Of all the problems facing today’s America, the most seemingly intractable is the intertwined issue of the physically and mentally sick and homeless, family breakdown, drug and alcohol addiction, street violence, retail theft, gang warfare, random shootings, protest riots, unmanageable students in classrooms and similar afflictions.
Even the small city of Burlington has more than its share of these problems. The headline of a recent news report is far from unusual: “Increased criminal activity is driving businesses out of Church Street.” The headlines from San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia are far more alarming.
Sociologists have a name derived from this and reams of research going back over a hundred years: “social disintegration.”
The American experience in building social cohesion back in the turbulent 19th century is worth examining. The source is David T. Beito’s book From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services 1890-1967. In that era, millions of Americans – in Beito’s words, an “Enormous Army” – joined fraternal societies like the YMCA, the Odd Fellows, the Patrons of Husbandry, Freemasonry, Lions, and the Loyal Order of Moose. The membership of these groups typically cut across class lines, and while racial integration was rare, there were countless active black counterpart groups, as well as many like Sons of Italy composed of newly arrived Americans to be.
A typical formulation of the purpose of these bodies was “to promote the brotherhood of man, teach fidelity to home and loved ones, loyalty to country and respect of law, to establish a system for the care of the widows and orphans, the aged and disabled, and enable every worthy member to protect himself from the ills of life and make substantial provision through cooperation with our members, for those who are nearest and dearest.”
The keys to those associations were belonging, mutual benefit, and efficacy. Belonging required the practice of virtues like truthfulness, self-reliance, industry, charity, fair dealing, and usually shared religious faith. Efficacy means that the people involved could believe they had a realistic opportunity to achieve mutual and societal benefits through their own efforts and not be held subject to heavy-handed authority, notably that of the all-engulfing state.
What happens when – for a multiplicity of reasons – that once-prominent model fades into insignificance? There is likely to be, at the extreme, social disintegration. The shared purpose, the willing adherence to agreed-upon morals and behaviors, and the sense of responsibility to work with others to bring forth a constantly improving society begin to slip away. In their place grows an individualistic desire to see that Number One gets taken care of, with little regard for the well-being of the society in which one lives and is, or should be, a contributing part.
The remedy is not bringing back the 19th century, but a seminal article by Seth Kaplan of Johns Hopkins University (“A Systems Approach to Social Disintegration”, National Affairs, Fall 2017) points out a way. Kaplan emphasizes that social disintegration is a complex cultural and behavioral issue. It cannot be reversed by large-scale programs to aid individuals, like welfare checks, food stamps, Medicaid, job training and housing vouchers. But Kaplan points to places like Harlem, Shreveport and some Virginia cities where enlightened civic leadership is working to restore social health and strong community attachment.
These non-coercive, culturally supportive efforts bring together families, informal social networks, neighborhoods, schools, the workplace, businesses, voluntary agencies, churches, political structures, and, of course, the descendants of the 19th-century forerunners. Their aim is to affirm their human scale society based on agreed behavioral principles and stand against every effort to pit group against group in a destructive war of all against all.
Of all places, Vermont ought to be a place for this rebirth to flourish. In our book, The Vermont Papers (1989) (Chapter 5, “The Promise of Democracy Restored”), Frank Bryan and I wrote, “A small intimate community is essential to the flowering of the civic humanist ideal. It gives meaning and richness to human life. Its landmarks, its landscape, and its uniqueness as a place afford a sense of belonging and identity. A real community becomes a place of repair and solace, a scrapbook of shared memories, a gratifying niche in history. Most importantly, the preservation of community requires that decisions about things that matter be made by the people affected.”
Our central proposal was the reconstitution of Vermont into some 40 cohesive democratically self-governed shires within the framework of the rights and liberties confirmed in the Vermont Constitution.
Back then, that proposal was little more than a curiosity item. If the malign forces of social disintegration continue further into Vermont, maybe it would be worth giving that proposal another look.