Media have been pumping out feel-good stories on how the COVID-19 quarantine has reminded Americans of the virtue of neighborliness. “Though uncertainty and anxiety have become as plentiful as household paper products have become scarce in the new age of coronavirus, good neighborliness remains in strong supply in local cities,” reported the Los Angeles Times on 19 March.
Every night, reports The Washington Post, New Yorkers applaud health-care professionals. Certainly an epidemic is a time for us to look to the needs of those in our immediate communities. This should be encouraged, especially because the quarantine is actually exposing the gross individualism of American society.
Take my townhome community in suburban Northern Virginia, for example. A few weeks ago, I noticed a garbage bag along the curb, ripped in several places, with random refuse littered all over the road nearby (it was garbage collection day). There was a hand-written sign conspicuously posted nearby: “To the idiot who is leaving their trash out on garbage day without a can so that animals get into it — put it in a can, stupid!”
That’s certainly one way to encourage change in behavior, although I’m not sure the culprit (it wasn’t me!) will be incentivized by insults.
More recently, a woman I had never seen before but lives only three doors down reprimanded me for my loud children while they were playing outside (perhaps she’s not familiar with “inside” versus “outside” voices). Shortly thereafter, she complained to the homeowners ssociation (HOA) president about us. A few days later, another neighbor told me the same woman had come outside another house and screamed at some other children, again for being loud. A verbal altercation between the woman and my neighbor ensued, and insults were exchanged.
Of course, neighbors writing mean anonymous notes, or complaining about children playing too loudly, is part-and-parcel of life in suburban America. We can always find things to bicker about, from the color of window shutters, to branches falling onto the lawn next-door, to that chicken-coop in the backyard. Nevertheless, the coronavirus quarantine has amplified these tendencies, marked by excessive hoarding that leads to consumer goods shortages, or the belligerent, self-righteous shaming of neighbors who violate quarantine measures.
Buying personal necessities like toilet paper and sugar, and honoring health measures like social distancing and mask-wearing, are important, but there are ways to do this without being selfish, petty, or antagonistic. One can use civic institutions like an HOA to lodge reasonable complaints about one’s neighbors, rather than weaponizing them against the anonymous “other” who causes minor inconveniences.
Indeed, such behavior proves how atomized and antagonistic American society has become. If you don’t think you need the people in your community, you can afford to insult them, treat them rudely, or buy the entire shelf of wheat flour at the local grocer. It also demonstrates our devolution from the more communal, reciprocal relations French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville observed during his travels across the United States in the early 1830s.
Tocqueville waxed eloquently on the cooperative nature of American communities: “Since every man is weak he feels the same needs as his fellows and, knowing that he can gain their support only if he offers them his help, he will quickly discover that his own private interest fuses with that of the whole community.”
In Tocqueville’s America, citizens recognized they needed each other to survive and prosper, and thus sought to know and care for one another, that they might also receive help. Alternatively, to be unknown was to be helpless, adrift in a dangerous world. The Americans Tocqueville encountered were deeply invested in their immediate communities. He writes:
Public duties are extremely numerous and extensively divided up in the township…. Look at the skill with which the American township has taken care, so to speak, to scatter its power in order to involve more people in public affairs…. In general, one can say that the overwhelming characteristic of public administration in the United States is its extraordinary decentralization.
Until recently, civic pride and participation were still common for an American public not fully tethered to centralizing forces like national mass media, social media, and mass consumption. Yet, paradoxically, in gaining certain freedoms, Americans dispensed with others.
Wrote Tocqueville: “It is my opinion that administrative centralization only serves to weaken those nations who submit to it, because it has the constant effect of diminishing their sense of civic pride.” In the process of gaining the “freedom” of more brands (something George Will bizarrely thinks represents the pinnacle success of capitalism) and more in-home entertainment options, we reject the businesses, civic organizations, and people of our immediate communities.
Contemporary Americans can much more easily afford to live anonymous, radically individualistic lives, unknown by even their next-door neighbors, reliant on corporate behemoths that provide two-day delivery, food-delivery services, and streaming entertainment right to their laptops. With all of that, who needs neighbors?
The losses, however, go far deeper. According to one recent survey, only three in 10 Americans trust others. Even with heightened digital “connectivity” via social media, America’s loneliness rates have doubled since the 1980s, from 20 percent to 40 percent.
A University of Missouri sociologist’s research found that those who perceive their neighbors as trustworthy rate their own health as better than those who don’t. Other studies suggest those with deep community bonds have lower risks of strokes and heart attacks. One good neighbor relationship can, and often does given the right circumstances, permanently change one’s life for the better.
For many 21st-century American communities, neighbors have been an after-thought. As long as the globalist, consumerist system was operating on all cylinders, we deceived ourselves into thinking we didn’t need them.
The coronavirus has proved that assumption wrong, as unchurched, elitist Americans increasingly sense the loneliness stemming from their atomist and materialist inclinations. One is more eager to listen to, be held accountable to, or provide assistance to someone who is known — from church, volunteer organizations, or one’s HOA or Parent-Teacher Association meetings.
For those who never bothered to even learn their neighbors’ names, their awkward, discordant demands on their community strike all the wrong notes. The lady three doors down didn’t tell me her name, or bother to ask mine. The loss is hers.