I have always found communities that withdraw from mainstream culture interesting and quaint—Amish, maybe, or Mennonite, or rainbow hippies. They all seemed similar: gentle folk who lived in ways I could admire without acceding to them. But now there are all sorts of these communities—fundamentalist Mormons; pan-Africanists in Philadelphia; Hasidic Jews and, at the other end of the continuum, young, leftist Yiddish-speakers in upstate New York; Christians scattered around the country … A Muslim friend sends me an article from The Atlantic about “The Christian Withdrawal Experiment” in St. Marys, Kansas, where the Society of St. Pius X has essentially taken over a town and restored the norms of 1950s Catholicism. He is puzzled by their motivation.
I am not. In a less dramatic fashion, I grew up this way, in an insular Catholic parish where we were surrounded by likeminded people and the days were ordered by the liturgical calendar. There is a sweetness to such a sheltered life; it persuades you that other Catholics are more trustworthy, warmer, more caring than those from different faiths. I left the church and quickly came to prefer a wild mix of world views, but because utopian communities of any sort fascinate me, my first instinct is to defend their right to break away. Like a game-show contestant who knows the answer, I reply with a list of the usual reasons: With its violence, sexual license, profanity, materialism, hedonism, pop culture is contradicting conservative Catholics’ values. With internet influence 24/7, parents feel countermanded and helpless, unable to raise their children they way they want to.
Then I stop, wondering where we will end up as a nation, if everyone sits in their fenced-in patch of America feeling pure, certain, and smug. Gertrude Stein once accused Henry James of having a moral sensibility so fine, he could not risk muddying it in the real world. Are the groups that self-segregate admitting that it is impossible to live alongside people with different beliefs? Is that really what their wisdom figures—Jesus or Gandhi, gurus or great rabbis or Joseph Smith—would have advocated? Do they not trust themselves to withstand temptation, or teach its dangers, unless they remove themselves from proximity?
In an old Jules Feiffer cartoon, the figure whines to God about how annoying other people are and ends by saying, “So you love them, God, and I’ll just love you.”
Cutting yourself off from the larger world to live in a certain way is a valid choice, and it does not have to be as selfish as it seemed to my friend. He hears people saying, “I want to protect myself and my family so God will be pleased with me, and everyone else can burn in hell,” but I prefer that to an evangelism that tries to save me from hell. There is room for all kinds of community, and some people need to find sanctuary for almost psychiatric reasons, because they cannot find a way to be peaceful amid the hubbub and discord. But what happens if we continue down this path?
I ask John Inazu, who holds a distinguished professorship in law and religion at Washington University in St. Louis, for his opinion. Not only has he just finished teaching “Law, Religion, and Politics” but he wrote a book titled Confident Pluralism, described by one reviewer as answering “the question of whether we can live truly with each other, not merely alongside each other.”
One complicating factor, he points out right off the bat, is the internet and its social media. “It’s a lot harder to be insular, even if you’re physically and geographically isolated, unless you opt out of the internet as well.” Still, groups try it, with varying degrees of success. They are, in essence, giving up on the great American experiment—and democracy requires us to let them do so.
“You have to allow groups to opt out,” Inazu says firmly; the alternative would be “a strong-armed approach that tries to crush them into submission.” That said, “you can’t have too many groups opting out, or the whole thing stops working.” Democracy has a critical mass. He compares it to public schools—if everyone pulls out to homeschool or use a voucher, you no longer have a viable system of public education.
Inazu does not worry about the latest wave of cut-off communities, because “the true isolationists are so limited in numbers.” The bigger challenge, he says, is a lesser degree of separation that is rapidly dividing us into ideological enclaves. It is summed up in The Big Sort, a book by Bill Bishop that is subtitled “Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart.” People are voting with their feet, and red states are growing redder, blue states bluer. “The true echo chambers,” says Inazu, “are not the Amish, but clusters of conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats that don’t have any mixing between them.”
I sigh, heartily sick of political parties and polarities. Why do we never talk about conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans? And if they exist, why can they not at least talk to each other? But I am equally to blame. How often have I thrown up my hands and decided not to bother even trying to talk to a friend or relative about our disagreements? It is exhausting, like a playground game in which there is no base commonly agreed upon, no place of restful agreement, no way to feel safe together for even a minute. Before social distancing, a friend and I stood in line at a large public event. I asked her an innocuous question. Because her answer required a dip into politics and we were surrounded by people who probably had sharply different views, she murmured, “I’ll tell you inside.” When we were seated, she reached over and wrote her answer on my program. I felt like we were in the French Resistance.
The sorting, Inazu continues, “is getting worse. People make money on it. All of the incentives are aligned to reward the extremes. One reason sophisticated journalism is in dire straits is that nuance and stories about the middle don’t sell very well.” The real bias of the media is not political but financial; it pushes itself toward the extremes to win the clicks and views. Outlets become frankly partisan when it serves their needs to do so, reporters feel free to insert their own opinions, and we lose even the pretense of evenhandedness. Inazu was on a panel with Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times a few years ago and remembers him saying, “If you think American journalism has been bad for the last ten years, just hold on for the next ten.”
State and local governance will also feel the effects of the big sort, Inazu warns, with policies becoming so politically homogeneous that they cease to represent the median voter or even the larger public interest. What we need is an end to hyperpartisan rigidity, “a tolerance that works hard to separate the idea of being wrong from being evil.”
We need to figure out how to live by our own code without living only with those who share it.