By Pria S. Whitehead

Earlier this month, the United States commemorated Veterans’ Day. For many people, this meant a much-anticipated day off from work or from school. For others, it was a reminder of service rendered or painful loss incurred. For some, it may have brought to bear the frustration of months or years of social and professional exclusion and hardship. To this end, for certain vets and their families, perhaps the day signified or even provoked an impetus for change. 

A month preceding Veterans’ Day, on October 4 of this year, the Commonwealth Club hosted four panelists for a discussion concerning the reintegration of today’s veterans into American society. The speakers were Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA); Deborah Alvarez Rodriguez, president & CEO of Goodwill; Ana Thompson, executive director of Schwab Entrepreneurial Foundation; and Mike Myatt, president & CEO of the Marines Memorial Association.  Despite the panelists’ varied backgrounds, all of them convened around the severity of that which Rieckhoff termed an “unprecedented disconnect” between contemporary American civilians and recent war veterans. All of them stressed the need for a mobilization of community resources around the creation of jobs for recent veterans, as well as for the dissolution of common prejudices and frameworks through which war veterans are, ostensibly, increasingly perceived. Rodriguez used the term “civic fatigue” to summarize the problems inherent in this disconnect. 

The question of civic fatigue is one that has garnered significant attention in recent years from researchers in various political, academic, social and philanthropic contexts. In his 1995 article “Bowling Alone,” which appeared in the January edition of the Journal of Democracy and preceded the publication of a book by the same title, author Robert Putnam cites a variety of studies to illustrate the decline, over the latter half of the 20th century, in the presence of “social capital” in American society. Social capital, defined by Putnam as mutually beneficial social organization, constitutes a valued and measurable commodity in the series of data that he attempts to synthesize. His premise, taking into account a link between the performance and quality of social institutions and the precise networks and associations comprising a definition of “civic engagement,” is that despite the aggregate rise in Americans’ levels of education and wealth – two apparent indicators of a propensity for civic engagement – our tendency to form, and to participate in, civic associations has declined drastically in recent decades. Possible reasons cited include the escalation of women’s participation in the workforce; the increased geographic mobility of citizens; shifting family demographics; and the technological transformation of “leisure” to primarily private, rather than public, forms. 

Owing to the more recent explosion of this latter (technological) realm and the onset of social networks anachronistic to the publication of “Bowling Alone,” it is impossible to read Putnam’s set as complete. However, some of the more incendiary points raised by his work arguably have become still more pertinent in light of the recent paroxysm of technologically facilitated networks. For Putnam, technology is primarily television-based, thus inherently private and antisocial. Perhaps more fruitful than a parallel between television and internet, then, would be a comparison between the most recent wave of the technological revolution and the “new mass-membership organizations” toward which Putnam points as comprising a seeming countertrend to the decline in social capital. Putnam’s critique, and ultimate dismissal, of the mass-membership organization as effective replacement of traditional forms of social capital appears to derive from a perceived lack of accountability among its members: “For the vast majority of… members, the only act of membership consists in writing a check for dues or perhaps occasionally reading a newsletter. Few ever attend any meetings of such organizations, and most are unlikely ever (knowingly) to encounter any other member.” He goes on to argue that “their ties … are to common symbols, common leaders, and perhaps common ideals, but not to one another.” Insofar as this critique points to the question of accountability, it can help us to examine the ways in which the online social network might fail to achieve the associational ends of an organization that requires regular face-to-face contact. Nonetheless, we must be careful in drawing such a broad parallel, especially in light of the second half of Putnam’s critique. It might well be argued that the bonds formed and maintained through online social networks – in opposition to those formed through mass-membership organizations – are, indeed, “to one another” and not “to common symbols … and … ideals.”

Taking into account the need for finer nuance, perhaps the utility of drawing such a parallel lies in its bearing on the question of accountability. This question becomes even more compelling when considered alongside Putnam’s later discussion of “the costs … of community engagement.” Here, he notes that “recent decades have witnessed a substantial decline in intolerance and probably also in overt discrimination, and those beneficent trends may be related in complex ways to the erosion of traditional social capital.” This observation begs investigation into the ways in which the social and professional networks made possible by technology have reconfigured the norms of inclusion and exclusion by which our society functions. If recent technological advances, along with advances in globalization, contribute to and/or reflect a reduction in social exclusivity and related social, economic and political corruption, the question of accountability changes entirely. As the ways in which we hold one another responsible for our actions and beliefs have evolved, our paradigms of responsibility have shifted. It is plausible that the erosion of civic responsibility correlates with an increase in other types of social rigor. In light of this consideration, Putnam’s article would appear suggestive with regard to the volatile, ever-changing social and political tenor of our day.

As with many studies, then, it is the lacunae – the missing portions, both chronological and conceptual – in Putnam’s research that invite deeper questioning into its objectives. To which end(s) are we, individually and communally, called to recognize our own “civic fatigue”? Is it enough to harken back to a bygone age in which face-to-face collaboration played a more significant role in our daily lives?  Clearly, we must take into account some proportion of the massive changes that our society has undergone since the postwar era. Just as clearly, however, taking into account all of these changes is a multivariate and seemingly impossible task, in light of which grassroots efforts and heterodox fora appear as necessary as publicly- or privately-funded research projects and large policy initiatives. Perhaps the first step for all of us is simply to hold one another accountable for questioning – in small ways – the information and conjectures that we see, hear, read and receive on a daily basis.

And what, one may ask, does all of this have to do with Veterans’ Day? The answer is vague, though pressing. The panelists featured in last month’s event at the Club unanimously affirmed that our youngest generation of veterans is both quantitatively and qualitatively distinct from past generations. Without delving into detail, some differences that stand out are the relatively small size of the most recent veteran population; the newly significant proportion of women in this population; and, more intricately, the undeniable differences in the guiding missions and endeavors of successive generations of military personnel. In the case of this final distinction, the differences are hard to categorize and even harder to articulate; nonetheless, they are wrapped up on several levels in some of our most urgent and topical ideological, political and logistical debates. 

The anti-war sentiment that has pervaded many strata of American society since the onset of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is informed by a varyingly concrete perception of the differences between our most recent military exploits and the ones that preceded them. This, along with the fact that the vast majority of today’s Americans have come into little or no personal contact with any member of the military, would appear to contribute to the apathy with which we confront our veterans. With this in mind, we might be called to ask ourselves and one another how to reconcile political disapproval with genuine support for the individuals who have chosen to serve in the military. How might we recognize, and subsequently teach our neighbors and coworkers to acknowledge, that many of the skills acquired through military training and service could serve as valuable industrial and entrepreneurial commodities? How might we better understand the ways in which support for, and rehabilitation of, veterans of the armed forces can indeed form a worthwhile and lucrative investment? How might we avoid the “civic fatigue” that (seemingly inevitably) accompanies the waning of abstract nationalistic ideals?

The insistence on hiring war veterans for their individual acquired skills might appear to contradict the very principle of civic engagement, as it requires many citizens to cast aside their disagreement with – and alienation from – the systems and objectives that govern military service. But if we were to harp on this contradiction, we might be missing the point of civic engagement altogether. According to Putnam’s definition, civic engagement and the ensuing “social capital” are founded on human relationships, not on abstract bournes or pretensions. In his article, Putnam insists that “the theory of social capital argues that associational membership should ... increase social trust.” 

What, we should ask, is “social trust”? More important, how might trust play a role in regaining – and in refreshing – the social and institutional fabric of our lives?

The good news is that people seem to be flocking to address this question from a variety of fields and angles. More than ever before, and toward various ends, persuasive and powerful minds are devoting energy toward the goals of human collaboration, partnership, and the potential of world-altering interactions between the public and private spheres. On a more basic level, in our daily interactions, perhaps each of us could be best served by turning our power of discretion away from breaking and toward forming associations; away from criticism, toward empathy; and away from skepticism, toward trust.