Practopian Logo The Practical Utopian

Vol 1 Issue 11 - Our Societal Disconnect

2018 Sep 28

Welcome to Issue # 11! Feel free to share liberally with like-minded friends. If someone forwarded this issue to you, then you can sign up to get your very own copy on MailChimp.

This edition features a couple of pieces discussing the functioning of our society. The first is a blog post containing some personal reflections on my own upbringing, while the second is an appreciation of one of my favorite songs from The Kinks. Enjoy!

First Seattle Meetup!

We’ve scheduled our first Practopian meetup in Seattle for Tuesday, October 9th, at 6:30 PM, at the Phinney Neighborhood Association. More info available on Meetup.com. Hope you can join us!

News and Analysis

“There is nothing inevitable about democracy. For all the success that democracies have had over the past century or more, they are blips in history. Monarchies, oligarchies, and other forms of authoritarian rule have been far more common modes of human governance.

“The emergence of liberal democracies is associated with ideals of liberty and equality that may seem self-evident and irreversible. But these ideals are far more fragile than we believe. Their success in the 20th century depended on unique technological conditions that may prove ephemeral.”

– Yuval Noah Harari, “Why Technology Favors Tyranny

Quotation

“All of the great advances in our society have come when we have made investments in other people’s children.”

– Robert Putnam, as quoted by Tim O’Reilly in his book WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us

Blog Post: Our Societal Disconnect

Annapolis, Maryland - My Home Town

I was thinking recently about my own upbringing in Annapolis, Maryland, back in the sixties, and it occurred to me that there were several aspects of my experience there and then that I took for granted, but that are no longer very common today.

My own parents had divorced when I was nine, and my brother and I were living with our Mom. She was working, and we didn’t lack for any of the necessities, but we were definitely on the low side of the middle class.

And yet, we lived within an easy bike ride from more affluent families in the community. We all went to the same public schools. We Methodists all went to the same church. There were a variety of good employers in the area: Westinghouse, Nationwide Insurance, the Naval Academy, to name a few. There was a local newspaper. We had network TV and AM radio, but we all watched and listened to the same content at the same time. If we wanted something more exotic, to give us a taste of what was going on in the wider world, then there was always a large selection of books at the public library, plus the Sunday edition of the Washington Post.

Now I’m not trying to convince you that I grew up in some sort of paradise lost: this was not a perfect community. But it was a relatively complete, coherent, compact, local community.

Fast forward to today. I live in North Seattle, near Green Lake. Now don’t get me wrong. I love Seattle, my neighborhood and my neighbors. But a family like the one I grew up in would have to live at least 30 miles from where we are today. Families, schools and churches in Seattle are sorted by income level. The costs of living – and of housing, in particular – have been rising so rapidly that long-time residents are being forced out of their neighborhoods, replacing established communities with gentrified housing/carousing areas.

And everyone is attached to their own personal media stream, individually customized to match their interests and worldview. News and entertainment have become largely indistinguishable. The printed word has taken a back seat to flickering images displayed on our personal screens, and audio piped straight into our omnipresent ear buds.

Jobs in the area have also been stratified, split between good-paying tech jobs and low-paying most everything else, with a distinct but small band somewhere in the middle.

Large employers offer many services that in the past might have come from neighborhood communities. They often offer on-site child care, their own commuting services, gyms, Wi-Fi, subsidized and high-end cafeterias serving three meals a day, baristas, game rooms, napping nooks and their own corporate cultures. And so, for employees of companies like Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon or Google, much of their societal allegiance has been transferred to their corporate communities.

So is there a problem here?

I believe there is.

To understand the difficulty, I think, we have to start with the difference between community and society.

A community is a social network connecting people with one or more shared interests and some set of shared resources. Communities are easy. Most of us belong to more than one. Employers provide some, but others can be easily formed, especially today through social media.

Society is different, though.

A society consists of all the resources and institutions needed to care for its members, and to ensure its own survival.

And so, once we understand this distinction, we can begin to wrap our heads around the problem we are facing: the characteristics of the communities in which we participate no longer provide any sort of accurate reflection of the health of the society on which we depend. And, to make matters worse, the tailored media streams that we consume daily no longer reflect any sort of reliable, shared understanding of the health of that same society.

No wonder, then, that we have such a hard time agreeing on the state of society, or on what is needed to preserve and improve it.

Growing up in Annapolis, it was easy to get a seat-of-the-pants feel for the health, not just of our community, but of our society. Today, though, I feel like I’m flying blind, separated from the action on the ground by thick layers of clouds. It’s like navigating by instruments, but with multiple panels of dials, each vying for my attention, and each offering conflicting reports on my speed, altitude, direction and fuel consumption.

Back then in Annapolis, of course, we still had different viewpoints, different opinions, different interests, different religions, different political parties – but these all seemed to be contained within an overarching sense of our mutual dependence on one another within a shared society. We might disagree but, at the end of the day, we had to get along with one another.

Today, that sense of us all having to get along within a shared society seems to be gone. We have lots of communities, but it’s clear that these aren’t the same thing – in many cases, these fragmented communities just allow us to burrow deeper into our separate societal corners, from which we can comfortably pass judgment on those in different corners – or, perhaps worse, just ignore them altogether as if they didn’t exist.

What’s the solution? The rapid paces of population growth, technological change, and urbanization are certainly making it harder to grapple with this issue. It helps to have a common, inclusive worldview that can accommodate all of this diversity, and yet help unite people on fundamental principles and values. We certainly need face-to-face and side-by-side contact between diverse members of our society. Perhaps we need virtual neighborhoods intentionally composed of people from different segments of our society, since we can no longer trust that these will occur naturally from geographic proximity. We need more emphasis on affordable housing, to allow different income levels to live closer to one another. We certainly need even-handed and generous funding for public schools. We desperately need local communities that contain socio-economic, racial, religious, political and ethnic diversity.

Whatever means we use, it seems critical that we find a way to reconnect the various shards of our broken society in such a way that most of us can experience a shared, reliable, direct perception of the health of that enterprise.

And we need to understand anew that we are part of a common society, that this society needs to make some reasonable provisions for us all, and that our fates within this endeavor are inextricably woven together.

– Herb Bowie, first published at Practopian.org on Sep 26, 2018

Appreciation: The Village Green Preservation Society

The Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks

This is a rather amazing song by The Kinks, first released in 1968.

I loved this song from the moment I first heard it, but my appreciation for it has only grown over the years.

Consider:

  • In the same year that John Lennon and Yoko Ono released an album called Two Virgins (certainly using the term to refer to themselves metaphorically, not literally), with an album cover showing the two artists completely naked, Ray Davies wrote a song with the immortal line, “God save little shops, china cups and virginity” (and Davies, to be clear, delivered this line quite seriously and quite literally);

  • A year before Jefferson Airplane released its album Volunteers, delivering the injunction “Got to revolution,” and noting that “One generation got old, one generation got soul,” Ray Davies was singing “God save the George Cross, and all those who were awarded them”;

  • Just one year after The Beatles released “Penny Lane,” an endearing song of sentimental childhood nostalgia, Ray Davies fashioned a song that used references to traditional English items, and fading elements of popular culture, not just for a walk down memory lane, but as part of an enduring anthem upholding the value of social continuity.

The lyrics are a treat all on their own, but the music adds a whole ’nother dimension to it, so be sure to listen as well as read.

We are the Village Green Preservation Society.
God save Donald Duck, vaudeville and variety.
We are the Desperate Dan Appreciation Society.
God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties.

Preserving the old ways from being abused;
Protecting the new ways, for me and for you:
What more can we do?

We are the Draught Beer Preservation Society.
God save Mrs. Mopp and good Old Mother Riley.
We are the Custard Pie Appreciation Consortium.
God save the George Cross, and all those who were awarded them.

We are the Sherlock Holmes English-speaking Vernacular.
God save Fu Manchu, Moriarty and Dracula.
We are the Office Block Persecution Affinity.
God save little shops, china cups, and virginity.
We are the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliates.
God save Tudor houses, antique tables, and billiards.

Preserving the old ways from being abused;
Protecting the new ways, for me and for you:
What more can we do?

We are the Village Green Preservation Society.
God save Donald Duck, vaudeville and variety.
We are the Desperate Dan Appreciation Society.
God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties.

We are the Village Green Preservation Society.
God save Donald Duck, vaudeville and variety.
We are the Desperate Dan Appreciation Society.
God save Donald Duck, vaudeville and variety.

God save the Village Green!

Note that the song exhibits many of the same virtues that it extols, being itself small, carefully crafted and unassuming.

There are a number of elements of this song that I find remarkable:

  • Its emphasis on social unity, created through the repetition of the phrases “We are…” and “God save the…” as well as by the understated, smoothly harmonizing vocals from the band members;

  • Its emphasis on critical elements of social progress: preserving the old ways, while still protecting the new ways;

  • Its emphasis on humanizing our society, both by respect for the inexplicable quirks of popular culture, as well as buildings designed for humans, rather than large institutions;

  • Its emphasis on common action, created through the various different types of organizations cited, and even drawing the listener in through the concluding question, “What more can we do?”

Thematically, the song can easily be thought of as George Santayana set to music. Here are some similar thoughts, from his 1906 work, The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained … infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

The song seems even more relevant today than when it was first released, for several reasons:

  1. As growing environmental issues have us all watching the Tragedy of the commons playing out on a global scale, we can see The Kinks’ concern for saving the village green in a new light;
  2. As we see England, America and other countries facing increasing polarization dividing their urban and rural populations, we can appreciate the value of Davies’ respect for traditional, village life;
  3. As we observe the terrible toll on our society taken by tech companies whose motto is “Move fast and break things,” we can gain new respect for the singers’ avowed mission of “Preserving the old ways from being abused” and “Protecting the new ways, for me and for you.”

Ray Davies and The Kinks certainly recorded a number of great songs, but this one, I think, really stands alone for me. It’s hard to think of a comparable song, from any artist, that so calls upon us as listeners to knit together the splintered pieces of our society into a coherent whole that works for all of us.

What more, indeed, can we ask an artist to do?

– Herb Bowie, first published at Practopian.org on Sep 21, 2018

Next Steps…

Thanks for reading!

If you liked this issue’s blog post, feel free to give it a few claps on Medium.com.

Feedback is always welcome at feedback@Practopian.org.

This post, and much more, can always be found at Practopian.org.

Follow Via