TOGETHERNESS AND COMMUNITY AFTER THE PANDEMIC
David Byrne’s American Utopia was very much in my mind in the months leading up to the COVID pandemic. Sharing a name with his 2018 album, Byrne first built a tour that traveled the world in an imaginative staging not limited by wires or microphones, freeing the performers to go anywhere in the space. Eventually he transformed that tour into a career-spanning Broadway show that ran until just before the lockdown in early 2020 (it will resume in September). My wife and I had planned to travel and see it only weeks before the world closed down— our plans derailed by (in retrospect) an eerily prophetic case of the flu.
The show had taken on its own life. As Byrne toured the album, Black Lives Matter took hold of American consciousness. Byrne had incorporated an ethos not only of diversity and plurality into his show with a multiracial and multicultural band, but he also covered Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” in a performance that named victims of white-on-black violence more and more powerfully as the passage of time added more names to the list. By the time Spike Lee filmed the Broadway show for HBO, family members of victims were incorporated, underscoring the musicians’ commitments to bear witness through American Utopia to a timely message about our increasingly dystopian American life.
Around the time of the album’s release, Byrne gave a public lecture at The New School in New York City where he launched a website and a public campaign he called, “Reasons To Be Cheerful.” Taking note of the dark, divided, polarized time where we find ourselves, Byrne seemed driven to find signs of hopefulness — lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. These two apparently contradictory impulses to lay bare our American crimes and to give hope that good things still happen are captured by Byrne’s album and show title — American Utopia. The word ‘utopia’ at once conjures the dreams of paradise every human being shares, a desire as old as the Psalms and the Upanishads while as new as the protests against George Floyd’s murder by police. We yearn to live in a place of justice and compassion where we each in the community are devoted to one another. At the same time, of course, ‘utopia’ means “no place” because no such place ever has existed. We who search for utopias indeed are “on a road to nowhere.”
There is a line in the Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere” that always sticks in my imagination — ”There’s a city in my mind.” This is the root image of American Utopia: David Byrne and his band building a city of music every night on Broadway, a city that disperses and vanishes each time the house lights come up. Poof! The utopia lives in imagination, it can be captured in life only for a moment. It crumples in the harsh light of reality.
But this is not a new insight. Plato’s Republic, in a quite similar way, found the Athenian philosopher creating his city in speech across hundreds of pages before, finally, leaving the reader with a distinct impression even Plato doesn’t think his utopia is possible. In this way, Byrne’s utopia is not very different from so many other enigmatic utopias suggested throughout centuries of literature and philosophy. But also, there may be something different.
American Utopia arrived before the COVID pandemic began, but it suggests itself as a way to process our shared experience not only of the pandemic but also the events that preceded it in our American memory. A city in my mind is both the source of an American utopia and also the city in my mind is the force that crumples our utopia into nothingness when it encounters the pressure of all our competing expectations in the city we share in fact. The city we really live in as much as the city in my mind is the inspiration and the limit of social reality.
A city is a real thing. We walk its streets. We know its culture and its rhythms. A city is a living thing. And, there: as soon as I assert the tangible reality of the city I slide instantly into allegory. I want to say a city is a living thing because my experience of a city is conditioned by knowing its personality, a notion at once universally recognizable and fundamentally preposterous. Cities cannot have personalities, they cannot breathe or think or commit any of the other anthropomorphisms we attribute so easily to them. And yet, they do. The city is an outward expression of our humanity together, it says who and what we are. We encounter ourselves among our neighbors as a shared consciousness of ourselves in the city. From the Psalmist who urges us to walk Jerusalem and count her towers to Aristotle’s awareness that we political animals find who we are in communities, the city always tells us with sublime, articulate confidence who we are, really. Our humanness is tied to the city, for which reason the city always captures our imagination. And, the city even in its squallor or its inhumanity still represents the measure of our humanity because the city reflects the possibility of what our humanity can achieve. For this reason Simone Weil wrote that “the destruction of a city…[is] the worst of human calamities.” Worse, apparently, than a murder because to destroy a city is to destroy a community, its history, and its irreplaceable — here we go again — personality. Weil’s subject was Troy, the lost city of Homer’s Iliad, the story that haunted the Hellenic imagination while our Western ideas about politics were being birthed and nurtured. There is no more potent symbol or reality in human experience than the city.
So potent is the city that it lives not only in physical space but also in imagination. We project our own expectations for and about the city upon the communities where we live. We give preferences to personality characteristics. We choose histories. We decide who lives in the city and who is an interloper that does not belong. But this is more than a Rashomon exercise that demonstrates how we each are locked hopelessly into the confines of an imperfect, individual perspective. We are. But there is more. For each of us, the city in my mind is an ideal. It expresses our deepest hopes for what is possible for us among us as human beings. Those deepest hopes can be no different and no better than we are. They city of my imagining can be something like the universalist aspiration of biblical Isaiah — ”a house…for all peoples.” Then again, pogroms and racist massacres also express deep hopes for the community. The envisioned communities that result will be vastly different in appearance and in moral quality. The fundamental human yearning that gives shape to a city in my mind always springs from the same source, the same need to imagine.
I often think the casual way we talk about “political opinions” misses too much of this complexity. And, if recent events assure us of anything it is that we need to deepen and to renew our appreciation for what the city is, how central and fundamental it is. The pandemic only has emphasized this fact that was already visible before the first COVID diagnosis ever was made. A city in my mind can be a beautiful thing. It also can be terribly dangerous when it becomes alienated entirely from the city we share in fact, or from the deepest yearnings of the others with whom we share the city. A city in my mind is a building block for the human community, or it is a wrecking ball. As our cities grew sick suffered, grew desolate and hopeless during the raging pandemic, we learned two important things. We saw unmistakably how central the city is for us. And, we learned we have become so alienated from one another that even the terrible fact of our humbled human community could not disenchant us from the allure of the city in each of our minds that we prefer.
The utopia never can be brought to life for more than a moment. But we have been on better roads to nowhere.
A PLACE WHERE NOTHING EVER HAPPENS
How many experiences can we say touched practically every human being on the planet in the same way at the same time? There are universal human experiences like birth and death, or more abstract ones like happiness and anger. But we do not all experience them synchronously. Similarly there have been global events experienced simultaneously like September 11th, World War II, or the influenza pandemic of 1918. Yet these all lacked both the intimate and immediate shared connection our technology makes possible and, even a 21st century event like September 11th finally only was a one-day horror. The world was a changed and frightening place after 9/11 for all of us, but it does not really compare to the despair of the daily disruptions and death counts we endured while most of us spent months confined to our homes. It is not easy to conceive of a human experience in the history of our species that parallels what we just have experienced.
Our cities became the visible evidence of our shared distress — as they only could do. Wildlife returned to empty streets. Eerie silence replaced midday bustle. Not only the independent restaurants and shops that anchored their communities were forced to close, but even Starbuck’s locations were shuttered. For a long time in New York City and Venice the wail of ambulance sirens punctuated days and nights with insistent reminders that the desolate streets gave a false impression of peace — behind the doors and windows of homes lay sick and dying thousands of the city’s people. And, as the enforced isolation of quarantine ran on across weeks and months we began to feel more intensely our connections to the common spaces of the city that now had become empty and inaccessible.
Zoom rooms filled quickly. Our need for the city, a commons we can share to meet one another, drove us online and in mere weeks the mechanics and the etiquette of Zoom conversations began to seem like it always had been here. Practically everyone became practiced at Zoom settings, camera placements, and backgrounds. The chorus of “Unmute yourself!” and the emoji reactions of thumbs-up or clapping hands all became part of the communal experience, a language we all know like doing the wave in a stadium. The center I direct at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago put on two interactive speaker programs over Zoom during each of the first ten weeks of the lockdown and our audiences grew quickly to thousands from around the globe spanning cultures, ages, and walks of life. This was a typical experience, not something special we did. Still it was, by far, not a universal experience — many people lacking internet connections or devices were excluded from the cultural Zoom explosion. This was another of the many ways the pandemic revealed our divisions. But the Zoom moment many of us did experience is revealing of how deep and necessary our life in the city is for us. When the city is gone, we build another.
Still no matter how profoundly revealing the pandemic was of our persistent, primitive need to build and to inhabit communities together, the fifteen months when we shared this experience also illustrated for us how attentive we need to be about the city in my mind, the one we try to project on to the actual city where we live. The very same technologies that made it possible for us to experience the long global event together also were a way to capture us inside the walls of cities divided against each other. Online communities were not invented in 2020, and for some time before the pandemic online communities were exploited to divide us, segment us as though we could pick and choose our tailor-made communities to satisfy our comfort and insulate our prejudices. That is not how cities are meant to work.
What was strange about the global pandemic, at least in the United States, was that for us as much as the event affirmed our basic need for community it did not bring us any closer together. In fact, considering how the U.S. experienced an insurrectionist assault on the Capitol almost a year into the pandemic, perhaps there are good reasons, paradoxically, to think the pandemic only divided us further. Belief in the virus and its deadliness was an early point of division. Later came the divisions over masking and vaccine compliance. Along the way, of course, the summer’s protests were controversial not only because the commitment to racial equality is not shared as widely as it should be but then also because people who professed skepticism about the virus accused protestors of flouting social distancing requirements. In all, the pandemic event that might have — should have — brought forth the best from us instead brought forth too much of the worst. This, I think, is the phenomenon we need to examine more closely.
I have said already that the city reflects our deepest yearnings. The city is an intensely personal reality in each of our lives. What does our unwillingness to engage the depth of that reality in the midst of a social crisis like the pandemic really say about us?
Early in the lockdown I did some plague reading for as long as I could bear it. I re-read Camus’s The Plague, the story of an ordinary city beset by an epidemic and sealed off by gates and walls to protect the world beyond. It is difficult to imagine a closer study of city and plague. Before the jet age, the experience Camus presents was more typical: disease spread more slowly and cities often fell victim one at a time. They could be isolated like diseased cells to protect the rest of the body. In Oran, Camus’s fictional plague-struck city, we do not always find women and men at their best. There are mutinous uprisings against the authorities’ efforts to protect the world outside Oran, and many people try to escape for selfish reasons. A black market emerges along with a prevailing climate of despair. Yet when the plague ends, Camus’s narrator Dr. Rieux observes — ”To state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” We will overlook Camus’s midcentury use of noninclusive language and observe instead what a stymieing conclusion this is. As our pandemic ends, the words stop me cold.
What an idea. And, what a potent phrasing. Camus offers perhaps the only answer to the question I posed earlier — What does our unwillingness throughout the COVID pandemic to engage with the deep reality of what the city is means for us as human beings, in the final analysis, say about us? It says there is much in us to despise, and surely there is. We are as selfish as those dwellers in Oran who seemed to believe that their comfort and their needs exempted them from making sacrifices and they could not be carriers spreading the deadly disease. The number of us who cannot accept how our membership in the human community makes us responsible for one another is a source of honest despair. Yet then I think of the physicians, nurses, first responders, grocery workers, pharmacists, teachers, and unnamable millions of people who did risk themselves for our sustenance and survival in the most hopeless days of the pandemic. I think of my friend who began his hospital chaplaincy as a recent Catholic Theological Union graduate in the depth of the pandemic, suiting up in layers under a face shield and wearing a hazmat ventilator while accompanying as many as a half-dozen COVID patients in one night who died without the company and comfort of their loved ones. For that matter, I think of hundreds of thousands of young people who risked their own exposure to COVID in order to protest and to march because a man they never met was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, a place many of them never will visit. They did it because they felt in their bones that their fellow citizens of the city needed to see that they would go into the streets for racial justice.
BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE
Just as the pandemic was beginning to take hold a CTU colleague put Ezra Klein’s book Why We’re Polarized on my desk and encouraged me to read it. I had heard of the book and decided to skip it. But my colleague was a better scholar than I am and, as usual, he was right while I was wrong. Klein’s book is a sometimes-too-wonkish but often thoughtful exploration of its topic, a question certainly worthy of our attention.
Polarization refers not just to the condition of being divided, but being so separate as the two poles of a magnet. One literally cannot get farther away from the North Pole than the South Pole while still on the same planet, and this is our condition. Our human community not only is divided into two warring camps but, increasingly, our encampments are drifting to polar opposite places with more and more impregnable walls defending them. Division and disagreement are not new. This sort of polarization is.
There was one particular polarization that Klein zeroed in on that struck me. He found that, “Democrats win more people. Republicans win more places.” This is, of course, a familiar feature of how our constitutional system expresses itself today. The Constitution, we often forget, was written to bring together thirteen sovereign states accustomed to their sovereignty. Prior to the Constitution, our national union more resembled NATO than our idea of “one nation,” and the Constitution’s opening appeal to “We the People” was then more of an aspirational gesture toward a sense of national unity than we might assume in immediate retrospect. That idea has gained more power over time.
The vestigial remnant of that pre-Constitutional focus on states still can be found in the Senate’s equal representation, in the power of states to regulate elections and to draw legislative boundaries, and — of course — in the electoral college that requires presidential candidates to win a majority of electoral votes. This is the constitutional architecture over which our polarization has grown, but it is not exactly the same as the polarization even as the polarization has a similar pedigree.
Now every Broadway fan has a rough idea of our nation’s earliest political division between followers of Thomas Jefferson and followers of Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson was an individualist by temperament, which point of view characterized his Declaration of Independence and its claim that “all men are created equal.” But as a Virginian and a plantation owner, Jefferson also had all the interests associated with agriculture. Hamilton’s biography by now is well known. A New Yorker and a financier, Hamilton and his followers aligned with the interests of commerce and trade — cities. Our earliest and most durable American division was not something Jefferson and Hamilton invented. They merely became avatars for the two Americas — one rural, the other urban. But this division has persisted for centuries and it still is much more descriptive of us than calling Americans liberal or conservative. This division lurked at the bottom of the early nineteenth century crises about expansion and slavery, certainly it was a driver of the Civil War. This division between rural and urban dwellers also was present during the Gilded Age, and certainly we can see it at work in the twentieth century’s movement from Jim Crow to Civil Rights to the rise of Reaganism with the growing influence of evangelical Christianity. The 2016 presidential election map bears out this most basic American division when we look at it county by county: “Democrats win more people. Republicans win more places.” Democrats win Hamilton’s cities. Republicans win Jefferson’s much more vast, open, rural places. And, our constitutional system that balances representation of people with representation of states amplifies the division.
The amplification of that division, the way Republicans now are rewarded by the system, is a new development that would not have been possible unless something else had shifted first. The Constitution and our political system have not changed. Our polarization had to get underway before the political system began to make it even worse for all this to happen. It has something to do with the way we have been discussing cities here, but it is more complex than the division between Hamilton’s cities and Jefferson’s rural spaces. All along we have been using ‘city’ as a metaphor, and a bit imprecisely. That has been necessary because a city, in the sense we need to use the word in order to understand the point of this essay, is not a city at all in the sense we usually mean it. There are not necessarily tall buildings or streets, traffic or great crowds of people. Rural spaces each, individually, are cities too. But rural America also is a ‘city,’ itself: New York, London, and Mumbai are cities, each individually. But the metropolitan worldview and those who share its mindset globally also are a sort of a ‘city.’ And, in many dimensions, the polarization we are experiencing is a collision between these two ‘cities,’ the urban worldview and the rural worldview — each “a city in my mind.” The actual cities where we find ourselves bear the marks of the divisions between these ‘cities’ even more today than once they did because of the ways technology has empowered us to breathe life into “a city in my mind,” giving vocal and visible, effective opposition to the other ‘city.’ We inhabit “a city in my mind.” We are tearing down the actual cities — real communities — where we live.
In its own way, David Byrne’s American Utopia gives visual evidence of the problem. The untethered freedom of the musicians in the Broadway show is thrilling for them and for the audience. It also teeters on the edge of chaos, a fate from which the show is saved only by an unseen choreographer. Social life is not so different. Freedom teeters on chaos, and it depends on choreography to keep its equilibrium. Our social life is abandoning all choreography.
Martin Gurri is a former CIA analyst, and he has written a very smart book about this — The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium (Stripe, 2018). Gurri suggests the loss of our social choreography — what he is calling authority — is the real problem. Polarization only is a symptom. Our crisis is rooted in the collapse of elite opinion, and it has been caused by the pressures brought by the information revolution. Our communities have become uncoordinated as they once were coordinated by shared factual conceptions and trusted authorities. The devices in our pockets and the vast amount of information they can reveal to us have changed all that. We should add — he means information that is empirically, verifiably accurate and all other sorts of information, too. We all have seen the capacity to construct our own, individual frames of reality, and we do it. Or, it might appear so.
In fact, what we do is we sort ourselves into different camps. They are the camps that are available — think ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ urban or rural, American or not. But such camps have another important dimension — they offer a way for unscrupulous actors to manipulate us, herding us into camps with the alluring suggestion we have discovered the truth of things ourselves. Our own digitally-formed expertise brings us into these camps and, sometimes, into the waiting arms of demagogues.
All of which tends to highlight this post-pandemic moment’s importance for us as an opportunity carefully to re-evaluate our relationships to community. The old authorities are gone. Our communities are fractured. What do we want? Where do we want to go from here? A city in my mind now is not only a comforting dream as utopias have been across the span of our history. Today, in a real sense, we can inhabit a city in my mind but the effect is far from utopian. In this moment when our human community seems to have become more fractured than it ever has been before, the pandemic arrived as though to remind us that being confined alone to our homes and our online, utopian echo chambers is not enough for us. The question hanging in the air as we take our first safe, vaccinated steps back into the world is whether the pandemic experience will make any difference at all.
Can we shake off some of the spell a city in my mind holds over us? Or, will we continue down that particular road to nowhere?
OUR NEED FOR OTHERS STILL REMAINS
It is not necessary to abandon a city in my mind in order to live in the city as we find it among one another in the world. Indeed we could not be dwellers in the human community without some capacity to dream about how it could be better. The utopian genre exists for this reason. Another way to think about the crisis our polarization and the information revolution have drawn us into is to see that this capacity for dreaming about a better world has become radically democratized. In previous eras, the authority to dream and to implement plans for a better human community belonged to monarchs, churches, scholars, journalists, and business leaders. As recently as the dawning of this century, our information ecosystem still was guarded by such gatekeepers. Today and quite suddenly, the gates are open. The question is whether such a situation can last. Can we live as we have been living, or must some authority and gatekeeping naturally and necessarily reassert itself to police the boundaries between the city in my mind and the city we all inhabit?
And of course, it already has. We already have discovered how susceptible this climate is to demagogues and other unscrupulous actors. Such people can function as gatekeepers in this climate. It is not a question whether our human community will organize itself somehow by recognizing authorities. But we have to hope somehow that we can find better ones.
We face a challenge that the old elites and authorities must engage. Political leaders, scholars, journalists, and business leaders must do better. The challenge is not small. Gurri, in The Revolt of the Public, recounts how he imagines this challenge came into focus almost two decades ago in the scandal that ended Dan Rather’s tenure at CBS News after a factchecker determined a document used to prove George W. Bush had eluded the draft was fraudulent. The factchecker was a blogger writing under the name Buckhead. Gurri notes —
Before the internet ordinary individuals would not have had access to sufficient information to second-guess an investigation conducted by a major news organization. Nor would someone lacking any sort of formal credentials have been able to disseminate his findings as widely and rapidly as they were disseminated in the Rather-gate scandal. The World Wide Web gave a single anonymous individual the ability to humiliate a powerful media conglomerate and one of its most respected reporters (ii).
The old authorities are discredited. The feet of clay are shattered. And, in an important sense — good. While it is true that experts make mistakes and we only should rely on them to be right more often than others, it remains true that the bar needs to be higher. To claim influence over public opinion is to claim one of the most sacred duties in human affairs. There is no such thing as an untimely reminder of that.
The reminder is all the more important because we know human communities will form no matter what are the circumstances. Whether we gather in Zoom rooms to overcome the isolation of the pandemic or we gather in dark corners of the internet to doubt public health guidance and plan an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, community is inevitable. And, in communities some sort of leadership is inevitable. It matters a great deal who the leaders are, and what sort of leadership they offer. And, the available evidence says that the opinion and political leadership with which our communities embarked on the twenty-first century was not adequate to meet the moment. For our communities to do better, we need better, more responsive, and more humble leaders.
It is easy to say the world has been made flat, leadership levelled to the point where anyone with a smart phone can influence public opinion. That seems to be true. But as we have been exploring here, the truth includes those self-evident facts and also is more subtle. Our nature has not changed, only our environment. We are evolved primates. Those instincts still shape our behavior, especially in groups, because they must. Whether we trust Walter Cronkite as one large community or whether we fracture into smaller communities, some trusting public health officials while others trust QAnon, the behavior pattern is the same. We gather and we follow. To pull our fellow citizens out of the pockets of madness and misinformation they have fallen into, we need to start from this beginning. What that means is that the conversation we are having about our public conversation today needs to improve. What would make a better conversation?
Begin with a fact to which we pay entirely too much lip service without really thinking about it. It is a truism that our world is smaller because of transportation and communication technologies. We knew more certainly than ever that we all share a small planet whose slightest climatological perturbations threaten all of us. We have plenty of reasons to know that our human lives depend on our human community, and we have had plenty of reasons since the nuclear age began. But how often do those of us who want to build up the human community really embark on the task as though that is true?
The doubters of climate science and COVID science are wrong. But will they be persuaded to trust experts and elites by shouting “Trust the science!” at them? People insisting “All lives matter” when Black Lives Matter reminds them of an uncomfortable history of structural racism are wrong. Do we expect them to repent and to be convinced suddenly by having their wrongness showered on them with shouts and name-calling? Amphitheaters and aircraft hangers did not fill up with Donald Trump supporters because he offered sensible solutions to solve the urgent problems his supporters face. Thousands of people showed up because Trump gave voice to their outrage at elite who remind them they are not elites. Real leadership means breaking this cycle, not joining it.
A city in my mind is a safe refuge when the city in the world seems like a dangerous or even an unfriendly place. The fact that we all seem to favor one city in my mind or another is a good description of the problem — but it also is the problem’s solution. We can retreat to our private utopias. We can call upon our visions of that better world to enrich a public conversation that brings us together to build up the world. The question is whether we treat one another as though we want to share the world or not. Would we rather invite one another to share and contribute to the city we inhabit with our visions of how it can be better, or would we rather banish one another each to a city in their mind? The former will be messy. It will mean dealing with how we disagree and also confronting ugly lies alongside uncomfortable truths. It would not be fun. Yet, the latter is the road we are on and it leads toward a practical end of civilization in the sense of our joining together in partnership to try to make things better.
We exist with a conflicting impulse. We yearn to be completely independent, we struggle for our freedom. This is the bedrock of our humanity, something we all share. Each of us desires to feel the dignity of being free. Yet our need for others still remains. We accept limits on our own freedom when we inhabit the city as much as when we are part of a family or enter intimate friendships and relationships like marriage. We could not accomplish very much in the world if we did not accept those limits to share our energy, resources, trust, and companionship with one another. We know this in our own lives. We are forgetting that in politics as much as in a more broad social sense, and the dangers are significant.
EVERYBODY’S COMING TO MY HOUSE
In the Spike Lee film of American Utopia David Byrne offers a self-effacing introduction of the first single on the album. He recounts how the song “Everybody’s Coming to My House” was interpreted by a high school chorus from Detroit after the album came out, and their interpretation was filled with warmth, welcome, and a sense of community. Byrne’s own version, by his admission, sounds more like “the singer is not sure how he feels about everybody coming over to his house, and you can sense (although he never says it in the song), you can sense that he’s thinking, ‘When are they going to leave?’” I think we all can recognize this duality, something that always is part of the community experience. Whether we are extroverts or introverts, our individuality always tugs against our instinctive human need for community.
The post-pandemic moment arrives in an interesting way as a moment when we can pause over this duality, how we experience it, and what it means after so many years while we have watched polarization corrode the things that hold our human community together. In a way, the pandemic has been an opportunity to experience fully what living only in a city in my mind is like, where we are forced to live without a sense of community we can count on or take for granted. The isolation and other effects should be clearer to us now. The question is whether that will make any difference at all as the world opens up and returns to ‘normal.’
Yet we should notice that it is not only polarization and the COVID virus that fracture our community. Subtle technological changes have been doing this to us for many decades. Where neighbors once gathered outside on hot summer evenings to enjoy a break from the heat together, air conditioning makes our homes comfortable while our televisions and tablets offer us a substitute for conversation and human interaction. Travel, at one time, was an opportunity to meet people and see places along our way that, today, we speed past at 70mph or overhead at 30,000 feet. Interactions that once might have demanded a visit or even a short phone call now are dispensed with in seconds with a text message that may or may not include words. Even the shared audience experience of seeing David Byrne’s American Utopia on Broadway now is replaced by a film I can watch alone in my home. And, none of these things is bad. They reflect improvements in our lives in most cases, the progress of the civilization we build when the city in my mind projects its hopes out into the world and builds up our community. The trouble is that we have not yet accounted for the other effects on our community, the paradoxical way these civilization-building developments enclose us in a city in my mind.
Now is a moment when we might take stock of that problem. How can our isolation teach us to be more cautious about the fragmentation of our world and our community, the corrosion of those things that hold us together?
The pandemic has reminded us of things about ourselves that make us human. We often say ‘lost in a crowd’ as though it is a bad, isolating thing. Sometimes it is. Sometimes we find out something about ourselves when we lose ourselves in a crowd. Think of the sensation of being part of the crowd at a basketball game or a concert. A part of our personality unlocks, a part that only is available in situations like that. We feel the energy of the crowd, our fellow human beings, and we all respond and react as one organism. I should add that this same phenomenon is visible at Trump rallies. The event doesn’t need to be a good one as much as being lost in a crowd is not always a good thing. But the phenomenon itself is a part of who we are. It tells us something.
The ancient Greeks spoke of suneisthesia, the phenomenon of experiencing the same thing together. It is a way to describe that crowd psychology. Yet it also is a sort of friendship. When I look out across the crowd at a basketball game or a concert, in a way the people I see all together with me are my friends. I do not know their names or, really, anything about them. But I do know that we are feeling the same things because we value the same things in that moment. Our love for something together makes us friends, even if only for a moment. It doesn’t really matter whether it is a team or a song. And, it can just as easily be a shared hatred. Our psychology will work the same way to form friendships in the intense, shared experience of being together. For this reason, we need to be careful about what brings us together.
I think David Byrne understands this, too. His collapsing of the distance between musicians and audience in the American Utopia stage show seems to reflect his awareness that bringing people together in an experience draws something forth from us. It has been a theme in his work — he did it before in his 2010 collaboration with Fatboy Slim, telling the story of Imelda Marcos in a show that transformed a theater into a large discotheque shared by performers and audience. Byrne said Here Lies Love was about how a person can “make and remake themselves,” a thing that the structure of his show seemed to invite audiences to do. We remake ourselves with others. The experience might be confined to an evening. Sometimes the experience of community changes our lives. Community is a vital part not only of who we are because our human responses demonstrate this — we get lost in a crowd. But community also is a vital part of who we can be. We grow, we develop, we change because of the communities we belong to, whether it is family, a church, a neighborhood, or even an audience. We glimpse what is better — what might be — in our experience of community. We build up a city in my mind this way, and so construct the building blocks for a better world.
Yet as I have said, a city in my mind can be a building block for the world or a wrecking ball swung at it. Our communities give birth to our world by means of our participating in them. When I attend American Utopia I glimpse a community of diverse, different people drawn together for an evening into a partnership with one another to enjoy beauty and peace as much as music. I take that experience to the world, a city in my mind becomes the city I want to live in. Just as easily I might attend a rally where an angry man spews hatred about immigrants, a rally where everyone looks just like me. Here also, a city in my mind becomes the city I try to build up. And the point is that community is a powerful experience, one that reproduces itself first in imagination and then in the world. Community has a power with which we need to take care.
All of this is worth thinking carefully about right now because we have not been able to be together in this way for more than a year. We are bound to find ourselves more alert to the power of community, and more sensitive to it. What are we going to do with that? Especially considering the fractured way our community entered the pandemic, the way we watched the fractures deepen and spread during the pandemic, now might be a moment when we put the importance of community under a microscope in the light of our lost and rediscovered togetherness. Letting that opportunity pass would be more than a shame. It would waste our chance to draw some vital good from the calamity and suffering of the pandemic experience.
We yearn to live in a place of justice and compassion where we each in the community are devoted to one another. That is the dream of every utopia, the vision sought when I build a city in my mind. But that place of justice and compassion, the place where everything is alright, is no place. That city doesn’t exist outside my mind, and nothing in human history so much as suggests it ever can. But we do go on, we human beings, trying to reach it. Utopian fantasies can be as harmless as the Oneida Community or the hippie vision of peace and love. Utopian fantasies also can go to the dark places. What are genocides if not attempts to remake the human race according to a vision of how someone thinks it should look, to build a city without the people who ‘shouldn’t’ be there? Our dreams can be beautiful visions or nightmares. But we know it is not hard to tell the difference. We know the difference. We have a way to distinguish them.
A city in my mind can be a beautiful thing. For social life, that vision is a necessary thing. But we know from our experiences of loss and suffering what it means when someone gets left out, left behind. That is what is in BLM protestors’ outrage at the murder of George Floyd. It is also the human solidarity claimed by many protestors against abortion. That is the feeling we need to harness after a pandemic that has taken millions of people around the globe and caused suffering on a scale of a world war. We need to remember the city is for everyone, and any city in my mind that says some people should be left out is a road that leads in the wrong direction. We need to remember that we need not all share a city in our minds — we do not need always to agree. But we must share the city where we live together as friends.
How can it happen? How can we overcome our divisions, our polarized situation, to live together in the same city despite the differences between the cities in our minds? In the first place, we cannot require one another to abandon the cities in our minds. Each of us imagines the community of compassion and justice their own way, even if they are terribly, objectively wrong. Yet all of us desire the dignity to see the city our own way. There is no community of compassion and justice unless we allow one another that dignity. It is not necessary to agree. It only is necessary to want to live together, to share the city despite our disagreements. Desiring this thing together, sharing this value, can make friends of us.
That’s easy to say, difficult to do. The city in my mind gets in the way. The city in the other person’s mind, too. There are particular cases where some imagined cities are so repugnant and people’s commitments to those dystopian utopias are so blindly inflexible that there can be no coming to friendship with them. But those must be exceptional cases. Most people feel the wrongness of hatred, they have no intention to be hateful even when they are wrong. People do build the wrong cities in their minds. Most often, I think it is a sort of laziness, not having sought something better. Sometimes, perhaps, they never have seen something better. Sometimes they have fallen into the grips of a demagogue who has blinded them to other possibilities. What they need is to see a better way. And, they will not see it until it is shown to them. That means those of us who do desire the inclusive city must do the hard thing. We need to show them. In a way, they need to see American Utopia, or something like it. “Every day is an unpaid bill,” David Byrne and his band sing together on the Broadway stage, building up their nightly utopia. The inclusive city is one where we recognize a debt we owe to one another simply by living there. Those of us who live already in the inclusive city must be willing to pay the debt first, not in those exceptional cases but certainly in challenging and in difficult cases when perhaps we don’t want to share the city because it is hard. We never will build that inclusive city in the world until we do.
The ambivalent feeling David Byrne describes about “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” the worry that others are encroaching on what’s mine “and they’ve never gonna go back home” is a natural human reaction. But the other way to hear the song — the inclusive welcome — is a reminder of how we need to be attentive to building up our human community. Community takes work. We have not been doing that work for too long, and there have been many terrible results. The pandemic, arguably, is one of the results we got for our preferring my city in my mind over the one where we all live together. We can go on down that particular road to nowhere, selfishly preferring our own personal utopias at the expense of the world we share.
If we do that, we now cannot claim after these last years that the results surprise us.