Recently in my local Northern Virginia grocery store, I noticed that some goods, rather than having little tags advertising “50% off” or “Buy One, Get One Free,” declared they were products of an “Asian-owned business.” Tea, rice, and even beer possessed these markers — the month of May is Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
Yet the real kicker was none of the products being promoted for these “diversity and inclusion” credentials were from the United States but from India, Thailand, and even China. These weren’t even Asian-American products, they were simply Asian.
Why, one might ask, should American consumers prioritize products from halfway around the world, especially over those farmed, harvested, brewed, or packaged in the United States? Why should Americans be more concerned about the economic well-being of citizens of other nations over those of our own? And why should we be promoting the purchase of goods made in countries known for egregious human rights violations, and in which many companies are allowed (and even incentivized) to employ unjust, brutal, and even slave-like labor conditions?
It seems Americans are increasingly more amenable to loving the abstract community than their actual, flesh-and-blood neighbors. They are eager to do good for various identity groups marked by race, sex, or gender that burnish their own credentials as socially just citizens.
There is, admittedly, less glory (and less opportunity for that picture-perfect social media post) in doing mundane things for one’s neighbors, in helping local businesses stay in business, or in performing community service. As several studies have shown, volunteerism is declining among Americans.
The dramatic decrease in religious affiliation among America’s younger generational cohorts, as well as the slow death of many Protestant denominations, is part of the problem, given that faith groups are vital to the nation’s social safety net. Nearly one in six Americans don’t know the name of a single neighbor in their community, and those numbers are worse for millennials.
Persuaded by Big Tech’s promises that social media can provide real, robust relationships, Americans have embraced “digital communities.” This isn’t just Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Even Peloton claims its users can find meaningful connections in groups like #PelotonMoms (235,000 members), #PelotonDads (85,634) or #BlackLivesMatter (210,000). One just has to be willing to pay the initial $1,900 to $2,345 for the equipment and then the additional $2,400 and $3,000 for streamed classes. Who knew friends could be so expensive.
There are real limitations with these faux communities, as many commentators (myself included) have noted. There’s the fact that one will likely never meet one’s digital “friends.” There are also the fake, carefully curated ways we seek to project ourselves to our digital neighbors so everyone knows how amazing we are.
Also, there are the bizarre, artificial ways we communicate in the digital realm. Can you imagine getting into daily, profanity-laden shouting matches with the guy next door? Yet people do it on Twitter and Facebook all the time.
For all of our paeans to community, alienation and atomism are on the rise across America in a worrying trend that is inimical to republican self-government. Alexis de Tocqueville, that great surveyor of American social and political life, observed, “The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens,” also noting, “I have often seen Americans make large and genuine sacrifices to the public good, and I have noted on countless occasions that when necessary they almost never fail to lend one another a helping hand.” Such behaviors are harder to find in a land of anonymous neighbors.
The idea of civic virtue aimed at the welfare of one’s fellow citizens was also fundamental to the Framers’ understanding of the qualities necessary for the preservation of a constitutional republic. Benjamin Franklin asserted, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
Alexander Hamilton declared, “The institution of delegated power implies that there is a portion of virtue and honor among mankind which may be a reasonable foundation of confidence.” And James Madison warned, “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”
We were made for real community and flesh-and-blood relationships, in which we are forced to be vulnerable and imperfect in front of others. It’s humbling and uncomfortable, yes, but is also freeing. We realize we don’t need to project false images of ourselves to be appreciated and loved.
Our virtue and care for others, especially those often ignored, engenders goodwill and enables us to overlook many of the social, political, racial, or religious issues that divide us. Perhaps we are not persuaded to change our political views, but in regular, reciprocally beneficial interactions with those on our street or in our apartment building, we realize we can live alongside those who don’t share them.
So many of the trends found among the leftist technocratic elite work against this. Signs in one’s yard or bumper stickers on one’s car mocking one’s political opponents as idiots, hate-filled or anti-science does not stimulate feelings of neighborly affection. Nor does giving charitable donations to national (or international), ideologically driven social-reform organizations, while ignoring the plight of the needy in one’s own neighborhood or town.
The fact is that we needn’t look far to discover those in need of our time, energy, and money. Elderly neighbors need someone to mow their lawn, buy their groceries, or just keep them company. Low-income families need someone to help with babysitting, tutoring, or mentoring their children while they try to hold down multiple jobs.
These needs transcend any identity group we may be politically inclined to support. They also require us to be willing to perhaps overlook (or even begrudgingly tolerate) the opinions or foibles of our neighbors.
Such service — demanded of us both as citizens and as neighbors — is more challenging, and less celebrated than the activism promoted by many educators, politicians, and media outlets. But they are more important and needed than sending our money to “Asian-owned businesses” across the Pacific Ocean. The latter will do little except briefly (and fraudulently) salve our consciences. The former might well change someone’s life — or even our town.