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Column: Fragmentedness makes societal, cultural fixes tough


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The flourishing of neighborhood watch groups across Columbus is a welcome development. I became involved with ours early on.

Its original raison d’etre was to address a substantial increase in crime and suspicious activity. To that end, we’ve heard from city and police officials, they’ve heard from us, and such measures as more focused patrols and camera installations have been initiated.

After a few meetings, it occurred to the group that several auxiliary considerations had a bearing on the issue that was the primary focus. So now much of the discussion, and formation of committees, has to do with matters such as curb repair, trash-tote placement, the number of families in a dwelling and abandoned vehicles. These are laudable and constructive measures. I’m afraid, however, that they are destined to be pursued forever, with no ultimate resolution in sight.

As the playwright David Mamet, among others, has noted, culture precedes politics. It also precedes pragmatic fixes to the deterioration of particular areas where people live.

Do I have some kind of overarching proposal, then, that addresses the situation on that a priori level? I don’t, and that’s because — and saying this requires a degree of candor beyond my comfort zone — I’m afraid it may be too late for a cultural remedy.

We are such a different society from what we were no more than five decades ago that it is safe to call it post-American. Much of our current customs, conventions and mores would be unrecognizable to the Columbus citizen of that time.

The Facebook posters one sees to the effect that “when I was a kid, my mom called me home when it got dark and I respected my elders” are without doubt mind-numbingly banal, but, more importantly, they convey a sense of resignation. “There’s no attaining that again” is the underlying message.

Word count considerations preclude a listing of the court precedents, legislation and institutional policies the cumulative effect of which has been to achieve this transformation of who we are. Also, such an exercise would be yet another attempt to find a mechanistic culprit for what is ultimately a problem of heart and soul.

At this point, some readers may be reacting with agreement, along the lines of “It’s exactly right that mutual respect is what is sorely lacking, and that is why diversity initiatives and respect for individuals no matter how they choose to define their identities are needed.”

This begs a question, though: On what basis shall we respect each other? Why is mutual respect preferable to thoughtlessness, solipsism or even bigotry?

There’s nothing self-evident about the answer. Basing one’s behavior on the value of mutual respect can’t be sustained if the only reason for it is to avoid societal sanction. Individual human beings’ self-interest as well as transient passions will eventually erode commitment made on such a foundation.

Regarding specific developments that have come down the pike in the last few decades, I will say that an increasing emphasis on “finding oneself” and “being oneself” has elevated any number of desired conditions for proceeding through life to the status of “rights.” The result of this phenomenon is that the truly sacred gift of individual sovereignty has been trivialized into a great cultural dare, in which one seeks immediate recourse to offended sensibilities.

Consequently, we have lost the basic human tendency to really belong to families and the civic bonds that emanate from them. The litter, loud music and dilapidated houses that trouble us are the fruits of our fragmentedness. Against that, ordinances are no bulwark.

Barney Quick is one of The Republic’s community columnists. All opinions expressed are those of the writer. He may be reached at editorial@therepublic.com.

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