January 5, 2017


The Democracy of Everyday Life : Nancy Rosenblum studies neighbors and the power of proximity. (LYDIALYLE GIBSON, SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2016, Harvard Magazine)

She kept thinking about the particular social sphere that neighbors inhabit, distinct from family or friends or citizenship at large, a separate moral identity with its own ethos and structure and set of norms. Neighbors' daily encounters--their feuds and friendly nods, barking dogs and blaring televisions, unkempt yards and usurped parking spots, tools borrowed and returned, plants watered in one another's absence, silences kept or broken--make up what Rosenblum has come to describe as "the democracy of everyday life."

That idea anchors her book Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America, released this past May. In it, Rosenblum lays out her theory of neighborliness: "both a supplement and corrective," she says, to American democracy's more formal frameworks and institutions. The concept of "good neighbor" (and its opposite) goes back as far as the country itself. Writing A Model of Christian Charity on board the Arbella in 1630, before he reached what would become the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop insisted on the foundational significance of "love thy neighbor": "Upon this ground stands all the precepts of the moral law." In her introduction to Good Neighbors, Rosenblum extends Winthrop's argument. "The democracy of everyday life rises from the ground of day-to-day reciprocity and neighbors' responses to ordinary kindnesses and ordinary vices," she writes. "We give and take favors and offense; we assist, speak out, monitor, scold and rebuke, and rally others to enforce 'what anyone would do, here'; we live and let live."

Good Neighbors is a curiously gripping book, with its amalgam of political philosophy, moral psychology, and stories drawn from literature, journalism, and Rosenblum's own life. In its pages, she roams a wide terrain. There are the sleepy (or sinister) suburbs and troubled urban neighborhoods where danger and distrust make it harder--and all the more important--to "live and let live," a practice that in Rosenblum's formulation is not a shrug of indifference but a deliberate way of letting neighbors know that you mean them no harm. She digs through oral histories of Japanese internment camps and early twentieth-century lynchings, atrocities in which the social framework broke down and neighbors betrayed and murdered one other. She explores the rescue that neighbors offered in the rising floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina.

Rosenblum also spends time with fictional neighbors: Willa Cather's frontier settlers, Robert Frost's mending-wall repairers, the Polish immigrants jostling together in Saul Bellow's Chicago, the suburbanites in John Cheever's and Raymond Carver's short stories. She devotes a whole chapter to Henry David Thoreau and the neighbors around Walden Pond to whom he gave such attentive and sustained observation. "Literature gives you what anthropologists get when they do field research," Rosenblum says. "If you want a good description of the phenomenology, the felt experience, of neighbors in different contexts, and over different times--where else are you going to get it?" The stories and novels and poems don't merely illustrate her ideas, she adds--they influenced them. She couldn't have written the book otherwise. "The phenomenon of neighbor relations so infuses American literature that our greatest writers and thinkers have written about neighbors." And small wonder: "Neighbors are not just people living nearby," she writes. "Neighbors are our environment. They are the background to our private lives at home."

Home. That word expresses perhaps the most deeply felt theme in Good Neighbors. The idea of home is not explicitly a part of the book's core philosophical argument, but it suffuses every page, a shadowy undercurrent, a beating heart. Home is the place with "no exit," Rosenblum tells us, whose refuge is precious and fragile, where people--neighbors--are at their most vulnerable. In political theory, home is an "underappreciated moral and psychological phenomenon," she says. "We can't overestimate what it means to have a home, even if it's a shack under a bridge. A place that's yours, that you can control, that you can close the door on, that you can keep people out of. And that you can let people into." [...]

THAT Good Neighbors arose so directly from Rosenblum's own daily experience makes it unusual in the world of political theory, but not in her oeuvre. "Something happens, and I'm startled into thought," is how she puts it. "It's not a straight line, but neither is a research agenda." That everydayness is one of the threads tying together her work, in a career of few obvious ones. Rosenblum's subjects are eclectic and contrarian and deceptively ordinary; they often set up a tension between the formal aspects of political theory--institutions, rights, analytic categories--and the personal and psychological. Almost always her subjects have gone unnoticed by the rest of her field.

In 2008, after discovering to her alarm that most of the students in her course on election law rejected party labels, calling themselves not Democrats or Republicans, but Independents--years later, she still sputters in disbelief telling the story of that discovery--she wrote On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship. The book traces the history of American anti-partyism and defends the "moral dignity" of partisanship and party identity. She wound up arguing that parties constitute a fundamental and historic achievement of liberal democracy, and that they give structure and coherence to politics and regulate its conflict.

Ten years before Angels, Rosenblum wrote Membership and Morals: The Personal Uses of Pluralism in America. It grew out of her observations about civic groups that had come under fire for being illiberal and undemocratic--the Boy Scouts with its ban on gays, the Jaycees with its all-male membership. On the way to an argument in favor of unfettered pluralism and freedom of association, even when those associations are authoritarian or outright oppressive, the book surveys a vast landscape of Americans' voluntary civic attachments: prayer groups and bowling leagues, homeowner associations, self-help groups, secret societies, and book clubs--as well as hate groups, paramilitary organizations, and racial identity groups. "People are complex," she says. "We have the capacity for holding and entertaining--as parts of our moral identity, not just superficially--a variety of practices and political and moral aspects. We're not of a piece, and neither is our society." She argues that people navigate this motley landscape by having a certain kind of freedom. "I'm always guided by a love of liberty, and particularly freedom of association. I would say that's our most important constitutional freedom."

Posted by at January 5, 2017 7:04 PM