Thursday, April 27, 2006

Fake Family and Contrived Community

A Toyota commercial caught my attention last week when I forgot to mute it. And last night, a commercial for Bayer Aspirin, which I had seen before but not paid any attention to, used the same theme as Toyota did -- "Family", as in "our product is a part of your family".

Although I won't assume that people take the Product-is-Family claim very seriously, advertisers do spend a lot of money to develop messages that work. So, even if people dismiss many extreme advertising gimmicks as ridiculously exaggerated, the advertisers aren't stupid. it's reasonable to think that the same image used by different advertisers for very different products must have some power to move consumers, and ultimately to move product.

I thought Toyota's ad was way over the top -- elaborately produced, with many questions of the "how long did it take you to (appreciate some feature of the car)" type, culminating in "how long did it take you to love your Toyota?" and then blasting into Neverland with "how long did it take your Toyota to become part of your family?" (Yes, I know there are people who really identify with their cars or are very involved with the image their cars project. I'm not one. But even for a car nut, "family"?)

Then there's the constant use of the word "community" to designate categories of people who share a characteristic or a particular interest of some kind, like, to pull one out of the air, "the (glider) soaring community" (a passion of my oldest son). Some of those people do interact face to face at times, of course. And the categories can be extremely significant. But "community"? That's a concept that involves social interactions within some kind of defined population within some kind of defined place (or, if you happen to be a nomad, a connected series of places). And communities continue through entire life cycles, through generations. (A definition of community that I like is that it's the minimum social unit in which a person becomes fully enculturated into the life of a society -- although that leaves unanswered the question of what constitutes "fully enculturated".)

So -- why, then, are we deemed by advertisers to be susceptible to being sold on the notion of a commercial product as family and why do we think of an abstract category of people as a community?

The "community", for the 80% of us in the USA who are classified as urban, has become so large and so sprawled out over the landscape that it's more like a series of loose networks than a community of the type that humans have lived in and been adapted to since our beginning. It's a common observation that in a country dominated by work, technology, large organizations, and geographic mobility, we suffer from a loss of connections. Family is separated from work; age groups are divided and segregated in many ways; marketers play to, and even create, market segments and consumer identities; and then there are all the standard dividers like gender, ethnicity, and class (which really does exist).

Without extensive support from kin and community, the relatively isolated (and untraditional) nuclear family fails frequently.

We tend to wind up living in somewhat overlapping social networks without an abiding personal core; we lack integration. To a great extent, we're connected mainly through commercial, impersonal transactions. Thus, our condition is often tagged as one of widespread "alienation". Social networks are great, but they're incomplete. They're not communities. They leave great open spaces in our lives for marketers to fill.

It could make you long for The Garden of Eden. In a general way, The Garden did once exist. It was a place known to anthropologists as the world where hunters and gatherers used to live -- especially hunters and gatherers in well-endowed natural areas. (If you like nuts, berries, and salmon, as I do, you would have loved the Pacific Northwest in pre-European times.) But those Gardens of Eden are gone, except for a few tiny remnants.

[For a quick view of the serious idea that the Stone Ages weren't so bad, take a look at Jared Diamond's article "The worst mistake in the history of the human race". That's the Jared Diamond of Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies, and of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The "worst mistake" was agriculture.]

What we have now is the kind of society that the Judeans in Babylonian exile and the Jews under the Roman Empire had to deal with -- only more so. In the world of power, wealth, and empire, the Bible's insistence on the importance of ridding yourself of the encumbrances and temptations of money could make sense only if there were the alternative of a real old-fashioned "community". Imagine -- to quote some dead singer -- "imagine" that you lived in a functioning, more or less stable community that had many of the characteristics of a family -- an extended family or clan, united in its members' commitment to help each other. In that kind of community you could, indeed, safely sell a possession to raise money for someone who had just been struck down by a personal or financial disaster and needed help. You would have the assurance that there would be plenty of others who would do the same for you in your time of need. Simple.

And simpler societies did have arrangements for that kind of mutual support. (Even Neanderthals appear to have given long-term care to the severely sick or disabled.) The early Christians in Jerusalem, described in Acts 2, who sold their land or other property whenever a need arose within the community were trying to reestablish a "natural" community within a hostile Empire. Not so simple. By its nature, the kind of community they had in mind was, in the context of the imperial state, "countercultural", in opposition to the standards of "normal" life and therefore always under pressure.

However, they had a tradition. The emphasis in the Hebrew scriptures was always on community -- a "covenanted" community which extended outward to become a nation. "Salvation" was seen primarily as national, not personal. "Personal salvation" was help from God in time of need in this world, not some heavenly reward after death. The early Christian community built on that tradition. Present day Christians constantly repeat a key phrase from that tradition, enshrined in an All-time Model Prayer: "thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven." On earth, there's the rub.

Today, with all the ills that our collective flesh is heir to -- you know the litany of national and world problems, I won't repeat them -- there is an increasing amount of talk about a new regionalism and localism, about sustainability and community. The old faith traditions continue to be a resource in this emerging movement.

Here in Albany NY and its surrounding Capital District, a congregation-based interfaith community organizing organization, ARISE (A Regional Initiative Supporting Empowerment) has "regional renewal" as one of its prime goals. Energy independence, transportation systems, regional planning and sprawl, job creation and distribution, local agriculture, the future shape of communities -- all these enter into the mix. (There is a network of similar congregation-based interfaith community organizing groups around the country, many of them using as consultants the Gamaliel Foundation, which comes out of the Saul Alinsky tradition of community organizing and liberal Roman Catholicism.)

And within religious congregations, "building community" is always a theme -- as is "stewardship", which usually comes down to the task of finding the money to keep things going. Building communities where members someday might be empowered to let go of money gladly would take stewardship to a new level.

Maybe it can be done. But it requires that, like the exiles in Babylon, we first realize that we're in Babylon. It was easier for them. They could read the signs "Welcome to Babylon" and know that "we aren't in Jerusalem any more, Moishe".

Our first community-building job is to translate the signs and figure out that we're in Babylon, too. And that it's a hostile place. And that reinventing community is an act of survival, not a moralistic or sentimental revisiting of old traditions.

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