When Americans think of “community,” they imagine warm and snuggly things. The word conjures a host of wholesome associations. It reminds us of neighbors sharing loaves of home-baked bread, of children playing in a safe backyard, of grownups meeting face to face to solve problems with good, old-fashioned common sense. The term sounds very Currier and Ives. Until we step back and take a good, hard look at those who use it.
These days, it’s thrown around by people who seem uninterested in grownups solving their own problems. A more honest term for how we’re seen would probably be “herd.” It seems calculated to keep us bunched together too closely to remember that we are individuals. It’s the way our teachers used to speak to us in the third grade. If you put Currier and Ives into a blender with Lyndon B. Johnson and Mister Rogers, this is likely what you’d get.
We elected a president who touted his experience as a “community organizer.” He stands at the podium and lectures us about what’s best for us, as if we lacked the sense to figure that out for ourselves. The impression that unmistakably comes across is that he thought he was far smarter than any of those dolts in the “communities” he organized. And that as president, he is certain the voters are so stupid we don’t see that his own reelection — his glorious little career — is factored into every move he makes.
Recently, I bought a new computer. I’ve been very happy with it, because it does a lot of wonderful, whiz-bang things. But I am unfamiliar with some of its programs. I had a screenplay to write — something I hadn’t done since college — and I couldn’t figure out how to set up my document in the proper format.
I managed to figure it out by myself, except for one crucial detail. Geek Squad wouldn’t simply answer my question, but they’d access my system from headquarters and fix the problem themselves — for 60 bucks. I threw it out to some online groups, and kept getting people who would gladly give me an answer — in exchange for my credit card number. From “the community,” I must admit, I wasn’t feeling much love.
Are our government-anointed “community organizers” right? I began to wonder. Have we lost the capacity to solve even the simplest of problems without their guidance? A whole industry has arisen to do for us, for money, what we know in our guts we should be able to do for ourselves — or at least with the help of somebody who won’t charge us for it.
People resent this, but their resentment is often exploited by those who don’t believe in private industry. Devotees of the government collective cluck their tongues about the hucksters out there who’ll take our money to answer questions with which they might help us for free. But are they to blame for wanting payment because we lack the imagination to look for solutions we don’t have to pay for? If our stupidity and helplessness keeps a roof over their heads, is that their fault or ours?
Refusing to give up too easily, I went to the meeting of a group to which I belong — one of those voluntary associations we’re forever being told no longer exist. I asked my question to some friends before the meeting, and within minutes somebody provided an answer. Afterwards I went home, tried it out, and it worked. And I was not one penny poorer.
Community — the real deal — still exists. If we’re willing to trust it. What that means is that we must remember how to trust each other. The real community is us, not an organizing "leader." But we can only trust each other if we dare to trust ourselves. When we allow ourselves to be treated like sheep, we are ripe for plunder by wolves.
The best ideas still come, not from any central committee of self-appointed smarties, but from our friends, our neighbors, sometimes even our children, and ourselves. A little bit of resourcefulness, of self-reliance, of trust in the everyday folks we know, can save us a lot of cash. In the long run, it may save our freedom.
And here's an important point: those in government who claim they will solve our problems for us will not do it for free. That is always the assumption, when they insist on helping us. But it's never true. We will pay for everything we get — and often for things we don't get — in money, time, inconvenience, and anger. And it increasingly looks as if the price they’re demanding is our very souls.