A YEAR ago, a group of Riverside, Calif., citizens, working with
the county's school districts, concluded that the way to improve
education was not to reform schools, but to reform the community.
This group included conservatives, liberals, educators, a
building contractor, an insurance agent (and self-described
survivor of the 1960s), and a feminist activist in her 70s. On some
issues, they had agreed to disagree. But they had found their
common cause: the renewal of community.
Today, with a mix of public and private money, they are busy
creating family centers, undertaking neighborhood crime-prevention
efforts, and forming senior volunteer programs in the schools.
Groups like this seem to have multiplied dramatically within the
past four or five years. This growth doesn't fit the cosmology of
despair or the current political-cultural spectrum; and the
participants lack a hook on which they can confidently hang their
"I've felt ideologically and intellectually homeless for a long
time," says the insurance salesman. What about Ross Perot's
organization? "Close, but no cigar," says an educator. "Too
So where do they fit in? Former Education Secretary William J.
Bennett and columnist Pat Buchanan talk of an emerging cultural war
in America. They say that the battle is between what they consider
right-minded cultural conservatives and libertine liberals. They're
right about the war; they're wrong about the combatants. The real
cultural war is between the culture of narcissism and what might be
called the culture of renewal, which is where these folks fit.
During the past two decades, the culture of narcissism assumed
a variety of costumed identities. First came the benign - often
constructive - human-potential movement. But the culture of
narcissism moved on; it led to the abandonment of the traditional
neighborhood and the rise of walled communities and private
residential governments that offer elite services and private cops
in exchange for personal freedom and privacy. It led to a political
landscape that has less and less to do with our lives and more and
more to do with the vanities of handlers and pollsters.
The radical religious right and the intolerant far left are also
part of the culture of narcissism. They cannot see past their own
slim agendas; they pursue a kind of cultism, the group expression
Even the self has been diminished: Now we have narcissism's
offspring, the culture of stuff - the deafening, electronic roar of
commercialism without meaningful human content. The results? The
starkest evidence is the effect on the emotional and physical
health of children, who are the canaries in this mine shaft.
But now comes some light: Americans who have become increasingly
dismayed by the disappearance of the public space, of community, of
true safety. The culture of renewal shows up in some odd places.
Florida professor Ray Oldenburg describes the "great good
place" as cafes, coffee shops, community centers, and general
stores - the "third place" between work and home where people can
gather, put aside the concerns of work, and hang out simply for the
pleasures of good company and lively conversations. …