It would be better, of course, if we could take as much interest in what is going on in our own neighborhoods as we do in the gymnastic routines and well-appointed aircraft of the president and a handful of movie stars. Admitted to a spurious intimacy with the cittadini of Washington and Hollywood, the American citizen today moves diffidently through his own town, dropping his eyes before those of his fellow citizens who stand in line with him in a marketplace that long ago ceased to be a community.
Patronizing lectures by President Obama about the need for community service are probably worse than useless, since they encourage a faith in phony solutions. Not less worthless is the president’s recent expansion of the national-service mandarinate, AmeriCorps — the very name of which is, in its Newspeak banality, evidence of our tendency to turn the problem of community over to the bureaucracies of the state.
The fact is that our community life today is
exceedingly dull. Programs like AmeriCorps, founded in the belief that community is an artifact not of culture but of politics, only make it duller. Sit in a café in one of the old squares of Europe, and you see how much better the civilization managed these things in the past. You find, in the old public spaces of the West, a civic artistry that draws people in, and makes community into a form of pleasure rather than of penance.
Unless we find a way to revive those dead civic traditions, our communities will continue to languish, and we will continue to turn for imaginative stimulus to the bogus showmanship of our modern Caesars.
– Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.