Last weekend, while I watched soldiers parade through downtown St. Albans during the annual Vermont Maple Festival, I experienced a mushy moment. Militaristic fanfare aside, I thought, this is a really nice, wholesome, inspiring community event. I had just eaten a corn dog and a maple-glazed donut, watched Jim Douglas and Anthony Pollina shimmy down Main Street, and clapped for an elementary-school marching band. It felt so . . . American, but in a mostly good way.
Returning to Church Street that afternoon, I was struck by a funny contrast. Compared with downtown St. Albans, downtown Burlington is more cosmopolitan, and its sidewalk strollers more ethnically diverse. Yet, if Church Street feels like a large city in a good way, it also feels more anonymous — in a bad way.
Indeed, Church Street sometimes affects me in a similar way, albeit to a smaller degree, that New York City does: I'm excited by the diversity of faces passing by, but also disheartened by a lack of neighborliness, a preponderance of chain stores, etcetera.
Last night, I went to hear Harvard prof Robert Putnam address these very issues in a packed lecture hall at the University of Vermont. Putnam is an all-star sociologist who researches "social capital" — a fancy term for "neighborliness." In 2000, he wrote the landmark Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which warns that Americans are becoming more and more disconnected from each other. In other words, he worries that our "social capital" is declining.
In his talk, Putnam shared some new research findings, the gist of which was: American cities and towns are getting more diverse, but that diversity is causing a decline, not an increase, in "social capital." Not so good. But Putnam also shared some more hopeful research findings. Among them: That Americans have made a lot of progress on inter-racial relations in the last few decades. For example, he suggested, we are a lot more comfy with "mixed identities" than we used to be — i.e., in the case of Barack Obama.
Moreover, Putnam said, social capital is increasing in some surprising pockets of American society. For example, in "megachurches," or in the Armed Services, where inter-racial friendships are more common than they are among the civilian population. (Interestingly, Putnam said that there probably weren't many megachurches in this area — guess he hadn't heard of the Essex Alliance Church.)
After the lecture, a young woman raised her hand. Vermont has a strong tradition of "deliberative democracy," she began, as evidenced by its "town meeting" tradition. What will happen in the Green Mountains as population and diversity increases?
Vermont, Putnam half-joked, is the "social capital capital" of America! If the state's population grows, he speculated, that will certainly pose a challenge to its prized "social capital" reputation. But on the other hand, noted the sociologist, Vermont's democratic traditions will help it respond in a healthy way to increases in population and diversity, not to mention the rise of statistically un-neighborly habits like television-watching.
"You do have TV, don't you?" added Putnam, a balding guy who wore a bland suit and tie, over a chorus of laugher. "It's this little box . . . and there's a picture on it that moves."