A Strike for Togetherness

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BOWLING ALONE: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert D.

Putnam. Simon & Schuster, 541 pp., $26.

'BOWLING ALONE" is a book with an extremely catchy title; it's also a book

that's crammed with more data, charts, graphs and tables than the average

consumer of books with catchy titles is likely to digest in a lifetime. This

makes it a challenging read for the statistically disinclined, but it's worth

it, because it's also a virtually indispensable study of community since the

late 1960s. Anyone who has shed a tear for the Technicolor America of Boy

Scouts, bridge parties, the PTA and, yes, even the beer-and-pizza camaraderie

of bowling leagues will sympathize with Robert D. Putnam's fact-laden

nostalgia, his fastidiously ethical plea to restore the progressive triumphs of

community-building.

Putnam, the Stanfield Professor of International Peace at Harvard and the

author of half a dozen studies of politics and culture, understands that

nostalgia, while valuable, can easily descend into meaningless sentimentality

when the evidence is thin. Because let's face it: We all convince ourselves,

from time to time, that the good old days really were better than the bad new

present. Professional naysayers, from William Bennett to Gertrude Himmelfarb,

have made careers by complaining that America is going rapidly to pot.

Putnam, however, is no family-values reactionary spouting a hardbitten

conservative spiel unbolstered by authentic research. He is instead a professor

of public policy with 25 years' worth of interviews with actual Americans at

his disposal, as well as an immense mass of raw information, culled from a wide

variety of sources, indicating that community is, if not a completely dead or

dying notion, then at least an endangered one.

In a manner of speaking, it all does boil down to bowling. Take the case of

John Lambert, a 64-year-old retiree living in Michigan who, in 1997, needed a

kidney transplant. During the three years Lambert spent on a waiting list to

receive a new organ, he continued to bowl. Enter Andy Bosechma, a 33-year-old

fellow bowler who became friendly with Lambert and who, upon learning of the

older man's plight, offered to donate one of his healthy kidneys. "That they

bowled together made all the difference," argues Putnam. And he's

right-bowling, some will be surprised to learn, can save your life.

Due to population growth, more Americans are bowling than ever before,

Putnam points out. But, alarmingly, far fewer people are bowling in the sort of

leagues that brought Lambert and Bosechma together. The decline has been

precipitous - a 40 percent drop between 1980 and 1993, down from peaks in the

mid-'60s and late '70s, plunging toward a projected zero level of league

participation by 2010. Now, lest one think, scoffingly, that league bowling is

a poor gauge of national character, it's useful to note (as Putnam does) that

"bowling is the most popular competitive sport in America." Additionally,

bowling, unlike golf or tennis, is "solidly middle-American-common among both

men and women, couples and singles, working-class and middle-class, young and

old." League bowling - ill-fitting shoes and all - and not baseball is

America's true national pastime, a steadfast clue since 1900 of how much time

we genuinely spend together in contexts other than work. For Putnam, league

bowling's decline is a worrisome trend, a canary in the poisoned coal mine of

American community.

Utilizing a large survey conducted between the early '70s and mid-'90s of

the everyday political conduct of regular citizens, Putnam then begins to

expand his argument well past bowling and its symbolic decline. "Americans are

playing virtually every aspect of the civic game less frequently than we did

two decades ago," he claims. This has resulted in a serious depletion of

"social capital"; an erosion of shared values and experiences; the formation of

a zombified TV-watching and Web-surfing population; the emergence of "edge

cities" and the development of urban sprawl (as opposed to tightly knit

localities and dynamic cities); and, generally speaking, the replacement in

American life of noble public priorities by somewhat more feckless private

pursuits.

Putnam is especially convincing where two such highly private realms -

television and the Internet - are concerned. His views are refreshingly free of

grumpy cant, but significantly more disturbing as a consequence of being

delivered in so balanced a manner. With a maneuver that he employs over and

over again, Putnam takes a cold, hard look at the data-he is a social scientist

first, a polemicist second - and discovers that communities are in every bit

as much trouble as we sensed they might be, but not for the reasons we thought.

The Internet, touted by its boosters as the digital panacea for waning

civic engagement, has not thus far rescued us from our generational slide away

from WWII-era public engagement into the wallow of private indulgence. The Net

has made virtual communitarians of antisocial programers-but it has also

isolated from each other people whose pre-Net specialty was flesh-pressing and

face-to-face contact. Putnam carefully notes that, taking higher levels of

education for granted, Internet users are no more likely to be civically

engaged than non-users, and he cites his own study as support. In any case, he

feels that the jury is still out on the Internet's ability to swiftly revive

community through an infusion of technology. "The absence of any correlation

between Internet usage and civic engagement," Putnam writes, "could mean that

the Internet attracts reclusive nerds and energizes them, but it could also

mean that the Net disproportionately attracts civic dynamos and sedates them."

No other force, however, appears to have frayed time-honored social bonds

as effectively as television, a medium that Putnam strives to treat with

empirical fairness but nonetheless clearly perceives as Public Enemy No 1. "TV

is apparently especially attractive for people who feel unhappy, especially

when there is nothing else to do," he reports, on the way to parroting the old

argument that the glowing box is tantamount to an addictive drug. "TV's

dominance in our lives reflects not its sublime pleasures, but its minimal

costs." And: "Television ... is the only leisure activity that seems to inhibit

participation in other leisure activities." TV is, in other words, a community

killer, and though there are a few high spots (PBS' "The News Hour," for

instance), Putnam concludes that "television and its electronic cousins are

willing accomplices to the civic mystery" - the swift collapse of American

community - "we have been unraveling, and more likely than not they are

ringleaders." The upshot? A world of encroaching "cyberapartheid,"

"cyberbalkanization" and a "mindless, external 'technological imperative.'"

To make matters worse, pervasive loneliness, abetted by TV and the

Internet, are relatively benign aspects of America's ailing civic body. More

troubling by far is evidence of youthful misery - the replacement of

yesteryear's gloomy adults with today's fashionably disaffected kids - and the

fact that suicide rates among young people are on the rise. The overall picture

is bleak: overworked drones inhabiting a soulless suburban limbo,

self-anesthetizing with television and computers, raising the most

materialistic generation of children in American history, children who despite

their tremendous economic advantages still fantasize in significant numbers

about killing themselves.

Any card-carrying conservative would seize on Putnam's data and run with

it, casting "Bowling Alone" as an earthbound social-science cousin to Allan

Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind." However, Putnam himself is too

responsible to transform his broad study into a jeremiad. Instead, he goes out

on a limb, proposing in the book's final chapter a series of reforms akin to

those undertaken 100 years ago, when the Progressives responded to the

Industrial Revolution by unleashing the surge in civic engagement whose ebb

"Bowling Alone" laments.

A cynic could grouse that Putnam's recommendations signal a naive rehashing

of Norman Rockwell-esque values-and multiculturalists might detect in the book

a limited effort to examine fully the implications of the country's

contemporary racial and ethnic diversity (though Putnam does spend a fair

amount of time on the subject, demonstrating that communitarianism is more

likely to encourage inclusion than ostracization). But Putnam's patriotism

doesn't come wrapped in Old Glory; it arrives bundled in facts, and a sturdy

faith in the potential of American democracy, which Putnam fervently believes

is up to the challenge of reviving our beleaguered communities. "Bowling Alone"

might not be the page-turner it looks like at first, but patient readers will

be rewarded for seeking out its absolutely vital lessons and observations. And

who knows? If Robert Putnam gets his way, he might find himself responsible for

a bowling revival of historic proportions.

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