I had the privilege of sharing a podium this weekend with distinguished scholar Brian O'Connell at Tufts University. With the late John Gardner, he is cofounder of Independent Sector and writes extensively on the importance of our civil society.
I'm struck by how similar our thinking is on issues of democracy and civil society, despite the fact that while Brian marched in his 50th class reunion this year, I marched in my 15th. Though we are separated by a generation, our fundamental faith in a society driven by bottom-up participation is very similar. And here I thought this was a new force in part created by the bottom-up nature of the Internet -- rather, it seems the Internet has given us an outlet to express what has been in our nature for a long time.
As Brian points out in his book Civil Society: The Underpinnings of American Democracy, self-organization and voluntary associations are an incredibly important and fundamental part of our American democracy. He encourages us to do more to understand how to nurture and develop this aspect of our democracy. I highly recommend this book.
During our seminar, we talked about the importance of self-organization and trust in enabling effective communities. We talked about the importance of taking action as individuals, taking the initiative to form associations around a shared interest or passion. We talked about how effective that kind of action can really be.
Though some scholars sound a pessimistic note about the state of our American society, Brian points out how effective voluntary associations have been in the last few decades. He listed several examples of incredible progress, all without government initiative:
- in the past 20 years, we've gone from virtually ignoring the needs of the dying, to widespread availability of community-based hospice care
- awareness of our responsibility to future generations as stewards of our environment is now prevalent
- through great personal risk, the moral courage of volunteers established a new ethic of civil rights in this country, which has spread to every disenfranchised group
- a few mothers thought they could do something about drunk driving, and they did
And there are so many more examples. Yet somehow we are also insecure about our ability to affect change. Much of this seems rooted in a lack of trust in government's ability to solve problems. While we trust our own ability to have a positive impact, we don't trust government's.
This question of trust is something I want to explore more fully in another entry.
Despite this incredible progress, through the actions of individuals getting together to make something happen, we are also at risk. Without a clear focus on how to nurture this civil society, I am inspired by Brian's admonition that we may lose it.
Brian O'Connell quotes historian Edward Gibbon on the fall of Athenian democracy:
In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security.
They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all -- security, comfort and freedom...
When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society, but for society to give to them...
When the freedom they wished for most -- was freedom from responsibility...
Then, Athens ceased to be free.
What was true for Athens in its day could be true in ours. Unless we are vigilant; unless we strive to understand and nurture our civil society. And unless we continue to stand up as individuals for what we believe in, establish trust with others, and make things happen.
Brian O'Connell, John Gardner, and many others have worked nearly their entire lives trying to help us understand this. Despite our challenges, today I'm optimistic. The Internet has given us an infrastructure to connect people, to enable the formation of trusting relationships and voluntary associations -- for the first time, even across national borders. As individuals, we now have the potential to make an unprecedented impact.
Let's make the most of it.