With the daily assault on decency and intellectual coherence coming out of the White House, and the spectacles of crowds with red caps sitting on top of heads filled with confusion, fear and hostility, it was a relief to pick up a book that offers a more positive view of America today.
I started paying attention to James and Deborah Fallows’s reports from smaller cities in the pages of The Atlantic and on that magazine’s website several years ago. Every now and then they would share the news that on a local level people on either side of the party divide could act in a friendly, rational way and jointly address the problems of their communities. James is a pilot and owns a single-engine prop plane. He and his wife Deborah have spent years clocking (they estimate) about 100,000 miles visiting lots of places most of us will never get around to. (I think I’ve visited two they visited – Pittsburgh, the largest of the towns they spent time in, and Greenville, South Carolina. The rest are names on a map to me.) Their book, Our Towns, draws from and expands on these reports.
This is the book I gave to depressed friends at Christmas. Without being sappy, it suggests that the civil war the press reports on daily is overstated. It also suggests that people who call themselves conservatives on a national level can collaborate with liberals and behave in the best progressive tradition when dealing with the problems of their friends and neighbors.
There once was a guy named Kohlberg. Let me look him up. Hold on. OK. Lawrence Kohlberg. (I included a passage about him in one of my plays, Stay Till Morning.) Kohlberg said that human beings evolve morally much in the way Jean Piaget said they do in how they do cognitively. I’m being very reductive (and there has been a lot of debate over Kohlberg, most way above my head), but Kohlberg’s idea was that you can measure somebody’s moral evolution by how much they are concerned for the welfare of people remote from them. Most people can muster empathy for people whose suffering they personally witness. The more ethically evolved people, in Kohlberg’s view, are those who care about justice for people they will never meet. So most people can muster some kind of feeling for people in their school or neighborhood or town (though they are likely to be most likely to have empathy for people who resemble themselves). When they start caring for people outside their town or region and of different ehnicities, they move up some notches. When they start caring about people of different nationalities and heritages, they move up some more. And I am not remotely doing justice to this, but it’s worth checking out some of the summaries of what Kohlberg came up with.
Simplistically then, people tend to have more generous impulses towards people they see as people rather than dots in a remote landscape. So those who vote conservatively on a national level (and may vote the party line on a state and local level) will nevertheless often band together with those they would brand liberals when it comes to local initiatives. The mayor of Greenville, SC is a Republican, Knox H. White, but most people calling themselves progressives would probably be pleased with the town. (I certainly was the two times I visited it.) The Fallowses are evidently liberals, but some of their most enthusiastic passages describe Greenville. The Fallowses also have an theory that the more craft breweries there are in a town, the healthier the body politic is likely to be. I’ll leave it to you to check their reasoning out for yourself.
The Fallowses don’t get into Kohlberg, but I think his ideas explain a lot of the good news in their good book.