Myths That Move Us (and That Bus)

January 3, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Supportive Community is one of America’s most cherished myths.  By “myth,” I don’t mean that Community is some Gorgon or unicorn, a beast with no existence in reality.  Observers of the US going back to de Tocqueville have been impressed by our community spirit.
Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations . . . . The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.  (DIA, II, 5)

The supportive community  is a myth in the sense that it represents an ideal – it is a story that we love to tell ourselves about ourselves.  When the story is true, so much the better.

Last week, David Brooks devoted his column  to such a story. A woman from a small town in Louisiana was diagnosed with cancer, and “the entire town rallied around her,” with fund-raising cookouts and concerts to pay for her medical care.  It’s all very touching and genuine, and Brooks uses it as an appeal to “communitarian conservatism.”

A much better known version of the myth is the television show “Extreme Makeover Home Edition.”  Each week brings us a needy but deserving family, usually in a suburb or small town, almost never a city.  Often, the family has been stricken by death, disease, or disability, but not despair.  Always their house, despite their best efforts, is a shambles.  The TV team comes in, sends the family on vacation (usually to Disney World – it’s an ABC show), and begins work on the centerpiece of its largesse, a new home. 

It’s the modern counterpart of the 1950s “Queen For a Day,” but with two important differences.  First, the sad story is always a family, not an individual. And second, the story always involves the community. Neighbors, co-workers, and others tell the camera what wonderful people the family are and how much they’ve given to the community. During the construction of the new house hundreds of people – a sort of town team wearing identical t-shirts and hard hats – turn up to help.

The show’s signature moment comes when the family is brought back from vacation.  With the hundreds of neighbors (we assume that they are neighbors and not ringers brought in by ABC) in their matching t-shirts and hard hats, the family stands opposite the new house, but their view is blocked by a large bus. “Move that bus! Move that bus!” everyone chants. 

The bus moves, the family runs to the house and goes through it room by room gasping “Oh my God.”

The stories David Brooks and ABC tell are heart-warming indeed. They show us at our best. They are our myth. But there are other stories.

On Sunday, “This American Life” reran a story about a woman who believed the myth.  She has lived in the same town, on the same block, for forty years, but she is approaching seventy, and she turned to the community seeking people who would help in caring for her autistic son, now 39, after she has died or become unable to look out for him. The short answer is that nobody volunteered. But take two minutes and listen to the entire excerpt, especially if you’re not familiar with  “Extreme Makeover Home Edition.”

The point is that myth is not a substitute for policy.  Not everybody who gets cancer is beloved by others in their town.*  Not every needy family, not even every virtuous and deserving needy family, is beloved by ABC  – and besides, the show has been cancelled.   These stories are one-offs, and we do ourselves a disservice to think that the myth represents workable solutions to our large-scale problems – problems like the millions of people without health care or affordable housing or jobs.**


* To quote my own tweet, only in America do we need fund-raisers for people who become ill. I recall one “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” family which  had been impoverished by medical costs and needed treatment they could no longer afford.  Both parents were employed as public school teachers.  In no other wealthy country would these people not be able to afford health care.

** Wrong thinking is a frequent theme on “This American Life.” (See this earlier SocioBlog post for another example.) A few years ago, NPR began a series called “This I Believe,” short essays by hundreds of different people stating their “core values.”  (The archive now has over 100,000 such essays.)   That prompted “This American Life” to run an episode called “This I Used to Believe.”
Here's host Ira Glass in an interview.
But the fact is, a lot of great stories hinge on people being wrong. In fact, we've talked as a staff about how the crypto-theme of every one of our shows is: “I thought it would work out this way, but then it worked out that way.”


Anonymous said...

I would point out that there is a slight difference between volunteering for a weekend to help a neighbor and a responsibility over another human being that is expected to last 30 years!!!

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks for the comment Anon, and of course you are right. But that’s the point that I was trying to make, though in a very indirect way. It was an unstated argument against the usually unstated corollary to the supportive community myth. That corollary is: we don’t need government for these things. That may be true for needs where a single dramatic gesture takes care of the problem. But problems that are broader than the individual case or longer in duration can deplete the communitarian spirit and resources long before the problem is resolved or allayed.

Bob S. said...


I noticed you say very little about the woman who needed help.

Have you noticed something about the majority of the people who do get support?

They are active in their community, they support others, they give of themselves.

Now, no offense to the lady with the autistic son but her quote was "I figured the story was good enough".

Wow...imagine that. She had to knock on doors, post flyers -- because why?

Isn't because she wasn't a part of the community?

That she excluded herself and her son from the community?

Community works both ways, something you seem to have forgotten

Josh Mc said...

Jay: Aren't you just replacing it with the myth that we suddenly all become communitarians once we step in the voting booth (and in turn, that politicians faith act as our communitarian agents)? That is, of course, the unstate argument of those who advocate that "there ought to be a law."

Jay Livingston said...

Josh, I’m not sure what you mean. Having the government deal with large-scale problems may have more of an impact on those problems than does private charity and small-town effort. But I don’t think it’s anything we glory in or tell ourselves stories about or turn into Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers or David Brooks columns.

Voting for a government to deal with these problems doesn’t make us communitarians. Just the opposite. It removes us from involvement with the needy, the ill, the aged, et. al. And I think we realize that we’re turning the problem over to bureaucrats, not to communitarians.

It’s more rewarding personally, socially, and morally when we individually make the decision as to who is deserving of our charity (as Bob S suggests) and then personally see the individual recipient of our largesse, healthy and happy and of course grateful to us, just like on “Extreme Makeover Home Edition.” The trouble is that this sort of arrangement doesn’t scale up so well. Neither does the myth. Which is why you’re not going to see heart-warming TV shows about Medicare administrators, doctors, or patients.

Jay Livingston said...

P.S. I was sorry to see you close down your blog. I'm flattered that you still read mine.

Bob S. said...


I think you missed the point I was trying to make.

The lady who complained no one wanted responsibility for her autistic son wasn't a part of the community.

Community -
: a unified body of individuals: as a : state, commonwealth b : the people with common interests living in a particular area; broadly : the area itself
c : an interacting population of various kinds of individuals (as species) in a common location
d : a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society < a community of retired persons>
e : a group linked by a common policy
f : a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests
g : a body of persons of common and especially professional interests scattered through a larger society

Which one of the definitions does she fit?

She may live in the same town but does she have common interests with the people of her town?
The fact that she had to knock on doors and post flyers indicates she didn't.
Given the requirements to care for an autistic son, I wonder how much time she spent dealing with others.

Probably not much.

When does a "communtarian" get involved with some one?

When that person is part of the whole....this lady seems to be by her actions NOT part of the community.

Yet she wants the benefits of the community now, doesn't she?

Isn't there a responsibility to go along with the rights of being in a community?

Did the woman fulfill that or is she typical of many people of the entitlement mentality -- "I need help, you have to help me".

PCM said...

I find it ironic that the same folks who talk about "community" among "real Americans" and imply it can be a substitute for good government tend to mock "community organizers" who try and develop said community among the needy.

Perhaps it's something like: mechanical solidarity good; organic solidarity bad?

Bob S. said...


Perhaps the "community organizers" are mocked because they serve only one small aspect of the community, eh?

Usually segmented by race and usually consisting of trying to organize ways for other people to help their community.

Famous community organizers: Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Barack Obama, Saul Alinsky.

Enuf' said.

Jay Livingston said...

I don’t think it’s a mechanical/organic thing. It’s political. Community organizers try to create community for internal, mutual-aid functions. But they also organize for political power. As Lasswell said, politics is about who gets what, and if others are getting and you aren’t, you have to get political. Increased political power also helps with the intra-community stuff. So my guess is that the resentment (it goes beyond mocking) of community organizers is that they want to change the political status quo. So you can see why those who are doing quite well thank you would prefer things not to change.

That’s how Alinsky started out, as I recall (and I’m too lazy to look this up on the Internet). Back of the Yards was a mostly (if not entirely) white neighborhood, what we now call white ethnics (predominantly Czech, Polish, and other Slavic ethnicities, I think). Alinsky showed them how their neighborhood was getting screwed by the city and the meatpacking companies and that if they wanted changes that would improve their health and safety and the quality of life in their neighborhood, they had to become an effective political force. And they did.

Of course, having a “those people” singing “Let’s get political, political, I wanna get political . . . .” was not and is not a welcome sound for those who are happy with the status quo.