck. I have experienced this in suburban Virginia, California, and Massachusetts, as well as suburban Toronto. This is a visible sign that much of North America has become bereft of communities. For communities to exist, people must encounter one another in person. These encounters must include more than best friends or colleagues at work. They must include diverse people who share the neighborhood, and often enough share its needs.

Here is something sad: sometimes an unusually energetic and public-spirited individual in an American or Canadian social desert will start a campaign to improve the place: clean up a trash-filled creek and pond, for instance, or revive a defunct local market and community center. The neighborhood may even receive an award for the achievement. Then what happens? Sometimes the noble idiosyncratic effort lacks staying power; when the originator is lost to aging, death, or relocation, the project fades away, too, because no functioning community exists to carry it on. One of the great strengths of New York City is that its neighborhood community efforts typically have staying power; once under way, they tend to persist not only for decades but for generations. This cultural characteristic, moreover, is perhaps most marked in the densest part of the city, Manhattan.

Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities. Highways and roads obliterate the places they are supposed to serve, as, for example, highways feeding the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge wiped out most of the formerly large Bay Ridge community in Brooklyn. Robert Moses, the nearest thing to a dictator with which New York and New Jersey have ever been afflicted (so far), thought of himself as a master builder, and his much diminished corps of admirers still nostalgically recall him as that; but he was a master obliterator. If he had had his way, which he did not because of successful community opposition, one of Manhattan’s most vibrant, diverse, and economically productive neighborhoods, Soho, would have been sacrificed to an expressway. Other forces, acting in concert with automobile culture, have also been pervasive. Along came sterile housing tracts set in isolating culs-de-sac, and shopping centers whose only ties to localities were the dollars of local consumers. These, often enough, erased community hearts and landmarks, as if to make sure that marooned vestiges of what had been lost were also lost.

Of course, many people have opposed what was happening to former communities: thousands upon thousands have poured ingenuity and energy into opposition. Some who are fortunate enough to have communities still do fight to keep them, but they have seldom prevailed. While people possess a community, they usually understand that they can’t afford to lose it; but after it is lost, gradually even the memory of what was lost is lost. In miniature, this is the malady of Dark Ages.