Friday, November 25, 2011

Degrees of Separation

Is the world getting more connected, or more fragmented?  Facebook, in conjunction with the University of Milan, recently announced that there were only 4.74 "degrees of separation" among its 700 million users (representing 10% of the world's population).   That contrasts with the famous six degrees that Yale researcher Stanley Milgram found back in the 1960's.  Social media, we're to believe, are bringing people closer together.

Of course, I have 336 "friends" on Facebook, most of whom I've never met outside a chat room.  My son has 873.  So despite the ballyhoo from Facebook, I have doubts that computers are building the kind of relationships that count.

A study published in the American Sociological Review in 2004 found that a quarter all Americans say they have no one they can talk to about important matters, and that number more than doubled from an similar study done twenty years before.  Imagine, not having a single confidante. It just confirms the thesis of Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, that we're becoming more socially isolated, even as the world gets more wired.

In fact, the phrase "online community" may be an oxymoron, like "Amtrak schedule" or "airline food."  This past summer, researchers at the University of Wisconsin put teenage girls in stressful situations, like solving mental arithmetic problems, meanwhile measuring the girls' levels of cortisol, a bio-marker for stress, and oxytocin, a hormone associated with feelings of well-being and trust.  During the test, the teens were permitted either to text their mothers, or to call mom on the phone.  It turned out that the phone conversation, and the soothing tone of mother's voice, lowered stress levels in the girls.  Texting had no such effect.

The study just confirms my own prejudices.  Call me retro, but I still prefer chatting with a real live person on the telephone, rather than interacting with a voice-mail robot.  The world has gained in efficiency and cost-savings, but lost a dimension that's warm and comforting.

It appears that we need an actual human presence--the shelter of each other--to feel whole.  There's no digital substitute for a hug, a handshake or a smile.  This is one role that religious institutions play in our culture, as well as civic organizations and bowling leagues.  Of course, merely attending a church, mosque or synagogue doesn't automatically mean you feel known and accepted.  You still have to do the work of building caring bonds.  But at least meaningful relationships are possible in congregations and similar affinity groups in a way that cyberspace just won't allow.

How much of the vulgarity of American culture is due to the fact that we've become a nation of strangers?  How much of the incivility in our politics can be traced to the breakdown of respectful person-to-person communication?  The good news is that the cure for this malady is readily available.  Through everyday acts of kindness, and by reaching out to others in a spirit of helpfulness and cooperation, we can begin to re-weave the fabric of  community. 

Indeed, the mathematical algorithms that measure "degrees of separation" across the planet show that when we reach outside our personal comfort zone, for example to encounter someone from a different race, a different religion, or a different political viewpoint, our actions have a multiplier effect.  One person who breaks through ghettos of privilege and prejudice can lower the level of global estrangement, much more than you might predict.

But perhaps you didn't need a university study or a mathematical analysis to tell you what the world's religions have affirmed for centuries.  There is no technological fix. The best way to bring our world closer together--to lower the degree of separation and strife--is the old-fashioned way, though charity and compassion, by practicing patience and tolerance and goodwill, turning strangers into friends and enemies into conversation partners, one by one by one.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Ninety-Nine Percent

This generation's Civil Rights movement is Occupy Wall Street.  Initially, the protesters lacked specific demands, but the Occupiers do have real complaints--the chasm between rich and poor--taking their slogan from the fact that 1% of the population now controls 40% of the nation's wealth.

To imagine what that means, picture a vast parade of U.S. citizens marching toward a goal post representing the American Dream.  Now suppose that each person's height correlates to their net worth.  An individual of average height (say 5' 8")  would have $38,000 in savings because that's the median net wealth in this country.  Half the population owns more, half less.   

The parade begins January 1 and a whole year is required for all 312 million of us to file past the goal line  Only for the first three months, we don't see anybody marching because a quarter of all Americans don't own anything.  They're in debt.  They owe on student loans or their mortgages are underwater.  These citizens have negative worth, thus negative height.  In our parade, they are invisible, underground, as they often are in real life, like the homeless.

But come spring, there's a rustling in the soil and soon heads begin to poke above the surface of the ground.  But it's a race of little people, the kind in Gulliver'sTravels.  After the initial surprise, we notice something else.  Most of these Lilliputians are women.  Many are black or Hispanic, mothers with children even smaller than their tiny parents.  Because the average net worth for black women in this country is just five dollars, these multitudes will be less than 1/100 of an inch tall.  You could hold a whole village in the palm of your hand!  That is, if you're an average sized person.

But perhaps you're not of normal height.  Maybe you own more than $38,000.  If you're a professional or information worker, could be part of the top 20%, the upper middle class that controls 50% of the nation's wealth.  You're 25 or even 50 feet tall.  Your turn to march doesn't come until late October.  But you're still part of the 99%.

It's not until December 29 that we finally glimpse the 1%, individuals with assets of $9 million or more.  Then the long line of citizens who have slowly been increasing in height suddenly spikes vertically.  They're tall as the Empire State Building. Then, tall as mountains, heads above the clouds.  And what about the Forbes 400, the 400 people who now own more than the poorest 150 million combined?  In our parade, these gargantuan hedge fund managers and CEOs start appearing just 40 seconds before midnight, and since you need a net worth of at least $1.3 billion to qualify for Forbes, each would be at least 38 miles tall, approaching low earth orbit. 

And giants like Warren Buffet, a thousand miles tall, pay taxes at a lower rate than the rest of us.  That's part of the reason the Occupiers are mad.  They're fed up with a Congress that can find trillions for foreign wars and bank bailouts, but says we have to cut Medicare and Social Security, trim benefits for firefighters and teachers and raise tuition at public universities because there's no money for higher education.  They angry when they see society's greatest rewards lavished not on  those who work for a living, but on con artists who make their money selling exploding securities to pension funds and then placing side bets that the seniors get burned. 

Our poverty rate today is higher than it was in 1968 when Dr. King first conceived his Poor People's March.  That was to be an encampment, too, thousands converging on Washington to erect a shanty of tarps and tents to demand an "economic bill of rights."  King's occupation failed.  He himself was assassinated while visiting Memphis to support striking garbage workers, but his entire operation had begun to founder as he turned his energy from ending Jim Crow to economic justice. 

What use is it to win the right to sit at a lunch counter, King asked, if you can't afford a hamburger?  Occupiers raise similar questions.  What good is it to be able to vote, if you can't afford to buy a politician?

Liberty and equality have always stood in tension in America.  And it was King's last hope to bring greater equity to the scales of democracy.  This is also the Occupy movement's goal. Powerful forces are arrayed against them.  Nothing will change without struggle.  But who can doubt that change is needed?  As you contemplate that  long parade of Americans marching toward the goal of a better life, some hundreds of miles tall and others a fraction of an inch in height, you understand why the little people have begun to rise.  

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Table of Mutual Respect

Like James Madison, the fourth President of the United States and father of the U.S. Constitution who had misgivings about Chief Executives making religious pronouncements of any kind, I could dispense with annual Thanksgiving Proclamation from the White House. But still I enjoy the holiday and forgive Obama and most of his predecessors for engaging in a little liturgical theater each November.

Glancing at George Washington's declaration of the first Thanksgiving, in 1789, provides an interesting window into the Founders' faith. Washington prominently offers gratitude for the "religious liberty with which we have been blessed." He also prays for the "practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science," suggesting no incompatibility between the two but implying that greater understanding of nature's laws might be the best window into the mind of the creator.

Washington actually acknowledged "Almighty God" in this document, which was a rarity in his other proclamations. More often, he referred to the deity with the kinds of circumlocutions that dot the rest of this Thanksgiving announcement: "Beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be ... Great Lord and Ruler of Nations ... Providence." Interestingly, Washington nowhere, in any of his journals or correspondence, ever uses Christological formulas to refer to the divinity, e.g. "Savior, Redeemer," etc. In his own way, and in the context of his time, he was searching for what we'd now call inclusive religious language that went beyond Christian sectarianism to unite Americans of all religious persuasions in a bond of fellowship, civic cooperation and goodwill.

It was not a bad dream. And in today's polarized religious climate--when Mitt Romney's Mormonism is again a campaign issue and Muslims are profiled as potential terrorists--the Founders remain a sensible model of how faith might yet become a force that unites rather than divides us from each other. I imagine even atheists might thank God--with a wink--for the First Amendment. So let's celebrate and give thanks:

For a world in which there are many faiths,
For a nation in which there is freedom of worship,
And a land where people of all creeds, colors and backgrounds can sit together
At the table of mutual care and respect.