Dave Pollard recently published two essays on community. They can be seen here and here. One focuses, in part, on a letter from a young woman, Nelda M. I have gone through both slowly and with care, and confess to being mighty confused about their needs. Both posts struggle with divisive individualism and come across quite ambivalent regarding the role of the self vis-à-vis the group.

Nelda makes several impassioned points. She wants us to get it together already, get decisive, and get going. I quite agree! But in her call for zealousness, she ends up devaluing the very person who is the foundation of the group. Apparently, she wants more than likemindedness, she wants “people committed to a single ideal, joined in a community whose purpose is greater than the whims or desires of the individual constituents.” This person, this, um, constituent, only has whims and desires? Doesn’t this person also have purposes that are greater than mere whims? And isn’t respect for these purposes something vitally necessary and thrown overboard only at great peril to the group?

I have written before about the need to resist the temptation to turn human beings into means. Having grown up under communism, I witnessed members of my family ground under this pernicious notion of individual humans as obstreperous constituents who must submit to the will of the collective. Those fired-up comrades who insisted on, for example, the collectivization of agriculture, were certain that a day would come when their willingness to “subvert the personal self-interest and comfort” of the old-fashioned farmer would show itself wise. That day never came. I learned a hard lesson. If human beings and their needs don’t come first now, neither will they come first later, all the pretty ideals notwithstanding.

Dave, on the other hand, seems ambivalent about likemindedness. Some places, he appreciates it, when he speaks of gravitational communities. Other places, he does not, linking the desire for likemindedness to selfishness and the cult of individualism. He argues that “authority resides in the collective,” and that exclusive communities are a hard-to-accept result of age-old intolerance. Yet at the same time – and here I get really thrown off! — he bemoans that we have “an insatiable longing for homogeneity.” Isn’t that somewhat akin to noting with alarm an insatiable longing for beige?! 😉 I’ve tended to the view that bland, homogeneous communities result not from choice but from collective imposition, particularly when those in power stand against the formation of particular, quirky, colorful, self-determined, and truly different small communities.

I do think we all have a powerful hunger for living with our true kin… not necessarily people we were born to, but people with whom we have a shared understanding of the world, the path we are traveling as we go through life, and a sense of what truly matters. It seems to me that this hunger, this deep-seated need, is genetically wired and propels us naturally toward community, provided the way is not strewn with obstacles. How strange to hear it denounced by the same people who want community!

I just don’t understand it. If a bunch of musicians comes together to share their interests and play bluegrass music, nobody accuses them of “intolerance of difference, xenophobia, or undercurrents of -isms” (bluegrassism?!) because they bar entry to concert pianists or sax players. Yet when it comes to community — the smallish bands humans naturally thrive in — the same kind of selective behavior is thought suspect.

Tolerance… it’s a funny thing. Nowadays, people think of themselves as tolerant when they are in favor of melting pot neighborhoods that accept all comers and have a sprinkling of all the various ethnic and racial groups. They often tend to be quite intolerant of those who prefer another vision of tolerance. This is the vision of a myriad self-selected communities coexisting by virtue of granting others the same option they have insisted on for themselves: choosing their neighbors for the qualities that matter most to them. The former vision fits in with a world where assimilation and easy-going, deracinated cosmopolitanism is considered a good thing. The latter vision is agreeable to those who favor roots, the diversity of unique microcultures, loyalty and cohesiveness.

Myself… I accept wholeheartedly my inner need for kindred spirits. But I am not looking for people who are zealous and single minded in the pursuit of shared objectives or ideals. The people I want to be with are folks who are willing and able to do the following:

  • be kind to me when I am down
  • comfort me when I am ill
  • teach me when I am ignorant
  • form a circle of loyalty around me when I’ve screwed up big
  • share my joys, my puzzles, my grief
  • help me thrive
  • open up to my efforts to connect deeply
  • let me be in solitude
  • respect me for who I am, not just for the work I do for the group
  • show me how to be part of something wonderful in the world
  • and expect the same of me

I do have a particular community vision. But above all, I want to be with people who are zealous and committed to practicing love and respect for one another. People who can tell the difference between commitment to a lofty abstraction and commitment to a flesh and blood, imperfect human being. If you are one of those, hurry up and knock on my door!