One of my favorite memories growing up in an Iowa town during the 1950s was playing on a baseball team sponsored by the Odd Fellows. To a twelve-year-old boy, the Odd Fellows were a group of dusty men who had a clubhouse – a lodge – above a hardware store and met there on a Sunday afternoon to socialize and discuss whatever it is that Odd Fellows discuss.
They certainly helped our baseball team. They bought the uniforms, arranged for a coach, and occasionally invited the team up to the lodge for pop and cookies following a game, which was the best part. They also volunteered in the community, ran a campground, and committed themselves to “improve and elevate the character of men.” Along with the Elks, the Eagles, the Lions, Daughters of the American Revolution, the Masons, Kiwanis, Shriners and other civic associations, the Odd Fellows contributed to the social capital that bound citizens together in a rich web of shared norms and reciprocity.
Many of these organizations are still active today, but with reduced numbers. Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist, cites declining participation of Americans in civic associations in the latter decades of the twentieth century as indicative of a precipitous shrinking of social capital – the infamous “bowling alone” thesis about the eclipse of American community.
There is no shortage of explanations for this: people watching television and surfing the Internet instead of socializing with others, women leaving the home and entering the workforce, the professionalization of social services, a more narrow identification with one’s profession or interest group rather than “civic community,” a reliance on experts and technical knowledge instead of neighborhood collective action, the cult of individualism, globalization and other forces.
Nor is there a shortage of people who think social capital isn’t declining; and if it is, it must not be the kind related to economic capital, which has been increasing for the same social elites who complain about alienation and loss of community while they plug into the Internet, suck down lattes and generally live large. Amidst the hypocrisy and problems, these social entrepreneurs call our attention to new and better ways of doing things, innovation in action across vast networks of virtual and real-time communities. The civil and economic sectors will be more intertwined than ever: doing well by doing good for the common social enterprise.
All of this is fine, but it misses a central point. Social capital is inherently good, not as a set of relationships related to an external enterprise (member in a gang, a corporation, a clan, a family), but as a set of relationships that are good in and of themselves and justified in the process of actively engaging in them — sharing a meal, a life, an idea, a dream and all the joy and sorrow that come with them.
The danger is not that we will run out of ways to socially connect and engage with others. The danger is that, in our desire to connect with others for some shared purpose or greater good, we may diminish our capacity for sympathy and empathy for those outside that purpose, and so find it easier to treat them, or allow them to be treated, with less than basic human dignity and compassion.
I grew up with parents who were committed to my future. I fondly remember the adults from my childhood – relatives, scout leaders, teachers, pastors, parents of friends. I have memories of the after-game refreshments in the company of the Odd Fellows, or hanging out with my best friend at his Dad’s welding shop, watching him put a trailer hitch on a truck and pretending we were interested. It never occurred to me that the Odd Fellows might have some religious or quasi-political agenda. It never occurred to me that I was coming of age in a traditional working and middle-class community, being indoctrinated with traditional attitudes, roles and relationships. I just never reflected on it. I was too young, too caught up in the immediacy of space and time, too busy being in it.
Even after all of the critical reflection, these are the kinds of memories that embody a deep pool of emotional attachment and define who we are as human beings. Imagine a life without them. It might be a life of sorts, but it might also be something other than human.
The purposes for which we create social capital are various and often at conflict, but we must never lose sight of the basic humanity that ties all of us together in physical and space-bound communities. Building community is the thing — not necessarily building it for some external purpose, but for the simple act of affirming our common humanity in the process.
The Odd Fellows might have been – well, odd – but they have a story, a history and a place in human affairs. They were kind to a group of young boys, and that is what makes all the difference.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.