Communities of one

September 06, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

CASCO BAY, Maine -- It is Friday afternoon and the traffic gods whizzing overhead in helicopters are warning of the bumper-to-bumper, creep-and-beep, weekend exodus. I am crawling over the city line when a young man in an old Toyota cuts in front of me and, in the style for which Boston drivers have become famous, throws me the finger.

Thank you and have a nice day.

I am somewhere near the New Hampshire border doing penance for my early escape from the office by listening to talk radio. John from Boise is making his feelings about gay marriage as explicit as you can without using expletives. Paul from Bismarck or is it Carl from Potsdam is talking about the president and first lady in ways that do not reflect well on his upbringing.

So kind of you to call.

Halfway up the seacoast, my Thank God It's Friday Mood has darkened considerably. As I cross the Maine border, I push Patti Smith into my tape deck. But my internal track is playing a second tape entitled: What on Earth is Wrong With People?

I am no double for Miss Manners. More than one unkind phrase has tripped off my tongue or fingertips. But if I am happy to be leaving civilization this late summer weekend, it may be because civility has already departed.

Last night, exploring the vast mansion of the Internet, I wandered into several unfamiliar chat rooms. Some of the visitors were people who change nicknames more often than they change socks. These are people who checked their courtesy along with their identity at the door. A main method of communication in these chambers seems to be flaming.

What they have in common with the digit-wagging driver, with the talk-show callers is not just their aerobic exercise of the ''freedom of speech'' -- a freedom which leaves even this First Amendment junkie grimacing. They belong, rather, to the growing uncommunity of people who now act with the protection of anonymity.

Would that driver have expressed his opinion if he thought I knew his mother or his boss? Is the man from Bismarck equally nasty at his local market? Have any of the flamethrowers singed someone under their own name?

The rap on America is that we live today in a disunited state where, in the near-cliche phrase of Robert Putnam, we even ''bowl alone.'' There are fewer communities to which we belong these days, fewer places where we are known.

You can't see me

At the same time, there are far more opportunities for being anonymous. We have become as unaccountable to each other, as unaccountable for what we say, as unnamed sources.

A few weeks ago, there was an uproar when Joe Klein was revealed as the anonymous author of a scathing satirical novel. His colleagues brutalized him for lying to them. But not a word was said about his cowardice for flaming a president without facing him.

These thoughts follow me onto the ferry to one of the islands that dot this Maine coast. This floating community hall, where islanders check on the cork bulletin board and on each other's children, traverses the short haul and long psychic distance to a place where people wave to each other along the country roads. Not just because it is an island custom but because we know each other.

If I have learned anything in my 15 years here as a summer person, it's the delicate ecology of island life where people are both away and together. It's the sense of community that comes from independence and mutual dependence.

I have learned that civility -- not always intimacy and rarely hostility -- sustains a community. That civility only rules when people understand that they must abide each other and abide together.

I am no island romantic. Even here, I know teen-agers who long for a place where people do not remember their grandparents or their first-grade report cards.

On a mainland of individualists it's no surprise that many value the liberation that comes from being unknown. No surprise that many change identities as if life were a masquerade ball, or as if there were an endless supply of fresh starts.

But as a nation we suffer more from a lack of cohesion than a lack of independence. If the center isn't holding, it's because there simply aren't enough stakeholders.

So, on a late summer weekend, I look back at the coast of America. From here, it seems as if the contentious, fractured story of this country is now being written by Americans Anonymous.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/06/96

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