Commentary

Remaking our social infrastructure

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Our crumbling physical infrastructure elicits frustration and complaint. Vivid descriptions of dangerous potholes, increased traffic on unsafe roads, inadequate housing, lack of public transportation, and decaying bridges pop up in the media and in our discussions. We demand repairs of those bits of the physical infrastructure that disrupt me and mine.

Our social infrastructure is just as essential, complex and interwoven as the physical infrastructure or the network of electrical impulses in our bodies. The network of relationships has become frayed in the past few years like crumbling bridges. Contemporary me-first individualism intensified by social distancing during COVID-19 threaten to eat away at institutions that hold our community together and enable effective responses to challenges and opportunities. Social infrastructure involves hundreds of institutions and organizations, including schools, fire departments, hospitals, public health offices and medical facilities, city and county governments, social clubs, churches and other religious organizations. The court system silently stands on the sidelines. All are under great stress, like tin men jerking, creaking and clanging without lubricants. These and other mediating institutions facilitate social cohesion essential for constructive community action and defuse rising tensions before dangerous conflicts arise. When those fail and conflict looms, our court system stands ready for final mediation and adjudication of conflict to avoid violence and various forms of gang rule.

Maintaining mediating institutions at all levels depends on social capital made up of skilled, trusted and dedicated professionals and volunteer leaders who serve Montgomery County well. Lack of trust initiates a vicious cycle of ineffectiveness and weakness in community cohesion and action. Ten ineffectiveness of leaders and institutions increases suspicion and distrust that reduces effectiveness even more. If trust and the social bridges that keep our community safe and productive crumble, rebuilding our physical infrastructure becomes impossible. The dark cloud hovering over all this is a breakdown of our moral infrastructure. That issue is beyond the scope of this column and would involve “stop preachin’ and start meddlin’” as the old saying goes.

At some point, sooner rather than later, we must start remaking our social infrastructure in order to preserve our democracy and secure better futures for our children. A strong social infrastructure requires a firm foundation built from the ground up, and it is best to start among our neighbors in Montgomery County.

These are important steps to a better future: Each of us could strive to become more trustworthy. Then we might trust our leaders and neighbors enough to support them until they prove unreliable and then to correct them face-to-face when necessary. We can participate in and support the intricate network of friendships, neighborhood groups, civic clubs, social service and welfare agencies, churches and other religious organizations. That complex network keeps us united so we can engage in effective activities for the common good. That might increase trust and strengthen our moral infrastructure.

Many of us remember Richard Ristine as neighbor, descendent from founders of Crawfordsville, local lawyer, Lt. Governor of Indiana, honors graduate and trustee of Wabash College and member of Wabash Avenue Presbyterian Church. He gave the commencement speech at his Wabash graduation ceremony in 1941. He said, “Now, I am not speaking for every member of this class, but I believe we are all willing to die for democracy — and some of us will. That’s all. No hysterics, no mob psychology, no insane hates, no fanatic devotions — just a simple measure of values.” The question we face is whether we are willing to roll up our sleeves to remake our social infrastructure: no hysterics, no mob psychology, no insane hates, no fanatic devotions, just a simple measure of values. A focus on values might initiate repairs of cracks in our moral infrastructure.

 

Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.

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