August 30, 2019

Community quest

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One of the words we hear most frequently is “community.” This newspaper has been “serving the community since 1933.” The word is used not only in the sense of a specific community, such as “the Ukrainian American community,” but also as an abstraction. This is perhaps because we feel we have lost “community” and want to recover it.

But before we can do that, we need to know what it is. One definition of “a community” is “a social group, usually identified in terms of a common habitat… and implying both a body of common interest[s], a degree of social cooperation and interaction in the pursuit of them, and a sense of belonging among the members” (Roger Scruton, A Dictionary of Political Thought, s.v. ‘community’). It is sometimes used in the sense of the German term Gemeinschaft which, as used by sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies in 1887, denotes an association “based in bonds of affection, kinship, etc.,” by contrast with Gesellschaft or “society,” which is based on “division of labor, self-interest and contract.” In that sense, “community” is said to be favored by traditional conservatives, while “society” is popular among liberal individualists (Scruton, s.v. “Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft). Social critic Christopher Lasch, citing Thomas Bender, defines it as including “shared understandings and a sense of obligation,” “intimate, and usually face to face relationships,” and “an emphasis on ‘affective or emotional ties’ as opposed to self-interest” (Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, 1991, p. 166).

It has been argued that American liberal individualism – and more broadly, the individualism that has dominated Western civilization at least since the Enlightenment – has worked against community by rejecting custom, tradition and social norms. In that view, today’s atomized society of rootless individuals represents the triumph of individualism over community.

But America also has its communitarian traditions, some necessitated by the realities of frontier life, and exemplified by 19th century barn raisings, sewing circles and cooperative harvesting. These activities had an economic purpose but also provided social and cultural interaction while building solidarity. In the 20th century, working-class bowling leagues and middle-class women’s auxiliaries, as well as fraternal organizations like the Odd Fellows, Elks and Rotarians, offered a combination of charitable service, business networking and leisure.

In 19th century America, various utopian communities were created on the basis of socio-economic theories. These included New Harmony, Ind., which attempted industrialist Robert Owen’s form of socialism in the 1820s and lasted about two years, and Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Mass., which was inspired by Transcendent­alism and tried out the ideas of Charles Fourier in the 1840s, but proved a financial failure. More successful were religious communities such as the Amish and the Mennonites.

Ukrainians, too, feature in the history of American utopianism. Around 1902, the Rev. Agapius Honcharenko formed the agricultural cooperative Ukraina near Hayward, Calif. The association vacillated among different concepts – Christian commune, agricultural cooperative, ordinary business enterprise – and failed after a few years (see Theodore Luciw, “Father Agapius Honcharenko,” 1970, Part IV).

Today, some lament the demise of community. Certainly the virtual communities available over the Internet are no substitute, for there is a human need for face-to-face contact. Even members of today’s business and professional elite seek community, in activities ranging from book clubs to curling clubs, community gardens to adult education classes.

For Ukrainians, the archetypal community is the village. In our American diaspora, an array of ethnic communities once flourished, including New York’s East Village and Chicago’s Ukrainian Village. (Though the former derives its name from the local Greenwich Village, the names of both reflect a rural model.) In such neighborhoods, you could, in the course of a day and the space of a comfortable walk, worship in a Ukrainian church, buy sausage at a Ukrainian butcher-shop, dine at a Ukrainian restaurant, shop at a Ukrainian gift shop, browse at a Ukrainian bookstore, and meet with friends at a Ukrainian café or bar. If too much neighborly activity caused you to collapse and die, you could be embalmed at a nearby Ukrainian funeral home.

In 1975, Ukrainians from Canada and the U.S. founded St. Andrew’s Ukrainian Religious and Cultural Center, also known as “Oseredok,” in North Port, Fla. This community includes condominium apartments, churches and several Ukrainian American organizations. Social and cultural events abound. Given its residential base, common ethnicity and religion, and its network of social organizations, North Port probably qualifies as a “community.”

Is this a survival model for a diaspora in peril of dispersion and assimilation? It does have the daily “face to face” of a true community. But this may not be enough. There should also be a local economy fostering everyday commercial as well as social and cultural exchange. (For these reasons, the modern suburban parish cannot, by itself, constitute a community.) Could we build communities based on family or cooperative ownership of local small-scale enterprises? And could such a community, nourished by our Eastern Christian heritage, cultivate a simple, contemplative lifestyle in harmony with nature – and also care for the poor, sick and destitute? Are not such – situated halfway between the family and the state – a necessary element of any healthy society, whether in America or Ukraine?

Of course this is utopian, and might have no more success than Owen’s New Harmony or Honcharenko’s Ukraina. Christopher Lasch did not think that the concept of community, along with the discourse of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, was a useful guide for the renewal of American political life after the failure of progressivism (Lasch, op. cit., 167). Rather, he urged a revival of the moral realism of the lower-middle-class or “petty-bourgeois” sensibility, which recognizes life’s limits and prefers hope to progressivist optimism (Id., 530-32) – a sensibility probably characteristic of our first three waves of immigrants, though perhaps not their more affluent children.

Yet we crave a community of our own people. Can we find it?

 

Andrew Sorokowski can be reached at andrewsorokowski@gmail.com.