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The Editor’s Corner: Strike Up the Band
If you want to decrease political polarization and feel less lonely, consider joining a band
In this space last week, my colleague Jennifer Tiedemann wrote about Americans’ increasing disengagement from one another, as evidenced by the decline in common experiences from TV viewing to voting. Indeed, American society seems not only disengaged but fractured. The increased polarization of recent years is well documented, and it effectively isolates us from those who don’t share our political views.
But we’re isolated not only from our political opposites in the general population, but increasingly from our neighbors and even family members. Part of the blame for this rests with COVID: After months or years of deliberate social distancing, some of us have gotten more used to staying home and avoiding strangers whose risk tolerance might be different from our own. COVID also accelerated existing isolating trends that the internet and other technological developments had been stoking for decades.
As a result of all this, loneliness is now so prevalent in U.S. society that the surgeon general is calling it an epidemic. Smarter people than I have suggested possible cures, including in the pages of Discourse. Bruno V. Manno advocates for a return to third places (i.e., neither home nor work), and Seth Kaplan emphasizes the importance of neighborhood dynamics. My own attempt at a solution is merely the practical implementation of those ideas: I joined a community band.
Every Friday evening, I fight the rush-hour traffic and eat a drive-thru dinner in my car to ensure I make it to band rehearsal on time. We play for three hours, from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m., and by the end of it I’m completely exhausted. I also happen to be the band’s secretary, which entails monthly meetings with the other band officers to discuss concert logistics, grant paperwork and the like. It’s a big time commitment, and sometimes the extent of my participation leaves me feeling burned out. But I’ve been a member of this band for more than a decade, and I’ve never seriously considered quitting.
Why do I stick around? The biggest reason is that I really enjoy making music. But the band also gives me a place where I’m not pressured, where my livelihood doesn’t depend on my performance, where I can do something just for the fun of it. Even better, I’m surrounded by fellow high school or college band geeks who didn’t want to stop playing just because they graduated. We share a love of music, some level of talent, and the discipline to continue practicing and performing even when there’s no external pressure on us to do so.
But aside from our interest in the band, we don’t necessarily have much in common. A few of my fellow members have become friends over the years, but most have remained friendly acquaintances. I like them, and I assume (or hope!) they feel the same about me, but our similarities are largely limited to our shared proficiency in wind instruments. We are different genders and ages. We have different ethnicities, jobs and socioeconomic backgrounds. Notably, I neither know nor care what their political opinions may be. In the context of the band, those beliefs are irrelevant—a fact that I find incredibly refreshing, especially in the hyper-politicized environment inside the Beltway.
This is important because, as author and political thinker Russell Kirk put it, “politics is not the whole of life”—good advice, if we would all just take it. But from the Israel-Hamas war to the Speaker of the House fight, the news these days seems to demand a response from each of us. We are often called upon to publicly choose a side, even at times and places and in situations where doing so doesn’t seem appropriate.
The problem actually runs even deeper: Even when we aren’t consciously trying to inject politics into all aspects of our lives, we unintentionally end up associating with people who think—and vote—the way we do. Philosophy professor Robert Talisse notes in Discourse that despite the great diversity of American society, “the local spaces we inhabit in our day-to-day lives have become increasingly homogenous.” If you shop at Whole Foods, I can assume something about your political views, and with a pretty high degree of accuracy. The same is true if you drive a pickup truck, especially in an urban environment. Walmart shoppers skew conservative; Target shoppers skew liberal. We sort ourselves into politically homogenous groupings via the things we buy and the places we visit on a regular basis.
The solution, according to Talisse, is to “build some stock of social experiences where you find a basis for evaluating others as responsible human beings, intelligent people, reliable co-workers, trustworthy neighbors, and you don’t know how they vote.” For me, the community band provides this experience, but of course, there are many other options if you know where to look for them. Join a book club or gaming group or softball league. Audition for a community theater production—another activity I’ve enjoyed in the past—or work backstage. Find a place to volunteer. Attend a house of worship or a civic association. Talk to your neighbors, as Alexandra Hudson urges in her recent book, “The Soul of Civility.”
These things probably aren’t going to single-handedly solve America’s polarization problem, but they could help us to see our neighbors as real human beings, not just as allies or enemies in an all-consuming political struggle.
What I’m reading: Most people familiar with Jane Austen’s “Emma” know it as the story of a would-be matchmaker who meddles in the romances of her friends and neighbors, only to be humbled when she finally falls in love herself. But it’s also a novel that is very concerned with social order—perhaps unsurprisingly, since it was written during the tail end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814-1815. In Austen’s day, the possibility that Napoleon would invade England was a real threat, and many feared the violence and upheaval—both political and social—that such an invasion would bring.
This fear is never overtly expressed in “Emma”—indeed, the war isn’t mentioned at all, unless you count the fact that one minor character is a colonel—but it’s apparent in the careful depiction of the class structure of Emma’s village of Highbury. The townspeople occasionally mingle in apparently democratic fashion, but at the end of the day, everyone’s place in society is clearly established, from queen bee Emma to the inferior Coles (whose fortune comes from trade rather than inheritance) to the impoverished Miss Bates, who socializes with her “betters” but also depends on their charity. Though the novel recognizes and (to an extent) condemns Emma’s snobbery, it generally affirms the existing social order, as Emma’s eventual choice of husband shows.
Despite Highbury’s social rigidity, however, the book also emphasizes the importance of kindness and neighborliness. Emma’s community is tiny, and because she’s never left home, the people of her village are the only people she knows—in a sense, she’s stuck with them. Even when she doesn’t like her neighbors (such as the pushy, obnoxious Mrs. Elton), she knows she has to be polite; otherwise, she risks the destruction of the community and her own social universe.
It’s telling that the dramatic climax of the book is Emma’s insult of Miss Bates at a picnic. The incident seems trivial, but Emma soon learns that her careless words have serious consequences. She has used her position of social power to humiliate someone who has known her since birth and whom she’ll continue to see every day. The aftermath of this incident drives Emma’s character growth and hastens the narrative to its restorative conclusion.
Of course, Jane Austen’s keen observation of the social mores of her time isn’t the only reason to read “Emma.” There’s also her vivid depiction of Emma herself, a flawed—and therefore deeply relatable—heroine who makes mistakes at every turn but remains sympathetic because she learns from them. At times the book is reminiscent of a detective novel, as readers try to figure out which characters are truly romantic couples and which are paired only in Emma’s imagination. (Hint: pay attention to Miss Bates’ monologues! The novel demands courtesy toward this character from its readers as well as from Emma.) All this, plus a satisfying love story, makes “Emma” well worth reading—even if, as in my case, it’s for the seventh or eighth time.