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You Got Me, Babe 

So who needs a bowling league?

Wednesday, Sep 6 2000

Bowling Alone isn’t really about bowling alone. As sociologist Robert Putnam allows on page 113, a better designation might be Bowling in Small Groups; admittedly, this wouldn‘t be the catch phrase for modern alienation his title became when it first topped a 1995 article. His key observation is that bowling leagues are losing their members. So are most other volunteer organizations that once made up the warp and woof of American life. In his five-year journey from essay to book, Putnam has extended his thesis to suggest that in our workplaces, among friends, even in families, people are ever less social.

The result is the loss of a vital commodity Putnam calls “social capital” -- a WD-40 of the spirit, essential to keep society going. He concludes (italics his), “Let us spur a new, pluralistic, socially responsible ’great awakening‘ so that by 2010, Americans will be more deeply engaged than we are today in one or another spiritual community of meaning, while at the same time becoming more tolerant of the faiths and practices of other Americans.” Atheists, First Amendment literalists and agnostics might quibble with the “spiritual community” notion, but nothing’s wrong with being deeply engaged and being tolerant. Except, as Putnam himself is forced to admit, the two qualities have so often been preclusive.

There‘s a prodigious amount of data in this book’s 400 pages of text, 30 pages of appendices and 50 pages of notes. But there‘s also something missing. Putnam’s sociological tools aren‘t up to excavating the roots of this 35-year mistrust phenomenon. Instead of reasons, he hands us trends -- too much TV, too much urban sprawl -- while shirking historical causes of the nation’s collapse of credence.

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Putnam certainly demonstrates that we‘re no longer a land of joiners. His graphs show that only eight out of 40 selected volunteer organizations (he overzealously includes the Grange and the Woman’s Christian Temperence Union -- both near-dead for decades) are still growing. Some verge on extinction -- particularly the Masons, Elks, Odd Fellows and Putnam‘s favorites, the national bowling leagues. Others, like the PTA and Red Cross, have simply lost significance. Putnam insists that, since nothing’s replacing such groups, we‘re atomizing into social fragments. Here, he starts to moralize: He deplores this change, insinuating that we’re suffering because we‘ve failed these institutions.

What Putnam doesn’t consider is how these organizations might have failed us. Institutions dwindle when their goals either become absurd or are accomplished -- respective reasons for the declines in the followers of Christian Science and in the membership of the NAACP (which, interestingly, peaked not during the civil rights era but during WWII). But this seems not to have occurred to Putnam, whose causality shortfall sometimes drives you nuts. For instance: What‘s really surprising, in an era of increasing sexual equality, about the decline of men’s fraternal organizations? Is this a bad thing?

Putnam also makes much of declining church attendance, which amounts to only an 8 percent drop over 20 years. Without even arguing the figure‘s significance, however, some pastors might also contend that, with reduced churchgoing social pressure, current churchgoers are more devout. Certainly, modern congregations create much of the social capital that provides for the nation’s battered women and homeless people.

Putnam does note that all social capital is not the same. He distinguishes between “bonding” social capital, within an exclusive affinity group (such as Hadassah; the Nation of Islam; the KKK) and the “bridging” sort that, he claims, brings different groups together. But where does one stop and the other leave off? The Boy Scouts of America -- with its anti-gay stance -- is still trying to figure that out.

In urging us to start a new era of social-capital generation, Putnam suggests we join bowling leagues; play cards with one another regularly and picnic together more often; give more parties and invite more people. If this advice sounds familiar to some of you self-improvement junkies out there, that‘s because it’s what est guru Werner Erhard commanded his adherents to do 20 years ago. I went to some of those Werner-inspired gatherings, and I‘ve had more fun at funerals. Sorry, Dr. Putnam; you can’t just tell people to enjoy one another‘s company.

Sometimes, Putnam’s ponderous research goes lame. In trying to show that modern affinity groups don‘t replace earlier organizations, he is particularly hard put to demonstrate the environmental movement’s social ineffectiveness. He claims that the movement grew rapidly in the 1960s, then lost membership in the 1970s. But the movement‘s histories -- Robert Gottlieb’s 1995 Forcing the Spring and Kirkpatrick Sale‘s 1993 The Green Revolution, for instance -- contend the opposite. New members (including many political radicals) poured into this movement in the 1970s; new organizations were formed -- the Friends of the Earth and (as Putnam acknowledges) Greenpeace; older groups like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society grew more aggressive. This wasn’t just the decade in which environmentalism became a mass movement; it saw the enactment of most of the state and federal clean-air and -water acts, the environmental protections we now enjoy.

If that doesn‘t represent social capital, I don’t know what does. But Putnam bulls on: He belittles environmental groups as mere direct-mail operations, feeding on high membership turnover. He even claims (with no supporting footnote) that Greenpeace has lost 85 percent of its membership since its foundation. Even if this were true, it would miss an important point. For 15 years, Greenpeace has been building its activism on the Web. Putnam variously claims that neither the environmental movement nor the Net has conjoined people significantly. But he misses how the two might together produce a civic engagement that neither institution could create alone. It may be too early to say whether similar combinations can revitalize government or even increase participation in what is (I agree) our waning dialogue between the governing and the governed. But smart politicians have already learned not to ignore their e-mail.

To repeat, things happen for reasons. Environmental groups speak to our fears for the present and future, while many organizations whose decline Putnam deplores typify an America that no longer exists. The Odd Fellows, the Fraternal Order of Woodmen, the Moose, the Eagles thrived in a repressed, small-town USA, and their survival may have as much to do with their after-hours bars as their social standing. Even the larger social organizations that managed to adapt to 20th-century industrial-urban society are vanishing. Reporting on the early-1990s closing of Los Angeles‘ massive Scottish Rite Temple, I talked to a Masonic administrator who said his venerable organization was reverting to the small, local “Blue” lodges from which it grew in the 1800s. At their urban peak (according to Sinclair Lewis and his successors), the Masons constituted the central nervous system of the white-male, Protestant business community. But that’s not the business community we have in the 21st century.

Okay, some organizations are victims of social change. But did their social capital really vanish? Reviewing Bowling in the L.A. Times, UCSB professor Richard Flacks observed, “We have traded some social capital for more personal autonomy, for rights for women and men, for greater social tolerance . . .” This actually suggests a quantity theory of social capital: that it‘s a fixed sum which, lost in one area, shows up in another. Over 30 years, the capital formerly spent on small-group associations may have broadly extended the definition of whom most Americans are willing to accept, understand and love.

But what about that decreased trust in our society? Significantly, Putnam charts the national social-trust apex as corresponding to the all-time peak of public confidence in government during the mid-1960s. But he doesn’t say what the government did with all that trust: the 1964 Tonkin Gulf resolution; the foot-dragging on civil rights enforcement; increased American involvement in a Vietnam War few of us wanted; COINTELPRO. Then came the double assassinations of RFK and Martin Luther King in 1968; the Chicago convention; the election of Richard Nixon; Watergate; Iran-Contra. Now there‘s a whole generation that doesn’t even remember what trusting the government was like; they don‘t trust the media, their elders or themselves. Until this historic wound is healed, we’ll go right on being distrustful. And we‘ll go on bowling, if not alone, with only our friends.

  • So who needs a bowling league?

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