Examining our lack of civic interaction Modern behavior: In American Prospect, Robert D. Putnam examines the cynicism and isolation that seem to be keeping people from voting or taking part in political activities.


January 07, 1996|By Anthony Flint | Anthony Flint,BOSTON GLOBE

When Robert D. Putnam quit as dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government three years ago, he gave the usual line about wanting to return to life as a scholar. But it was no mere face-saving rhetoric.

During the last year Mr. Putnam has become one of the leading academic observers of American political life, quoted by Anthony Lewis and George Will alike, even praised in the pages of People magazine.

He's done it by grabbing hold of what promises to be a fundamental underlying issue in the next presidential campaign, and that is the cynicism and disaffection that keep so many Americans from engaging in any kind of civic or political activity today, much less actually casting a vote.

A refined version of Mr. Putnam's central thesis -- that the generations after World War II have become much more isolated, joining fewer organizations and generally cutting down on social interaction -- appears in the winter issue of the American Prospect.

Television has fueled our distrust of one another, Mr. Putnam says, by both isolating us and pumping up pessimism about humankind.

In the same issue is an assessment by MIT's Sherry Turkle of one community where more people are interacting these days: cyberspace.

"We can use the communities we build inside our machines to improve the ones outside of them," she writes.

Pet stories

Some social scientists say another reason we're increasingly isolated is that we focus so slavishly on our pets -- at the expense of civil interaction with fellow humans.

The observation is made that we treat our cat or dog, or even neighbors' cats and dogs, much better than we ever treat our neighbor.

Utne Reader devotes its January issue to the subject of pets in America, with its usual harvest of articles from other magazines. We learn, for instance, that President Clinton's cat, Socks, receives 200 letters a day.

Liberal meaning

Tired of triangulation? Kick off the new year with some unabashed liberalism in the Jan. 1 issue of the Nation, which provides among its other standard features an exhaustive review of how the tobacco wars have reached their current pivotal stage.

Then turn to the December issue of Washington Monthly, which examines why there's no such thing as a religious left in this country.

The short-lived campaign for the "politics of meaning" failed to bridge the gap between secular-minded intellectuals and the proud legacy of civil-rights-era ministers, writes Amy Waldman.

In the same issue is an excerpt from Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook's book, "The Winner-Take-All Society," which shows how superstars in sports, entertainment, business, even journalism, make such huge bucks. "The very best in their fields prosper, while the rest barely get by," the authors write.

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