Robert Heinlein was a popular science fiction author in the golden age of sci-fi. His book, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, is a classic.
He was a humanist and a libertarian. He once wrote a 640-word essay for a radio series organized by leftist journalist Edward R. Murrow. The series was called This I Believe. The essays have been republished by National Public Radio, half a century later.
In his essay, Heinlein wrote:
I am not going to talk about religious beliefs but about matters so obvious that it has gone out of style to mention them. I believe in my neighbors. I know their faults, and I know that their virtues far outweigh their faults.
Take Father Michael down our road a piece. I’m not of his creed, but I know that his goodness and charity and loving kindness shine in his daily actions. I believe in Father Mike. If I’m in trouble, I’ll go to him. My next-door neighbor’s a veterinary doctor. Doc will get out of bed after a hard day to help a stray cat — no fee, no prospect of a fee. I believe in Doc.
I believe in my townspeople. You can knock on any door in our town, say, “I’m hungry,” and you’ll be fed. Our town is no exception. I’ve found the same ready charity everywhere. For the one who says, “The heck with you, I’ve got mine,” there are a hundred, a thousand, who will say, “Sure, pal, sit down.” I know that despite all warnings against hitchhikers, I can step to the highway, thumb for a ride, and in a few minutes a car or a truck will stop and someone will say, “Climb in, Mack. How far you going?”
Where is that world today? Where do people know their neighbors down the block — their foibles, their strengths? Where is there a community where people even know the names of their “neighbors” two doors down or across the street?
In half a century, that world has disappeared in the United States. In a crisis comparable to the Great Depression, where would we gain strength?
In 1953, Robert Nisbet wrote a book, The Quest for Community. It remained a low-selling book until 1962, when the publisher re-titled it for a paperback: Community and Power. Then, in 1965, the publisher changed the title back. The counter-culture was beginning. A new quest for community by young adults was leading to wild experiments. Those experiments had all visibly failed by 1972.
Nothing has restored what we had in 1950. That does not bode well for our society in the crises to come.
What ever happened to the social phenomenon known as “neighbor”? It moved out of the neighborhood sometime around 1960.
If I were to blame a single factor, it would be government-subsidized mortgages. When the Federal government created insurance for depositors in savings & loans, it subsidized the destruction of community. When people could afford to move up, for 20% down, they did. They moved out in order to move up.
The ultimate carry trade — borrowed short and lent long — has undermined modern society. The subprime mortgage crisis is the latest installment of the housing market’s carry trade. The undermining of community is still going on.
December 28, 2007