Thursday, February 24, 2005

The danger of atomization

I have not yet read much John Dewey. However, after reading this article by Michael Thomasky at the American Prospect, I decided that I ought to try. To guide my reading, I did a little research on the internet. From my TFA readings, I knew that Dewey had written about education theory quite a bit. Only after my research, did I realize that he also wrote a lot about democracy and the role of the individual, including one book I am going to read titled The Public and its Problems. Anyway, my nominal bit of research suggests that Dewey worried about the atomization of society. If I'm not mistaken, he felt that there was a danger that people would become so focused on their particular individual or socio-economic interests, that they would lose sight of the larger interests of society.

So yesterday, after doing this research, I happened across this article by Andrew Sullivan, in which he makes the interesting point that technology, such as MP3 players like the iPod, contributes to the atomization process. By using such devices, people can isolate themselves from much of their surroundings and the experiences that go with that. More importantly, and he does touch on this, other techonologies like the internet, radio, and satellite TV all allow for increasing individualization of news sources, opinions and entertainment. If we were inclined to do so (and I think we are), Americans could go through their lives with minimal exposure to ideas, theories and opinions that differ from their own.

If my reading of Dewey is correct, this is dangerous because it allows us to focus on our ideologies and ignore society at large. In such a state, for example, I might begin to assume that my personal ideal of maximized individual liberty, severely constrained non-human entities, and limited government is the only proper political goal. Other people, likewise, could harbor other ideals, and none of us would contemplate the larger effects of these ideals. Pragmatically speaking, we might band together with other such believers to form political parties, but should we gain political power we would be unlikely to incorporate other ideologies or theories into our debate and policy making. The end result, I think, is a system in which controlling parties seek to solidify their economic and social interests with little regard for democratic debate or pluralistic ideals.

I think you can see where I'm headed with this. What I'm describing sounds, at least to me, very much like our currently divided country. Blue vs. red states. Urban vs. rural voters. Democrats versus Republicans. These may be traditional divides, but in recent years it seems like they're becoming much more rigid. Compromise and inclusion across these various divisions is increasingly rare. What we have, it seems, is an atomized electorate. The danger, I think, is when that atomization is translated into actual rather than theoretical terms. This is exemplified by this article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Apparently, there are Republicans in eastern Washington State who feel so isolated from the rest of the state that they would prefer to break off into another state than remain part of the whole. Not to seem like Chicken Little or invoke the overused specter of the slippery slope, but where does this stop? Should Austin, TX, break apart from the rest of Texas to form another state? Should Orange County, CA, break off to form its own state? I mean, both places vote far differently than the rest of the state they populate, and the state legislatures of their respective home states rarely embrace the politics of their residents. The answer seems to clear to me: hell no. The breakdown of pluralistic democracy at the state and local level will eventually spread to the federal level. There's been lots of joking about blue state secession, but it should be just that, jokes. At its most basic, democracy is intended to protect the rights of all people. If we break up that democracy to account for the clustering of socioeconomic or cultural differences we are just going to make it that much more difficult for our democracy to provide that protection.