The one-year anniversary meeting of our neighborhood watch group spurred me to think anew about the fragility of civilization generally and the American experiment specifically. Both hang by a gossamer thread, but they are to be distinguished from each other.
Civilization is a broad term encompassing a number of arrangements. Ancient Egypt had a great civilization, boasting such trappings as impressive structures and a vast army, but we can surely agree it wasn’t any too enjoyable for those who built the pyramids, palaces and statues.
Other examples of empires ruled by “enlightened despots” abound, and while they advanced various aspects of living, for most, existence conformed to Hobbes’ formulation: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
While institutions such as religion and education promulgated the private virtues such as etiquette and a neighborly and considerate disposition, it has generally fallen to some kind of police force to ensure public order. All civilizations have had such a feature.
Its function is really rather circumscribed in any well-developed society. Someone else — a dictator, a legislative body, a cabal of judges — is establishing the laws; police merely enforce them. Still, depending on the regard — or lack thereof — that the lawmakers have for the society’s general happiness, the police function’s role can range from benign to sinister.
This brings us to the special nature of the American experiment. No nation-state had ever been founded on an idea, much less the idea that freedom is the essential quality necessary for human well-being.
That towering triumvirate, Jay, Madison and Hamilton, brilliantly conceived the structure whereby freedom might be maximized within the framework of sufficient societal order to ensure the public’s safety.
The structure would be as diffuse as possible, with three branches of government checking each other, and a bicameral legislature with one branch directly answerable to the people and the other looking out for states’ interests.
This was utterly new in human history. The notion that the individual was sovereign drove every consideration in crafting this novel model of government.
Of course, a sovereign individual per se does not make for a happy and prosperous society. In fact, a sovereign individual untethered from norms, customs, civic bonds and institutions is as likely as not to turn out as a feral animal on two legs.
Alexis de Tocqueville had this point driven home to him when he came to America for an extended visit in the 1830s.
He clearly saw the connection between citizens’ private associations, taking form as church congregations, philanthropic groups, virtue-promoting organizations, education-focused groups and trade associations, and the rapid advancement of American society.
It’s no secret that Americans no longer form these connections to the degree they did in de Tocqueville’s day.
At least since the 2000 publication of Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” we have been discussing the impact of this phenomenon.
To put it concretely, everybody likes to point out how people are glued to their cellphone screens rather than relating to actual people in their presence — right before they go back to their own screens.
As I say, I began looking at this again after the last neighborhood watch committee meeting.
It occurred to me that we — the citizens who live there, the city officials who are interested in our ground-level reports and the police who likewise want to know how we see the situation — are America’s bulwark against chaos.
Civilization is won or lost one piece of litter, one dilapidated house, one shouting match about to boil over into a fight, one heroin deal, at a time. What is at stake is precious beyond price.
Barney Quick is one of The Republic’s community columnists. All opinions expressed are those of the writer. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.