Playing Together

Anne Applebaum has an interesting point about the importance of play.
Thirty years ago, this wasn’t the case. A worker in a Detroit car factory earned about the same as, say, a small-town dentist, and although they might have different taste in films or furniture, their purchasing power wasn’t radically different. Their children would have been able to play together without feeling as if they came from different planets.

Now they couldn’t.
Her concept is that this is a good measure of the degree to which the middle class feels united -- that is, the degree to which it really is a class.  She wants to make a point, much like Mickey Kaus does, that Americans care more about social equality than about political or economic equality.  They argue that a very few super-rich (or a very few terribly poor) do not upset the sense of overall social equality, but that the American democratic concept won't work if a large part of the public feels separate from the rest.  

There's a certain irony in this critique coming from the Left, which for many years worked very hard to instill just such a distinction in the minds of the American people.  For a long time the phrase "the working class" was intended by Left-leaning thinkers to convince us to break the Middle Class into two parts, the upper-middle and middle-middle (which would remain "Middle Class") and the lower-middle (which would become "Working Class").  Insofar as they could achieve this, they could convince the "working class" that they had a class interest in Democratic politics, labor unions, and so forth.  Insofar as the lower-middle class remained convince that it was 'Middle Class like everybody else,' those voters would continue to try to better their lot through economics rather than politics.

Nevertheless, the economic collapse of the last few years has achieved what the phrase could not achieve; and if the Left is late to the party of celebrating the general unity of American life, that doesn't mean that they are wrong on the point.  There is a great social stability that arises because the vast middle -- say 80% of us -- think of ourselves as belonging to the same class.  We don't all vote the same way even so, but there is a sense in which we're all more or less the same.  In a democratic society, that's a virtue; so if we hope to remain a democratic society, it's important.

I wonder, though, if there isn't a broader point to be made about playing together.  Robert Putnam wrote a book called Bowling Alone that argues that American adults aren't playing together any more.  The bowling league was once a feature of middle-class life, along with things like the Elk Lodge (a type of society so popular that they were satirized in The Flintstones); now, people almost always bowl alone.  It isn't because bowling is less popular:  bowling is more popular than ever.  It's the community that has collapsed.

I think he has a good point in general, though his research is suspiciously tendentious.  His state-by-state rankings are interesting, as all the Southern states are in the negative territory, and are clustered at the bottom of the list.  The earliest is Virginia, at 33rd; of the bottom ten, only West Virginia and Nevada are from outside the South.  

Does air-conditioning -- or the bitterly hot summers, in general -- cut down on the degree to which we play together?  That might explain the general trend; but it doesn't answer the question of whether our communities are worse.  On the other hand, I notice his sample questions speak of "civic and social" organizations but not "church groups."  Leaving that out is going to eliminate one of the major sources of Southern community, which would also tend to bias the list.

Leaving aside that problem, though, it's an interesting question.  Does the nation that plays together stay together?  If so, is part of the answer to the economic crisis -- or at least, the political crisis attending the economic crisis -- to form more softball or bowling leagues?  To make sure our children play together?  It seems unlikely on its face, and yet I find I can't dismiss the idea.  There is something powerful in play, for men and women as well as for children.


Dad29 said...

Blame it all on marketing.

The atomization of society has been furthered immeasurably by segmentation--which was developed and used by the marketers and their allies, the advertisers.

Your point about 'churches' is VERY germane, by the way. The Catholics have some very significant cohesive groups (Knights of Columbus comes to mind immediately) which should not be a priori eliminated from any honest 'study.'

Texan99 said...

Do most people hang out exclusively with people of similar income? Because we sure don't -- never have.

It shouldn't be necessary to have the government step in and equalize income just to get people to associate with each other. What's stopping them now? There may be a lot of things that prevent my having a good time with someone, but income disparity ain't gonna be it. I want to know if he or she is a good person with good conversation or similar interests. If one of us is richer than the other, can't we think of something cheap to do together? There are tons of possibilities.

Anonymous said...

I wonder too if some of the atomization has to do with entertaining ourselves vs. being entertained. If you have to entertain yourself, you are probably more likely to join in a group - bowling league, women's club, scouting of some form, fraternal organization - then if you can turn on a TV or pull up a movie or "socialize" over the Internet with other knitters or gamers.

Like Texan99, I tend to socialize with people from outside my "class" or profession as well as with those a sociologist would probably say I "should" socialize with. Interesting folks don't seem to concentrate in one socio-economic stratum.


Texan99 said...

We're lucky to have neighbors who are better at meeting new people than we are -- they gather in new friends and introduce them to us at small dinners. We just returned from a nice dinner where we met two new local residents.

dellbabe68 said...

Robert Putnam also found some surprising conclusions in a later bit of research he did. He found that as communities became more diverse, there was even less of a sense of community, and less volunteering. He calls it a "hunker down mode."
See here:;jsessionid=975FB16E08CA850DC32E9EA494193CA1.d01t03?systemMessage=Wiley+Online+Library+will+be+disrupted+5+Nov+from+10-12+GMT+for+monthly+maintenance

John Leo of City Journal (a great publication, BTW) did a bit on that Putname research:

And, Putname has another bit of research coming out on religion in America (lookout!)... he talks about it here. I have to laugh at how surprised he is at how people in a mega church in Houston all get along, and they are ethnically totally diverse. He is pompous and holds on tightly to his pre conceived notions. He actually calls conservatives racist in this, but it's an illuminating piece anyway.

Grim said...

That's interesting, DB. It appears to be the Church and the Army that work. Chalk two up for the traditional guiding institutions of society!

dellbabe68 said...

They'll find some way to drag them both in the mud. You can be sure of that. We just have to take satisfaction out of their fear (and loathing) of the unknown.