08 June 2007

Community and sanity

Via Rivet Pep Squad: Robert Wright writing for Time magazine in 1995 describes the problems of suburbanization in The Evolution of Despair, which was a response to the Unabomber, his manifesto ... and evolutionary psychology.
nostalgia for the suburban nuclear family of the 1950s—which often accompanies current enthusiasm for “family values”—is ironic. The insular coziness of Ozzie and Harriet's home is less like our natural habitat than, say, the more diffuse social integration of Andy Griffith's Mayberry. Andy's son Opie is motherless, but he has a dutiful great- aunt to watch over him—and, anyway, can barely sit on the front porch without seeing a family friend.

To be sure, keeping nuclear families intact has virtues that are underscored by evolutionary psychology .... But to worship the suburban household of the 1950s is to miss much of the trouble with contemporary life.

Though people talk about “urbanization” as the process that ushered in modern ills, many urban neighborhoods at mid-century were in fact fairly communal; it's hard to walk into a Brooklyn brownstone day after day without bumping into neighbors. It was suburbanization that brought the combination of transience and residential isolation that leaves many people feeling a bit alone in their own neighborhoods. (These days, thanks to electric garage-door openers, you can drive straight into your house, never risking contact with a neighbor.)

The suburbs have been particularly hard on women with young children. In the typical hunter-gatherer village, mothers can reconcile a homelife with a work life fairly gracefully, and in a richly social context. When they gather food, their children stay either with them or with aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins or lifelong friends. When they're back at the village, child care is a mostly public task—extensively social, even communal. The anthropologist Marjorie Shostak wrote of life in an African hunter-gatherer village, “The isolated mother burdened with bored small children is not a scene that has parallels in !Kung daily life.”

Evolutionary psychology thus helps explain why modern feminism got its start after the suburbanization of the 1950s. The landmark 1963 book The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan grew out of her 1959 conversation with a suburban mother who spoke with “quiet desperation” about the anger and despair that Friedan came to call “the problem with no name” and a doctor dubbed “the housewife's syndrome.”

It is only natural that modern mothers rearing children at home are more prone to depression than working mothers, and that they should rebel.
Suburbs are largely products of the automobile. (In the forthcoming book The Lost City, Alan Ehrenhalt notes the irony of Henry Ford, in his 60s, building a replica of his hometown—gravel roads, gas lamps—to recapture the “saner and sweeter idea of life” he had helped destroy.) And in a thousand little ways—from the telephone to the refrigerator to ready-made microwavable meals—technology has eroded the bonds of neighborly interdependence. Among the Aranda Aborigines of Australia, the anthropologist George Peter Murdock noted early this century, it was common for a woman to breast-feed her neighbor's child while the neighbor gathered food. Today in America it's no longer common for a neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar.

I'm not entirely comfortable with Wright's beating the drum of evolutionary psychology as hard as he does—everyone seems to be able to justify their own view of society by some kind of “evolutionary psychology” reasoning—but his fundamental point about the problems of the suburbs is right on. And this plugs into something I've said before about the relationship between the mechanics of our society and the human experience we have within it.
One of the things that we American lefties find frustrating about all of this “family values” blather in the social/political sphere is the assumption by social conservatives that the solution to the problems facing the American nuclear family is ultimately for people to just try harder. Lefties argue that rather, we just don't support families as well as we did in the old days, economically, logistically, and socially.
We have to start digging our way out of the suburbs right away.

No comments: