Community

The word “community” goes back to the Greeks, who used it to mean a circle of people who shared common interests, memories, sexual preferences, and beliefs. –Koinonia

We can’t do better than that definition.

Communities were not just groups but occasions for drinking, story-telling, arguing, remembering.

Religion fell to the use of the term by default. Stories about Jesus and even the Eucharistic banquet were memorial occasions, originally informal and probably even competitive, judging from Paul’s warnings about the gluttony, libertinism and selfishness of the Corinthians.

–Then formalized and a little dull, as the stories get written down and a lid is clamped on what the “official” stories are. How dull canon is, or as the immortal Emily might say, “How public like a frog.”

Perhaps nothing is more fatal to community (in the Mediterranean and Near Eastern style anyway) than literacy. Except for the drinking, the words of the Prophet of Islam were remembered in similar ways–by fires and moonlight, and even the teachings of the Buddha and the aphorisms of the (almost certainly) fictional Arjuna. Let literacy come along, you get books, bishops, mullahs, dogma, the trinity, jihad. Ah! For the food and the wine and the arguing.

In my imagination, Muhammad received his first revelations after a moonlit night of Arabian debauchery, and Jesus, at the last supper, told the apostles he was going out to pray for a while before his arrest, sent them away, went into a room with Mary Magdalene, and, well…you know. Prove me wrong. Because the cover-up story in Luke 22.39-46 looks pretty suspicious, I can tell you.

Communities are designed to make people feel a part of something. They are not sure-fire safeguards against conflict, dissent, and outright mutiny.

Being a part of any family includes that risk. Catholics and Jews aren’t immune to community friction. I am guessing that even Quakers feel it from time to time, as they wait in absorbed indecision to feel the spirit move among them. But feeling a part of something—a family, a church, a revolutionary movement, a political party, a linguistic or racial minority—is another way of acknowledging that it is very hard to feel part of everything.

I am skeptical that there is any such thing as a global community, no matter how many times I listen to Lionel Ritchie, Tina Turner, Dionne Warwick, et al. sing “We are the World.” Truth to tell they’re just a fraction of it, a peace-and-justice-loving-singing community.

I worry that people think virtual communities are the same as real communities, that chat rooms are as good as a drunken Athenian symposium. I worry that virtual classrooms are seen as being at least as good as real classrooms—maybe better–and that “real” classrooms are becoming virtual—“smart.” Don’t get me wrong: I love images. I love PowerPoint. I just don’t want to become one. I like to know that a student disagrees with me, nods because I have said something interesting, frowns when I say something idiotic or unfunny or that the price tag is still on my coat sleeve. True story. A classroom community is a real thing.

I find it sad that my daughters can spend eighteen hours a day—ok, twelve–messaging friends, checking inboxes to see who loves them, racing from the dinner table when a ding tells them a new message has arrived, pouring over images to tailor their appearance to how a thousand unknown onlookers (some of them creeps) will see them on Facebook and MySpace.

Isn’t the very phrase MySpace coded to mean the opposite of community, as in Get out of…? And doesn’t the conglomerate term Face-book tell you that what you are getting instead of a relationship is fraud and chit and poseurie rather than anything you can possibly remember the next day or take to the bank? You can’t have a baby or a hangover in a virtual community. Or maybe you can, but both will be painless, because the defining thing about a virtual community is lack of feeling.

But the desperadoes, both Millennials and Submillennials, worry me for another reason.

They worry me because in leaving the dinner table they are leaving behind the traditional location where community happened. Symbolically, they are anti-eucharistic, anti-narrative, anti-memory. Anti-old. There, I said it. A community of Now cannot be a community of When.

In days of yore, when community meant human voices raised in song in churches and pubs (not that different, actually), when there were bards and story-tellers and corner-table philosophers and prophets and flirtatious women (blackguards and wenches) and scuffles, the possibility of opting out of your context was slim. Community was local, not global.

There were people you could hate, even ne’er do-wells you might want to murder. Now all fights happen in the Matrix. Virtual violence is the only show in town. New York, a community of communities, is one of the safest cities in the universe. Something is wrong: does this mean that if we had had handsets and Wii (“a seventh generation console”) in 1968 nothing would have exploded, neither Bedford Stuyvesant nor Bobby Kennedy’s head?

Communities have always been composed of people, people who are just like you. They look a little like you, sing the same songs, sleep with similar people, like the same food, share the same prejudices, usually vote the same way.

But these real communiteers are not people you could just “de-friend.” The proof of the collapse of community is the fact that getting rid of someone who isn’t worth your attention is now as easy as compiling them as friends in the first place: they cease to exist when they suffer the humiliation of being made ritually inaccessible on a virtual page. In that kind of community, in MySpace I have all the power, and I can use it how I want. Imagine a Jew cutting off Israel, a Catholic Holy Mother Church. My Bad? Eat shit motherfucker and die. I don’t Need You. I kissed a girl. You burnt. Sexually I mean, Yo Mama is so fat. Ex setera.

I have a theory. It’s a sensory theory of community. It’s all about smell. The difference between real and fake community is that you can smell as well as see a real community.

Remember those high school dates? Wow. You wore English Leather, she wore Chanel 22. You knew sex was at hand when in equal measure the scents began to yield to other smells, then blend into something the manufacturers could only have guessed at. Sorry to be vulgar, but it’s true.

Your father wore real Old Spice (as opposed to “Original,” WTF!) and your mother a trace of “Midnight in Paris,” (well, mine did, but she was unusual, which is why she was always home late from choir practice). Ever notice how scents are now described by kinetic genre or velocity: “Old Spice High Endurance” or “Fusion” or “Pro-Clean,” as though what you want to avoid at any cost is the human stain?

Deodorant is a prophylactic. It neutralizes you in the same way being defriended excommunicates you. To be a part of a real community means you conform. To be a part of a virtual community puts you in charge. It is a rush, isn’t it? Let’s not even talk about Viagra.

In the twentieth century, people were still motivated by the ethnic, religious, linguistic, and gendered definitions of community—by the difference between insiders and outsiders. America, with its melting- pot configurations, was divided between sectors who thought that breaking down barriers was cool and those who felt that barriers were fortifications to keep people apart—black-white, protestant-Catholic, rich-poor, gay-straight. No one stopped to think what might happen when the walls were toppled. Does anyone know yet?

America’s mixed-success melting pot was Europe’s postcolonial implosion. All of a sudden it was not unusual for a Jamaican or a Pakistani to say “I am an Englishman.” Quietly, of course, there was disagreement. Scene: Melbourne 1988. Two cops in front of me are watching a drunken Asian leaving a club with his “Australian” girlfriend. “Fuckin’ wog,” one says to the other. “Roight,” says the other. The same two, at a pub on Saturday, know Americans as “Fuckin’ septics.” That’s community my dears.

I wonder why (sometimes) no one noticed that for a black man to say “I am an American”—a country without a racial, linguistic, or religious pedigree—was rather different from saying “I am an Englishman.” The answer is that America had been a hodgepodge of communities for a very long time–England, a hodgepodge of dialects with social consequences and insignificant racial variation before 1950. It’s so easy to be a community when there are no…Others.

In general, I agree with Frost, the poet, not the toff journalist: walls are a tribute to our inability to understand each other. Viz., Gaza, Berlin, Jericho, the US border with Mexico.

But really, walls are built when community fails and sad alliances take their place. That’s why the Jews need to fence in Gaza, why “America” needs to fence out Mexico. In the future, there will only be smart communities and dumb communities.

History is proving that. Who hates Barack Obama the most? Whites? America? The Chinese? No: Stupid people the world over. Because he defies our “sense” of community by belonging to too many of them.

Oh, community! The part of me that prefers the days of wine, women and song (and religion and pubs) is strong. The part that despises virtual community is fiery. The part that detests walls is steadfast and sure. Where do we go from here?