Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America

Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America

by Nancy L. Rosenblum

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How our everyday interactions as neighbors shape—and sometimes undermine—democracy

"Love thy neighbor" is an impossible exhortation. Good neighbors greet us on the street and do small favors, but neighbors also startle us with sounds at night and unleash their demons on us, they monitor and reproach us, and betray us to authorities. The moral principles prescribed for friendship, civil society, and democratic public life apply imperfectly to life around home, where we interact day to day without the formal institutions, rules of conduct, and means of enforcement that guide us in other settings.

In Good Neighbors, Nancy Rosenblum explores how encounters among neighbors create a democracy of everyday life, which has been with us since the beginning of American history and is expressed in settler, immigrant, and suburban narratives and in novels, poetry, and popular culture. During disasters, like Hurricane Katrina, the democracy of everyday life is a resource for neighbors who improvise rescue and care. Degraded, this framework can give way to betrayal by neighbors, as faced by the Japanese Americans interned during World War II, or to terrible violence such as the lynching of African Americans. Under extreme conditions the barest act of neighborliness is a bulwark against total ethical breakdown. The elements of the democracy of everyday life—reciprocity, speaking out, and "live and let live"—comprise a democratic ideal not reducible to public principles of justice or civic virtue, but it is no less important. The democracy of everyday life, Rosenblum argues, is the deep substrate of democracy in America and can be its saving remnant.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691180762
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 05/22/2018
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Nancy L. Rosenblum is the Senator Joseph Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University. Her books include On the Side of the Angels and Membership and Morals (both Princeton).

Read an Excerpt

Good Neighbors

The Democracy of Everyday Life in America

By Nancy L. Rosenblum


Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8131-4


Who Is My Neighbor?


A greeting, a casual conversation, a request, or small act of spontaneous assistance are the start as we explore the terms and limits, the demands, costs, and rewards of encounters with neighbors. These initiate contact and normally elicit a response, however tentative or delayed. Once we address one another we have created an opening. We are no longer strangers having random encounters. In the jargon of sociology, words can act as a "relationship wedge":

Once an individual has extended to another enough consideration to hear him out for a moment, some kind of bond of mutual obligation is established ... once this new extended bond is granted, grudgingly or willingly, still further claims for social or material indulgence can be made.

We feel out our neighbor's potential for generosity or exploitation, and our own. We anticipate ongoing interactions — proximity guarantees it. Neighbors may be more or less familiar to us, but these are not chance encounters. We are in the background (or foreground) of one another's daily lives at home.

Who is my neighbor? The answer is more elusive and more interesting than first appears. The old English roots of the word ("neah" as in near and "gebur" as in dweller) and the medieval reference to farming strips of common land ("the man who tills the next piece of ground to mine") are historical reference points. But for us personally and individually, who counts as our neighbor is not automatic with proximity. Location is not enough. We don't assign the status neighbor to everyone residing in an officially designated neighborhood. We don't define our neighbors by police precincts, census tracts, school districts, mail carrier routes, or the historic and aesthetic contours of the place where we live. Nor is neighbor associated in our minds with sociologists' "spatial logic" and the social mechanisms that go by the name "neighborhood effects." For neighbor is a matter of both location and personal knowledge, of recognition. The people we identify as our neighbors are people we encounter regularly, even if the only acknowledgement is a nod or its opposite — a regular, rude display of disregard.

My neighborhood "is a known area of social space in which, to a greater or lesser degree, he or she knows himself or herself to be recognized. ... an area of public space in general ... in which little by little, a private, particularized space insinuates itself as a result of the practical, everyday use of this space."

We assign neighbors a spot on our personal map of the lay of the land around home. That doesn't extend to everyone living nearby, and the person residing closest to us may fall outside the domain of "actual contacts, connections, alliances." The designation is not inclusive, then. Neighbor applies to those close to home who emerge from the background to affect the quality of our lives. We elect the good neighbors with whom we have willing encounters, though bad neighbors, the worst, often elect us.

Sentimental representations of neighbor emphasize the sense of belonging to this place. The stock image is a small town with neighbors of long-standing. Harper Lee's Atticus Finch was

Maycomb County born and bred; he knew his people, they knew him ... The present generation of people who had lived side by side for years and years, were utterly predictable to one another: they took for granted attitudes, character shadings, even gestures, as having been repeated in each generation and refined by time.

That was rural Alabama in the 1930s. The longevity and familiarity built into the notion of neighbor are rare today. Within the limits of mobility and financial means, we resist randomness in electing where to live, still, the particular people next door fall to us without our choosing. Sorely or gratefully, we are aware of the accident of proximity. In Frost's poem, "Mending Wall," farmers must try to balance "the boulders that have fallen to each," and the phrase reminds us that who our neighbors are and the stuff of encounters is a matter of chance. There are exceptions of course, famous ones:

"It was a strange coincidence," I said.

"But it wasn't a coincidence at all."

"Why not?"

"Gatsby bought that house so that Daisy would be just across the bay."

In sum, "who is my neighbor?" emerges from personal interactions in the course of life around home, and a map of our lay of the land, were we to draw one, would reflect this vantage point. We can conjure up this home-centric perspective by thinking about the territory we inhabited as children. Scout, the nine-year-old narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird, can trace her boundaries: "Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose's house two doors to the north of us, and the Radley Place three doors to the south." Place matters, the physical location of home vis-à-vis neighbors, its distance or closeness.

Commonplace references to globalization, the valorization of cosmopolitanism, universal moral norms that often seem to float high off the surface of everyday relations, media that bring us images and voices from across the world, tempt us to understate the significance of place. We become accustomed to "neighbor" as a sort of shorthand for "humanity" when speaking about events that affect everyone. Specific effects of climate change are experienced locally, for example, but we know that the forces disturbing our habitat are everywhere and have global consequences. We are metaphorical neighbors in crisis. Science and culture and morality invite us to diminish the significance of home as a personal place and our actual, unmetaphorical neighbors.

Then there are virtual neighbors. "What about them?" I'm asked. The seemingly infinite universe of online sites is unbound by earthly geography, yet networking sites propose to deliver what the term "site" implies, a physical space in which to enact virtual life — intergalactic wars, medieval fantasy games, and neighborhoods. In Second Life, for example, where "living, not winning" is the object of the game, "you can live anywhere." Players are invited to "Get Settled," to build and furnish a dream house, and to "meet the neighbors." Scholars of Internet connectivity observe that simulated relations may be compensatory for the lack of relations in real life. For Molly, fifty-eight, a retired librarian who lives alone, her urban neighborhood "is not the kind of place people know each other. ... I don't even recognize the people in the Shaw's [a local supermarket chain] ... Online I have found some good people." We speak of online neighbors only by analogy, of course. Importantly, the flaws in the analogy are also the source of the gratifications of virtual neighbors. Distance does not exist online, and portable devices allow us to carry our good neighbors with us. Online neighbors do not impose the demands of face-to-face relationships or the sheer intrusiveness of physical presence. With online connectivity we are in control. We can "move away," and we can log off. We don't have to learn to live and let live, we can just shut down. We can also change who we are. The "good people" Molly meets online are not themselves, and they too know only her avatar: the flattened profile we "create, edit, and perform." This is not to say that even though they can't help carry the groceries virtual neighbors are nothing. They may be "really something." Just not neighbors.

It is tempting, then, to diminish the significance of place. But the "death of distance" needs rebutting. A pair of facts — physical proximity and proximity to home — has a bearing on all our interactions and makes encounters among neighbors a different animal than social interactions in other settings, and certainly different than relations among friends or citizens. Proximity to home shapes the terms of reciprocity; it shapes the matters on which we give and take offense; it shapes our responsibility towards neighbors; it shapes, clearly, the delicate business of minding our own versus others' business; it gives meaning to the walls we erect and the reasons we give ourselves for building them.

Uncertain Encounters

Easy or uneasy, neighbor relations require attention. The reasons are familiar, but an initial inventory bears setting out. For one thing, our encounters are open-ended. The stuff of give and take is virtually boundless. The commitments we find our neighbors have come to expect of us develop imperceptibly, and are liable to give rise to misunderstanding. We may unwittingly appear to be receptive to demands that in fact we find excessive, raising false expectations and appearing unreliable. Or we unwittingly signal that we are unavailable. We misjudge what counts as a fitting give and take. We find ourselves put upon or put out. Our own and our neighbor's estimates of the terms of give and take may be incongruent, jarring. With the best goodwill, we cannot always discern what our neighbor wants or assumes as her due. And we have only very dim notions of how to repair relations gone amok. Adam Smith's "thousand exceptions" to the loose rules that governed eighteenth-century personal exchange is a low count. We are aware that "the difference between his character and yours, between his circumstances and yours" sets the stage for uncertain, uneven "social exchanges." The whole model of exchange has limited purchase, in fact.

The character of give and take may be lost on us if we think exclusively in terms of concrete exchange or of give and take as a tactic for managing encounters. Harper Lee makes this point about acts of kindness in To Kill a Mockingbird. Throughout her childhood, the nine-year-old narrator Scout was afraid of her reclusive next-door neighbor, Boo Radley. She and her brother thought of him as a malevolent phantom who dined on raw squirrels. Over time, she discovers that Boo was the secret giver who left gifts for them in the hollow of a tree: two pieces of chewing gum without their wrappers, a small box with bits of tinfoil collected from the gum wrappers, two polished Indian-head pennies, a ball of gray twine, images of Scout and her brother carved in soap, and a watch that wouldn't run on a chain with an aluminum knife. At the end of the novel Boo Radley emerges from seclusion to save her life. Scout sums up the measure of their relation as she understands it:

Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it; we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.

Harper Lee assigns the mistake of literalness — of thinking she had failed because she had not returned "little things" — to a child. It is immature reckoning. Scout had given her neighbor something; his gifts were a return for hers. Observing the children's' activities from behind drawn shades, Boo's limited, lonely world as a recluse was lit up and made interesting. Scout's father had instructed the children to mind their own business and let the Radleys mind theirs, but their curiosity was strong and their ceaseless attempts to mind Boo's business (was he alive in there? was he dangerous? could they lure him out?) was thrilling. They dared one another to run up to his porch; they left a note dangling from a fishing pole that said, "we wouldn't hurt him and we'd buy him an ice cream." Scout's regular presence was the good turn she performed for the withdrawn man. It is the irreplaceable value of neighbors, as I hope to show.

The inventory of reasons for uncertainty continues beyond the open-endedness and indeterminacy of give and take. Plainly, expectations for conduct and equally important demeanor are shaped in part by the social setting and practices of the place, which we may not fully grasp. Performance is context and act specific, linked to history, demography, and economy. Give and take is situational, calibrated to local knowledge. People "have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable and that we need not come to open war," Thoreau wrote. The local etiquette may elude us. Besides, we have latitude to decide whether or not to conform to "what anyone would do, here."

Finally, there is the question what do we want or need? Discerning what our neighbors expect of us is hard; discerning our own desires may be hard as well. The actions and gestures we welcome, the attentions we tolerate more or less graciously, the offers we rebuff and encounters we avoid are in large part a matter of personal disposition. It is up to us whether and in what register we invite, return, refuse, stint, delay, or just stand back and mind our own business. A morning greeting — acknowledgment that we are somebody and that this is not a chance sighting — is typically taken for granted and returned. But even superficial interactions can throw us off. We suffer the infliction of conversation about the weather riding the elevator in our apartment building, and we suffer the neighbors who do not know when our conversation has terminated. Temperament or just transient moods have freer reign in private life around home than in most settings. We are more apt to display the rough edges of personality in the front yard or hallway than at work. Often enough, neighbors are less the reason than the occasion for enmity, and for exhibiting ordinary vices.

Underlying all the things that provoke us to think about what we want and need is something deeper. Neighbor relations are shaped by emotions often operating just out of conscious range. Unexplored feelings drive our behavior. They do in all our relations, true, but neighbors are uniquely lacking in constraining rules, organizational structures. So we make on-the-spot judgments, barely noticing that we do, not knowing why we do. We are heedless. Neighbors who are deliberately withdrawn, for example, can't anticipate the moment when they will welcome an overture. We don't imagine that we will be startled into awareness of the intrinsic value of neighbors: how just their presence and availability transforms the day. We surprise ourselves. If we approach the subject reflectively, we are driven to contemplate whether minding my neighbor's business might have value? And whether minding hers illuminates or diverts me from my own? Whether neighbors are obstacle, provocation, or resource? We consider more imaginatively and truly what we give and get, or could. In Part II, "The Democracy of Everyday Life," I look in detail at the actual stuff of give and take — of what we want from neighbors, at the phenomenology of these encounters, and at the shape the regulative ideal of the democracy of everyday life gives to experience. For now, I want to consider more contemplatively what we give and get, or could.

Balancing Loaves and Balls

We have a guide: the "unpoetic neighbor" has inspired poetry. "Mending Wall" is Robert Frost's rumination on neighbors. The encounter he paints is mundane, and the poet's voice is colloquial, mature, dispassionate. This voice guides us past common sense, however, and introduces us to the delicacy inherent in the most practical interactions. It reveals the surprising turns minding our own business and minding our neighbors' take. The poet invokes, too, the moment we receive a rare, "unlooked for favor."

Frost's apple farmer and his neighbor agree to meet to mend the stone wall between their fields:

And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"

The loaves and balls that have fallen to each don't balance easily, and "Mending Wall" considers the things that make equilibrium unsteady. A certain ambiguity characterizes reciprocity among neighbors — these are not formal debts or claims. The loaves and balls are not equivalent. Frost's apple farmer is alert to this: "We have to use a spell to make them balance."

The poet understands "the boulders that have fallen to each" to be their separate, divergent interests. Will the apple farmer mind his own business, which, we learn, is interrogating this business of mending wall, wondering whether it is necessary and how it can be made valuable? Or, will he turn his whole attention to his neighbor's business, which is mute physical repair? The apple farmer follows Thoreau's advice: "Perhaps it is the most generous course to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise" and he invites his neighbor to join him in puzzling through the meaning of walling in and walling out. Lightly, uninsistently, he raises doubt about whether there is any sense in repairing their wall:

There is where it is, we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.


Excerpted from Good Neighbors by Nancy L. Rosenblum. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Good Neighbor Nation 1

Part I. The Lay of the Land 21

1. Who Is My Neighbor? 23

2. Narrative Threads: Settlers, Immigrants, and Suburban “Grotesques” 44

Part II. The Democracy of Everyday Life 69

3. Reciprocity among “Decent Folk” 71

4. Taking Offense, Speaking Out 91

5. What Anyone Would Do, Here 108

6. Live and Let Live 131

Part III. Holding Our Lives in Their Hands 151

7. Betrayal 153

8. Killing 174

9. Disasters 200

Part IV. Minding Our Own Business 217

10. Thoreau’s Neighbors 219

Conclusion: Political Theory and the Democracy of Everyday Life in America 234

Acknowledgments 249

Notes 251

Index 293

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Nancy Rosenblum is singular among philosophers in using her formidable analytical gifts to help us understand the gritty, personal questions we ordinary humans face every day—and she thereby respects what is extraordinary in all of us. Good Neighbors and its elevation of ‘the democracy of everyday life' is a balm and a tonic but also a challenge at a moment when our politics is the antithesis of neighborliness."—E. J. Dionne Jr., author of Why the Right Went Wrong and Our Divided Political Heart

"The people next door have never been a subject for political theory. But in Good Neighbors, Nancy Rosenblum has written a very smart and wonderfully engrossing book about the importance of neighborliness in American life. From now on, neighbors will stand with citizens in our understanding of the politics of the everyday and of the human response to crisis."—Michael Walzer, Institute for Advanced Study

"In her brilliant new book, Rosenblum shows that democratic participation demands of both citizen and neighbor a precarious double act. Her innovative inquiry into neighborliness derives from her humanistic interest in literature and other narrative forms for the interpretation of everyday experience. This book has remarkable and lasting salience for humanists and social scientists alike."—Homi K. Bhaba, Harvard University

"Good Neighbors is an acutely observed and deeply felt meditation on a phenomenon so familiar as to be nearly invisible most of the time. Guided by lived experience rather than top-down theoretical categories, Rosenblum resists reducing good neighbors to good citizens or friends. She shows instead that neighborliness is a distinct sphere of social life and fundamental for liberal democracy."—William A. Galston, Brookings Institution

"Good Neighbors explores conditions of decency and its opposite, boundaries of membership, and crucial elements of order and disorder in ways that surprise, inform, and enlighten. In so doing, this fascinating, beautifully realized consideration of neighborliness offers a fresh vantage from which to consider key strengths and vulnerabilities in American democratic life."—Ira Katznelson, author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time

"Good Neighbors makes a breakthrough contribution to both political theory and moral philosophy. Nancy Rosenblum rightly claims that moral philosophical work on the question of what it means to be a good neighbor is largely absent, and with her book she fills this space. Her writing is graceful and her imaginative power is wonderful to behold."—Danielle Allen, author of Our Declaration

"In Good Neighbors, Rosenblum illuminates the world of neighborly interactions and articulates the duties, interests, habits, rights, and principles that arise in this world. She describes the dilemmas that come up for neighbors, and does not shirk from showing how neighbors can become wolves to one another. The result is a wonderful book that avoids sentimentality. Rosenblum has a distinctive voice: wise and subtle and full of quick insights."—Bryan Garsten, Yale University

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