Newtown, "Community" Organizers, and History

Let me say at the outset that President Obama's sermon at Newtown last night was astonishing. It's hard to imagine he'll give another speech/sermon as powerful as that. (Here's hoping!) If you missed it, you can see it here in its entirety; this WaPo piece also includes the transcript. But his sermon also set off a long train of thought in this historian's brain, and that's what I'm writing about here. 

Among the "money quotes," these get to the core of his message:

This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged. And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations? . . . .

Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change. . . .

We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.

He did not mention "gun control" or "politics." Instead, he focused on the conclusion at which so many of us had already arrived during the past few days: It's not guns that kill, or even people. It's a society that has lost its way and is no longer a "community."

As soon as it became apparent that's where he was headed in his sermon, the historian in me sat up straight. Mental light bulbs flashed, etc. So. Here's this historian's take.

Back in 2007, 2008, when Obama ran for president the first time, the Republicans belittled the fact that he'd been a "community organizer." Truth be told, I didn't pay much attention to that particular part of his resume.  I had a mental image of someone chatting with young toughs on street corners, trying to set them straight. Other than that, I didn't give it much thought.

Now, however, my perspective is quite different --- thanks to the research I'm doing for the final chapter of the book I'm writing, which is a history of meat in America. The final chapter examines the origins of the "organic-local-alternative food system." (*1)

That "alternative" food system took shape in the 1980s. A group of activists, reformers, and academics used food as the anchor of an effort to link rural and urban America, and to forge a new "community" in which every member, regardless of race, class, income, or geography, would feel connected enough to care about all the other parts.

I'm simplifying the story (hey! You can read more when the book comes out...) --- but my point is this: In the 1980s and 1990s (and now), "community organizers" like the young Barack Obama were many in number and purpose. But whether the organizers focused on issues of poverty, jobs, hunger, the "family farm," or weaknesses in the nation's food system, a single, larger goal united them: to forge community among Americans.

I would argue, however, that the late-20th-century search for community went beyond "official" community organizers like Obama. That same search fueled the craft beer movement. Homebrewing, to name another example, emerged as a "community" rather than just a hobby. (To which I would add the form of so many web-based businesses: Facebook, Pinterest, etc., as well as the internet and web themselves.)

Again, I'm simplifying (in part because I've not yet worked all this out), but as a historian, I'm convinced there are linkages between and among projects that otherwise appear, on the surface, to be unrelated: farmers' markets, homebrewing, craft beer, Facebook. (*2)

Back to Newtown: When I listened to the president's sermon last night, many of these pieces fell into place.

I see more clearly now what drove Obama's initial run for the presidency. He had a vision, shaped by his young adulthood, of how "community" could transform the United States spiritually, socially, politically. He believed (rightly, I would argue) that millions of Americans shared that view even if they had not articulated it. (*3)

Alas, once elected, that vision ran up against the reality of the American political system and "vision" was set aside in the name of survival. Grousing ensued: "What happened to the guy we elected? Where's our hope and change?" Obama had been forced to weigh the long term benefits of vision against the short-term need to survive.

The irony is that Obama was forced to sacrifice long-term vision for short-term survival precisely because we Americans have so little sense -- none, really -- of community, of common purpose. We've never needed it more --- and yet, it's never been more out of reach.

For the past few days, I've had this odd sense of deja vu, but I couldn't figure out what it was. Last night, as I listened, I found it: The aftermath of Newtown is much like the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Stunned disbelief; near-universal grief; groping for answers.

But it also shares this with that earlier tragedy: It's aroused a powerful undercurrent, a powerful yearning for stronger connections between and among each other. (*4)

We need to change. "We" meaning us as a community. Lack of gun control. How we as a society cope with mental illness. Those aren't causes. Those are symptoms (especially the latter). Symptoms of malaise, of drift, of lack of purpose.

So when President Obama spoke of "community" and the "need for change," he didn't mean "politics." He meant: We can no longer ignore our lack of, loss of, purpose, meaning, community. Only when we face up to the hollowness that is the reality of life in America will we finally see an end to the madness that afflicted the lives of so many Americans on December 14, 2012.


*1: I knew nothing about any of it (hence the need to do this research), but I'd heard the standard version of "what happened": Alice Waters, the California restaurateur, discovered "local" foods and voila! The local, organic food craze began. Even before I started researching this chapter, I was sure that standard story was wrong, and that some other set of factors had shaped the "alternative" food system we now have. I was right (for a change!).

*2: That's one reason I want to finish this current book and move on to my next: this set of ideas has been floating around in my brain for over a year now. I think I'm on to something.

*3: Although Christian fundamentalism has become mainstream and institutionalized, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it spread in large part because so many people were seeking "community."

*4: Before you all go crazy and start sending me hate mail: No, I'm not comparing Newtown to Al Qaeda terrorist attacks. Rather, I'm comparing the emotional, spiritual aftermath: In the midst of intense, shared grief, we've rediscovered a need for community. We reached out, rather than withdrew. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only person who sensed that our collective grief also gave us a sense of community. We found solace by embracing each other in a way we rarely otherwise do.