Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A nation of joiners?

Despite the American tradition of individualism, we always seem to have been a nation of joiners. Consider all the clubs, organizations, and societies out there.

Some of these are so highly specialized they strike me as hilarious: a friend is a member of the American Coaster Society and travels the world riding roller coasters. Another is a member of the Cat Writers Association, for people who write about, well, you guessed it.
I recently read about the Society for Barefoot Living, a new online group aimed at promoting the right to exist without shoes (and without criticism).

Of course, there is the Cloud Appreciation Society and the Mexican Cockroach Racers Society--not to mention thousands of organizations devoted to Norwich canaries, baroque opera enthusiasts, gay penguins, orchid fanciers, nude bathers, Neo-Nazis, hyperactive bowlers, and collectors of nearly everything. I am a member of the Friends of Silence, one of those free, online groups that remind me occasionally that inner silence is essential for a peaceful life.

Behind all this organized activity seems to be a basic human need for individuals to "do their own thing"--but in the company of others! In the 19th century, men formed Elks, Moose, Lions, Odd Fellows, and Kiwanis clubs, presumably to get away from wives and the home and bond with other men. In London clubs, as pictured in films, men like to read and be alone--away from females--but in a large room with other men, many of them smoking.

Today, as more of us work at home via the Internet, the trend seems to be advocacy for various causes, many worthwhile, some merely entertaining, some dangerous.

Every writer, even the lesser known ones, has a society producing newsletters and advocating research into the life and work of Ford Maddox Ford, Charles Brockden Brown, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, et al. I am a past member of the Milton Society of America and the T. S. Eliot Society as well as a present member of the International Thomas Merton Society.

These and thousands of other professional associations are only partly social; they help unite scholars who are otherwise isolated in their work and encourage them to exchange ideas.

I don't know if Americans are unusually given to forming associations. My point is to note the paradoxical nature of the American experiment: we are proud of our individual rights and freedoms but, whether admitting it or not, see the need to form communities since we sense, at a deeper level than the political, that a man (or woman) alone is in bad company. Most of us need to belong to something outside of our limited life-world.

I'd like to hear from readers in other countries: is this tendency to organize an American phenomenon?

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