Curling for Loonies

Nothing is more annoying in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans.

—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

I had lunch the other day with a very smart, very nice guy named Jason Kaufman, a young professor of sociology at Harvard. He is one to watch, folks. He obviously possesses that astounding combination of dogged hard work and genuine genius that one needs to become a young professor at Harvard, but he’s also such a nice guy that I can’t envy him for it, much.

Jason got in touch with me through one of my advisors, which struck me as a nifty coincidence since I had just finished reading his excellent book, For the Common Good: American Civic Life and the Golden Age of Fraternity. The book is about fraternal organizations in the Gilded Age, and it takes Robert Putnam’s famous “Bowling Alone” thesis head on. The Tocqueville quote above is on the first page of his book. (It doesn’t apply to Jason.)

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam argued that the main thing wrong with America today was the decline of social capital. Put crudely, Americans a century ago used to join a lot of clubs—bowling leagues, benevolent orders, the Illuminati, and so on. Today, they don’t. And this, Putnam says, has impoverished American social and political life. He got a hunk of money from the Clinton administration to find out why this was so and what could be done about it, and that money, I should add, provided summer jobs for many of my grad school cronies. (Final verdict: there are lots of reasons social capital declined, but one big one starts with T and ends with V. And that stands for trouble, right here in River City.) Bowling Alone was a big, important book, but like many things from the late 1990s, it already seems a little quaint. O for the days when the worst thing Americans had to fear was the demise of league bowling.

Anyway, Kaufman turns this argument on its head. For him, a big part of everything wrong with America today is the fault of fraternal organizations: persistent racial and ethnic prejudice, a weak labor movement, half-hearted social services, a love for guns and a fear of government… all these, he says, are legacies of the club-happy Gilded Age. We should not lament its passing.

There’s lots of merit in each book. I encourage you to read them both yourself and decide who you find more convincing. But what I kept thinking while reading Jason’s book (and what I gushed about at some length over lunch) was just how great it is to read a first book by a young scholar that makes such a big, fat, contentious claim.

For quality of prose, I’ll generally choose a historian over a sociologist. But for clarity of argument? We historians are very nervous about the monocausal explanation. We so rarely say, “A caused B.” It’s usually more like, “A was a factor in B, given the context of C and D, and the influence of E, F, and G through Z.” A sociologist wouldn’t necessarily disagree with all those qualifications, but the name of the game in sociology is nailing the elusive independent variable. “Too many clubs in 1904? No health care in 2004.” As I embark on turning my own cautious, nuanced, somewhat meandering dissertation into a book someone might actually care to read, there’s a lot to admire in that sort of audacity.

Why were we having lunch? We’re both interested in comparing the histories of Canada and the United States, which is a surprisingly rare endeavor. In fact, Jason was probably hoping I could help him nail down the key independent variable in the Canada-U.S. comparison. Of course. I couldn’t. (“Well, A was a factor, but so was B, and the context of C and D, and the influence of E, F, and G through Z. Or Zed.”) But we may get back together on the project in future.

One more difference between Jason and I is that, while I grumbled in my footnotes about the absence of good Canada-U.S. comparative work, he just shrugged and said, well, I guess I’ll do it myself. And set off writing a four-century history of both countries. What was I saying about audacity? What was I saying about envy?

Memo to myself: I owe Jason Kaufman a nice lunch.