FROM NEWSWEEK | SEPTEMBER 15, 2002
American culture at the end of 2002 is adrift. As quickly as the New Economy rose, it fell, leaving America rudderless once again. In the 1970s, after the seeming failure of big government to improve people's lives, it took several years for the free-market ethos of the 1980s to assert itself. Now we are in a new vacuum, but we will soon discover a new Zeitgeist.
Already, there are hints of what that will be. Best-seller Jan Karon has sold more than 10 million copies of her novels, which weave a comforting picture of small-town life and religious values. The "Left Behind" novels of Tim LaHaye represent a darker take on similar themes, and have already sold more than 30 million copies. LaHaye chronicles an apocalyptic time in the near future when the Antichrist returns, the Rapture begins and a few pure souls struggle to survive Armageddon. In a related vein, Oprah Winfrey's book club favored novels of troubled family life and communities, and her protege Dr. Phil has developed his own following offering folk wisdom about how to stay married and raise children. Oprah no longer makes a monthly selection, but her success triggered a boom, and there are now an estimated 500,000 book clubs in the United States.
It may seem jarring to link these pop cult figures. Oprah and the Apocalypse? But in the 1970s, hippies and druggies wouldn't have been caught dead hanging out with computer geeks and engineers. By the 1980s, together they started the PC revolution. A decade from now, it will be clear that Oprah and LaHaye were both harbingers of the same Zeitgeist of community and belonging.
Look around. The giddy profits of the late 1990s helped fuel a boom in nonprofits. Today there are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations employing, by some estimates, 10 percent of the American work force. A few, like the National Football League, take tax advantage of the loose requirements for nonprofit status, but many are helping others for little or no reward. More and more young people and retirees are donating their time to work for a cause.
Amid the explosion of suburban insta-mansions, the Disney Corp. has been building communities in Florida that replicate the 1950s idyll of small-town America. One of these, named Celebration, looks like the set of the movie "The Truman Show." It had far more applicants than the 2,500 slots available, and though the town has since been divided by disputes, it inspired similar communities across the country, many of which are surrounded by electric fences and guarded by private security firms. By most accounts, at least 10 million people now live in gated communities, and the number is growing rapidly. The yearning for connectedness has its Ozzie-and-Harriet side, but it also has a get-off-my-porch-or-I'll-shoot side.
The workplace is evolving in similar ways. Managers organize special seminars to work on team-building, which end up sounding like an amalgam of Sunday sermons and New Age homilies. Closing your eyes and hoping that your co-workers will catch you when you fall is the workplace equivalent of hoping that God will do the same. Each year, hundreds of employees of the Xerox corporation participate in a "vision quest" in the California desert, hoping to bond by sharing a spiritual experience. Given its recent accounting issues, Xerox may not have gained all that much from this exercise, but that has not stopped other companies from sponsoring similar activities.
Then there are seemingly isolated phenomena--protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and Washington; an Earth Day Summit; a national day of prayer; people downshifting from high-paying jobs in stressful urban environments to home offices in the suburbs. Evanston, Illinois, plans to wire all 28,000 homes in town to encourage residents to shape communal life through an online network called the Evanston Electronic City. President George W. Bush lauds private charities; private charities emulate the efficiency of for-profit business, and companies embrace the ethos of community. And, of course, the legacy of 9-11, which has propelled Americans farther away from New Economy giddiness and toward the next phase.
But while tech utopianism may be dead, the information revolution is still making connections. If enough people read LaHaye, or Karon or Dr. Phil, and a cross section of these work for nonprofits, and a cross section of those live in gated communities, and a percentage of them join volunteer organizations to clean up the environment or to create new towns in Idaho, politicians, the media and corporate America will take note, and then, presto, you have a new ethos. It won't necessarily be a better world--note that LaHaye's bleak novels have outsold Karon's uplifting ones 3 to 1. The talk of community may prove to be cover for something darker; remember, those gated communities have walls and fences and armed guards. More likely, what lies ahead will offer a familiar small-town mix of the charming--and the dysfunctional.