Monday, September 8, 2008

We have met the enemy, and, once again, he is us

On the rare occasions when a religious building is destroyed in northern California (perhaps in a major earthquake, or by fire) there is almost always a follow-up story in the newspapers about that congregation's religious leader telling them that while the building was destroyed, the [church/synagogue/mosque] exists, because the congregation, not the building, is, in fact, the [church/synagogue/mosque.]

I was reminded of that by the negative references at the Republican National Convention about community organizers. Community has an rich etymology (that's word history, not insect science) that embraces fellowship, the public, shared by all or many, and fellow-townspeople. We can use community to mean an entire political entity (a town or city) but it can also mean any group with common interests or goals -- say, a national political party, or a local group formed for any purpose.

In 2000 Robert D. Putnam wrote "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community." The title came from statistics showing that while bowling remained popular, the number of those bowling in leagues had greatly declined. Overall, the book points out, Americans were "investing" their time less and less in "social capital," the activities among people that lead them to think of themselves as part of a community of persons, as opposed to a simple political entity. We've all seen it: a chapter of a fraternal order closes due to declining membership; two houses of worship merge; a club just stops meeting.

The new United States citizenship test that will take effect in October of this year includes as question 55 "What are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy?" The list of possible answers includes "join a civic group; join a community group; give an elected official your opinion on an issue; publicly support or oppose an issue or policy." Community organizers help people to create those groups: civic or community. Some organizers help people unite to work with local officials -- the Neighborhood Watch programs encouraged by law enforcement are one example. Other organizers help people come to together to "talk to power" at the local level by expressing opinions on issues, or supporting or opposing an issue or policy -- a process that can also be called "fighting city hall." Maybe that's what two former mayors had in mind when they bemoaned community organizers at the Republican National convention. Maybe they should take a look at the citizenship examination.

(Title is from a Pogo cartoon.)

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