The Democracy of Everyday Life
Nancy Rosenblum studies neighbors and the power of proximity.
It started with a bully. “The noise bully,” Nancy Rosenblum calls him, a man who lived in her Cambridge loft building years ago and tormented the family next door with a rooftop air conditioner whose roar and vibrations shook their apartment day and night. They couldn’t sleep. They tried earplugs and insulation; they tried moving their bed to the back of the room. Finally they tried selling their place. They received no offers.
Meanwhile, the noise bully refused to move the air conditioner, even after Rosenblum and other neighbors confronted him on behalf of the sleepless family, even after they got together and offered to help pay for the cost of relocating the AC unit to a quieter spot on the roof. Instead he hired engineers to certify that the sound and vibration were within legal limits and posted the paperwork in the hallway. “This was malice,” Rosenblum says. “It was an act of deliberate cruelty.” In part, he liked the attention. “Some people will accept even negative attention.” But, she believes, he was also enjoying the power of proximity: “There’s a saying that goes, ‘No man can live longer in peace than his Neighbour pleases.’”
Eventually the bully moved away, and things more or less resolved. But the episode stayed with Rosenblum ’69, Ph.D. ’73, who until her retirement this past May was the Clark professor of ethics in politics and government. She kept thinking about the particular social sphere that neighbors inhabit, distinct from family or friends or citizenship at large, a separate moral identity with its own ethos and structure and set of norms. Neighbors’ daily encounters—their feuds and friendly nods, barking dogs and blaring televisions, unkempt yards and usurped parking spots, tools borrowed and returned, plants watered in one another’s absence, silences kept or broken—make up what Rosenblum has come to describe as “the democracy of everyday life.”
That idea anchors her book Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America, released this past May. In it, Rosenblum lays out her theory of neighborliness: “both a supplement and corrective,” she says, to American democracy’s more formal frameworks and institutions. The concept of “good neighbor” (and its opposite) goes back as far as the country itself. Writing A Model of Christian Charity on board the Arbella in 1630, before he reached what would become the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop insisted on the foundational significance of “love thy neighbor”: “Upon this ground stands all the precepts of the moral law.” In her introduction to Good Neighbors, Rosenblum extends Winthrop’s argument. “The democracy of everyday life rises from the ground of day-to-day reciprocity and neighbors’ responses to ordinary kindnesses and ordinary vices,” she writes. “We give and take favors and offense; we assist, speak out, monitor, scold and rebuke, and rally others to enforce ‘what anyone would do, here’; we live and let live.”
Good Neighbors is a curiously gripping book, with its amalgam of political philosophy, moral psychology, and stories drawn from literature, journalism, and Rosenblum’s own life. In its pages, she roams a wide terrain. There are the sleepy (or sinister) suburbs and troubled urban neighborhoods where danger and distrust make it harder—and all the more important—to “live and let live,” a practice that in Rosenblum’s formulation is not a shrug of indifference but a deliberate way of letting neighbors know that you mean them no harm. She digs through oral histories of Japanese internment camps and early twentieth-century lynchings, atrocities in which the social framework broke down and neighbors betrayed and murdered one other. She explores the rescue that neighbors offered in the rising floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina.
Photograph by Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Rosenblum also spends time with fictional neighbors: Willa Cather’s frontier settlers, Robert Frost’s mending-wall repairers, the Polish immigrants jostling together in Saul Bellow’s Chicago, the suburbanites in John Cheever’s and Raymond Carver’s short stories. She devotes a whole chapter to Henry David Thoreau and the neighbors around Walden Pond to whom he gave such attentive and sustained observation. “Literature gives you what anthropologists get when they do field research,” Rosenblum says. “If you want a good description of the phenomenology, the felt experience, of neighbors in different contexts, and over different times—where else are you going to get it?” The stories and novels and poems don’t merely illustrate her ideas, she adds—they influenced them. She couldn’t have written the book otherwise. “The phenomenon of neighbor relations so infuses American literature that our greatest writers and thinkers have written about neighbors.” And small wonder: “Neighbors are not just people living nearby,” she writes. “Neighbors are our environment. They are the background to our private lives at home.”
A Fence and a Neighbor
Home. That word expresses perhaps the most deeply felt theme in Good Neighbors. The idea of home is not explicitly a part of the book’s core philosophical argument, but it suffuses every page, a shadowy undercurrent, a beating heart. Home is the place with “no exit,” Rosenblum tells us, whose refuge is precious and fragile, where people—neighbors—are at their most vulnerable. In political theory, home is an “underappreciated moral and psychological phenomenon,” she says. “We can’t overestimate what it means to have a home, even if it’s a shack under a bridge. A place that’s yours, that you can control, that you can close the door on, that you can keep people out of. And that you can let people into.”
Four years ago, Rosenblum moved to New York City. On a one-year fellowship at New York University, she rented a little apartment right off Washington Square Park, at Macdougal and Bleecker streets—the heart of Greenwich Village and a place with, among other things, a whole new cast of neighbors. She loved it. “The youth I never had,” she says. After that, she never really left. When she returned to teaching at Harvard the following year, she commuted back and forth by train.
Most of Rosenblum’s youth was spent in Cambridge, where she arrived as freshman at Radcliffe in 1965. The rest was in suburban Teaneck, New Jersey, in a neighborhood of schoolteachers and social workers. “I used to say that ours was a mixed neighborhood—Orthodox and Reform Jews,” she deadpans. Rosenblum’s parents were divorced; her father was an economist, her mother a social worker, and her stepfather taught math at a junior high school in the Bronx. As the oldest of seven, Rosenblum helped raise her brothers and sisters; she was 13 when the youngest was born. “Our most remarkable neighbors lived across the street,” she recalls. “It was one of those developments where the houses are all alike, and these two identical twin brothers had married identical twin sisters, and they lived right next door to each other in identical houses.”
Then at 17 she came to Radcliffe, and in the five decades since, Cambridge became an anchor, emotionally, intellectually, and geographically, even as her home life moved beyond its borders. “Almost every physical bit of this campus—the Law School, the Yard, the river Houses—are part of my life,” she says, sitting in her office on Cambridge Street one April afternoon, midway through the last semester of her teaching career. “I mean, I had my first love affair in Winthrop House. It’s odd, this kind of personal archaeology as you walk through the campus.” The decades have deposited new layers of remembrance: faculty seminars and meetings with the dean and other business of grown-up academic life. “But still,” she says. “It’s there. And every once in a while, an emotion comes over me with some memory that surfaces.”
The neighborhoods around campus, too, inhabit that sphere of memory. She recalls the shabby Green Street apartment in Cambridge where she lived as a political-science graduate student in the early 1970s, before she and her husband married and decamped for Somerville. Her grandmother, a Polish immigrant, visited once. Her grandparents “were people who had truly worked themselves up in the world—I mean, they really had lived on potatoes,” she says. Her grandmother walked in the door of her apartment, took one look around, and started to cry. Rosenblum laughs about it now. “It was like, shtetl to shtetl in two generations.”
She and her husband, Richard Rosenblum, a sculptor, spent most of their married life in Newton, Massachusetts. “A replication of Teaneck, New Jersey,” she says, “except a little more affluent, a little less mixed.” They raised their daughter there, moving from one house to another. It was also during those years that Rosenblum’s academic life detoured from Cambridge to Providence. She had joined the Harvard faculty in 1973, right after receiving her doctorate; in 1980 she moved to Brown University’s political-science department, returning periodically to Harvard and Radcliffe for fellowships and visiting professorships before coming back for good in 2001.
While living in Newton, Rosenblum and her husband got into a scuffle with neighbors over a gate her husband wanted to build at the edge of their property, with a Chinese-inspired imperial roof. Rosenblum and her husband called it a “fence,” which municipal rules sanctioned; their neighbors insisted it was a “structure.” In the end, a city inspector came out and declared their gate a fence, and that was that. It stayed. “But it did sour relations between us and our neighbors,” Rosenblum says. “It was never quite the same. That’s almost always how it is once you have some sort of negative relationship with a neighbor—it’s really awkward in ways that are hard to repair. And it’s not a major life event, but it alters the experience of home.”
On Cape Cod, where she and her husband owned a house for a time, an uglier dispute engulfed their community. She describes it briefly in Good Neighbors: in 1997 her homeowners association sued and was countersued by a wealthy buyer whose construction plans for a new home violated the association’s covenants. The lawsuit dragged on for nearly a decade (“He thought he could out-lawyer us,” she says), before a district court ruled in favor of the homeowners association and the wealthy buyer sold and moved. The fight “transformed us from stakeholders,” Rosenblum writes, “into neighbors united by a common adversary—a reliable source of solidarity. We always had something to talk about.”
Stories of disputes between suburban neighbors are easy to come by, abundant both in literature and in life. Rosenblum could have filled her whole book with them. And it makes sense, she explains, when you consider Americans’ striving perfectionism. “The United States has always been a country of utopian communities,” she says. “We’re ground zero.” All that cheap land and wide open space, plus the bursting eclecticism of the American population. Decades after the communes of the 1960s and ’70s and almost two centuries after Fourier Societies—inspired by the early French socialist Charles Fourier—first flowered across the Northeast and Midwest, utopianism remains deep in our bones. “I think there’s a spillover from that to suburban life, where you’re, in a sense, designing a community,” Rosenblum says. “The peril is, when you move in, you think you’re getting like-minded people and that the rules are going to protect and buffer you.” But often they don’t, and disappointed expectations lead to anger and acrimony and lawsuits. “People don’t understand that you can only resist randomness so far, and then there are just the people who actually live up the street.” “When you move in, you think you’re getting like-minded people and that the rules are going to protect and buffer you.” But often they don’t.
Rosenblum moved back to Cambridge after her husband’s death in 2000 from cancer, to the loft building where the noise bully would earn his nickname. The building was fertile ground for lively neighbor relations. A former nineteenth-century elevator factory in Porter Square—Rosenblum moved there for the high ceilings that could accommodate her husband’s massively tall sculptures—it had originally been converted into cheap lofts for artists. “So that they would have neighbors who appreciated that they might work all hours of the day and night,” she says, “that they would use welding machines, that there would be noise.” But as the neighborhood began to gentrify, so did the building. And the new residents “didn’t necessarily want the noise and the smells and the acid from the etching plates,” she says. Sometimes their building’s particular democracy of everyday life all worked out; sometimes it didn’t. “It was this changing, dynamic mix of people.”
“We’re Not of a Piece”
That Good Neighbors arose so directly from Rosenblum’s own daily experience makes it unusual in the world of political theory, but not in her oeuvre. “Something happens, and I’m startled into thought,” is how she puts it. “It’s not a straight line, but neither is a research agenda.” That everydayness is one of the threads tying together her work, in a career of few obvious ones. Rosenblum’s subjects are eclectic and contrarian and deceptively ordinary; they often set up a tension between the formal aspects of political theory—institutions, rights, analytic categories—and the personal and psychological. Almost always her subjects have gone unnoticed by the rest of her field.
In 2008, after discovering to her alarm that most of the students in her course on election law rejected party labels, calling themselves not Democrats or Republicans, but Independents—years later, she still sputters in disbelief telling the story of that discovery—she wrote On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship. The book traces the history of American anti-partyism and defends the “moral dignity” of partisanship and party identity. She wound up arguing that parties constitute a fundamental and historic achievement of liberal democracy, and that they give structure and coherence to politics and regulate its conflict.
Ten years before Angels, Rosenblum wrote Membership and Morals: The Personal Uses of Pluralism in America. It grew out of her observations about civic groups that had come under fire for being illiberal and undemocratic—the Boy Scouts with its ban on gays, the Jaycees with its all-male membership. On the way to an argument in favor of unfettered pluralism and freedom of association, even when those associations are authoritarian or outright oppressive, the book surveys a vast landscape of Americans’ voluntary civic attachments: prayer groups and bowling leagues, homeowner associations, self-help groups, secret societies, and book clubs—as well as hate groups, paramilitary organizations, and racial identity groups. “People are complex,” she says. “We have the capacity for holding and entertaining—as parts of our moral identity, not just superficially—a variety of practices and political and moral aspects. We’re not of a piece, and neither is our society.” She argues that people navigate this motley landscape by having a certain kind of freedom. “I’m always guided by a love of liberty, and particularly freedom of association. I would say that’s our most important constitutional freedom.”
At an event in early May celebrating Rosenblum’s work and marking her retirement, her former student Emma Saunders-Hastings, Ph.D. ’14, described how Rosenblum’s scholarship “takes up one of the neglected tasks of political theory: capturing our intuitive reactions to political life.…This is the thing she does better than anyone.” Now a postdoc at the University of Chicago, Saunders-Hastings was discussing Rosenblum’s 1987 book, Another Liberalism: Romanticism and the Reconstruction of Liberal Thought. Rosenblum calls it her first “real” book (her dissertation gave rise to her actual first book, Bentham’s Theory of the Modern State, published in 1978). Another Liberalism considers the inherent conflict between what Rosenblum calls the “romantic sensibility”—heroic individualism and self-reliance and self-improvement—and the strictures of liberal democratic government. During the discussion, Saunders-Hastings elaborated: “Nancy’s work expresses a particular kind of hope: that we might be able to see reflected in political theory the experiences and emotions of real human beings. Exceptional people, ordinary people. That we be able to see the blood in the veins.”
For many years, Rosenblum taught Government 1061, “Modern Political Philosophy,” which she herself took as an undergraduate. The course begins with Machiavelli and progresses through Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau, Kant and Hegel, and Marx, on its way to Nietzsche. In other words, it covers the canon. Her introductory lecture for that course was titled “The Anchored Book, the Needy Reader, the Eternal Truth, and the Jumping Mind,” and it offered four ways of reading: historicist, utilitarian, traditionalist, and something closer to aesthetic. She would tell her students that if they paid attention to how they read and what attracted and excited them, then they would learn something about themselves, not just about the works. Rosenblum herself is the fourth kind of reader, she says: the jumping mind. “What I respond to in these texts is just the sheer creative genius of these writers. I find them inspiring, both for their pictures of political greatness and their pictures of evil.…The jumping mind response to these books is, I think, what makes you want to do political theory. The idea of trying to understand your time politically in this way.”
She recalls two lines from Wordsworth that she frequently quoted in meetings with new graduate students: “What we have loved, / Others will love, and we will teach them how.” She laughs. Wordsworth got it wrong, she says: you can’t teach someone to love anything. “But you can explain to them why you do. And you can suggest to them the different ways that they might. And that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
There is something of Rosenblum’s beliefs about liberty in her teaching, too. At the event in May, Cornell law professor Aziz Rana ’00, Ph.D. ’07, another former student, noted the breadth of research subjects and opinions among Rosenblum’s graduate students over the years. “Nancy’s really had no desire to replicate her own arguments,” he said. “That’s quite rare.” Describing what he called her generosity and warmth as a mentor, he talked about her ability to “think within the terms of her students, to produce arguments in conversation that are the natural extension of how they’re conceiving of their own project.” Looking up at Rosenblum sitting a few rows away in the auditorium, he added, “That’s why so many students gravitated toward you.” McGill professor Jacob Levy, who was Rosenblum’s student as a Brown undergraduate, said that she had “deeply shaped my sense of the possibility of political theory.” At the end of the evening, a handful of current graduate students rose up from the audience to present Rosenblum with the Everett Mendelsohn Excellence in Mentoring Award, established by the Graduate Student Council; she is one of five Harvard faculty members to receive it this year. One of the students handed her an engraved silver bowl. “From many grateful students,” he said.
Rosenblum’s own mentors at Harvard were political theorists Michael Walzer, Ph.D. ’61, now a Princeton professor emeritus, and Cowles professor of government Judith Shklar, who died in 1992. Walzer advised Rosenblum on her undergraduate senior thesis, and years later his 1983 book Spheres of Justice opened up a concept that’s become fundamental to her work: the idea of “giving dignity to the autonomy of different spheres of life and the experience we have in them and the norms that should guide our behavior. Those things came to lie behind everything I wrote.”
Shklar was Rosenblum’s graduate adviser, and she still rereads Shklar’s 1984 collection of essays Ordinary Vices, a “deep phenomenology” of cruelty, hypocrisy, snobbery, betrayal, and misanthropy. Like Rosenblum, who was then a young professor working on Another Liberalism, Shklar plumbed the depths of literature to bring out truths about her subjects. And like Rosenblum, Shklar drew on moral psychology. “She gave me permission to do what I was already doing, already experimenting with,” Rosenblum says. “I saw that you could go somewhere with it.”
From Lynching to Katrina
Photograph by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images
Rosenblum spent the better part of a decade researching and writing Good Neighbors, teasing out the norms and customs and regular principles that govern neighbor relations. But the passages that come back to her now are not the norms, but the outliers, the extremes: violence and rescue, murder and deliverance. She’s haunted by what remains unexplained, and unexplainable, the “deep ethic,” as she calls it. “People who save other people talk about being a good neighbor,” she notes, “and I think there’s a sort of double resonance there. There’s a moral take-home about the significance of being a good neighbor, the internalization of that idea.” And it goes back to the notion of home and why its disruption is so catastrophic. “Neighbors hold our lives in their hands,” Rosenblum writes again and again in the book, and it is true. Narrating what happened to Japanese citizens in 1942 when the order was given to evacuate them to internment camps, Rosenblum describes how so many were assaulted by people they knew in drive-by attacks, how their neighbors vandalized and set fire to their property, “swooped down like scavengers” to profit from the forced sale or abandonment of Japanese shops and businesses, farms, machinery, property, homes. And heartbreakingly—and in some ways just as cruel—they turned away. Rosenblum describes how, seeing their Japanese neighbors herded off with overstuffed suitcases, some people didn’t even wave goodbye. “Neighbors hold our lives in their hands,” Rosenblum writes again and again in the book, and it is true.
Even worse is the “unique horror” and “intimate violence” of neighbors lynching neighbors. In a chapter called, simply, “Killing,” Rosenblum describes the chaos and terror and wounded confusion. Often enough, “victims knew the people who mutilated and killed them,” she writes. “Murderers knew their victims. Locals knew who the killers were.” Rosenblum quotes the testimony of an Alabama freedman who saw his son cut to pieces with a knife. “I knew him,” he said of the perpetrator. “Me and him was raised together.”
Civil-rights activist James Cameron’s survival memoir chronicles a 1930 lynching attempt in Marion, Indiana, when he was 16 years old. He and two friends had been accused of killing a white man in an armed robbery and of raping his girlfriend. A mob stormed the jail the same night the three were arrested and grabbed the other two boys, whom they beat and hanged; one of them died even before the noose was around his neck. When it was Cameron’s turn, an unidentified woman interceded on his behalf. He was beaten but returned to the jail alive. Rosenblum quotes his memoir: “It is impossible to explain the impending crisis of sudden and terrifying death at the hands of people I had grown to love and respect as friends and neighbors,” he wrote. And of the crowd at the lynching: “I recognized a few faces from homes near my own neighborhood. I saw customers whose shoes I had shined many times. Boys and girls I had gone to school with were among the mob…neighbors whose lawns I had mowed and whose cars I had washed and polished.”
At the other end of the spectrum are the rescuers and protectors: local sheriffs who faced down lynch mobs, neighbors who did not take part, the woman, whoever she was, who saved James Cameron from hanging. “Even in a caste system, some neighbors signaled ‘I know you’ and ‘I will do no harm.’” Rosenblum writes. “During the Florida massacre in 1923 that killed six blacks, burned the entire black section of Rosewood to the ground, and sent people running for refuge in the swamps, white neighbors took in women and children to protect them from the gunfire, hid them, and got them onto trains to safety. Moving firsthand accounts describe the interruption of viciousness as men and women recover their own identity as a neighbor.…A memory, a familiar gesture in the present, the appearance of a person they know from home—something mundane returns me to the person I am there where I live.”
Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty Images
In modern memory, Hurricane Katrina looms large, both for the massive governmental failure to protect the most vulnerable citizens, and for the way those citizens—neighbors—looked after one another. “Neighbors’ presence on the deranged terrain around home…provides more than physical orientation,” Rosenblum writes. “Congregation on the street stimulates an awakening.” People with boats rescued neighbors from rooftops and trees; neighbors shared food and water and siphoned off gasoline and drove people out of immediate danger. They scared off alligators and rescued each other’s pets; they found liquor and cigarettes, diapers, medicine, mops, bleach. They comforted one another and kept each other safe. They told each other that it would be OK, and they made it true. Rosenblum describes people “venturing out into a chaos that was unimagined, with no instructions or protocols, judging immediate necessity and taking action.” Mutually vulnerable, neighbors were defending their lives and homes.
* * *
In New York City, Rosenblum recently moved in with her companion of the past few years, Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist and scholar who studies war and political violence (his best known book is The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide). Lifton’s place is on the West Side, but Rosenblum’s own apartment, the one she bought and still uses as a studio, is back down in the Village, in a white-brick high-rise just around the corner from Union Square Park. Her living-room window gazes out to the Empire State Building in the distance and, in the blocks in between, to dozens of brick apartment buildings, both facing and facing away, their low, square shoulders stacking up one behind another, with aging water towers perched on every rooftop. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, a view of the layered Manhattan neighborhoods laid down in the nineteenth century. “This is old New York,” she says. “This is New York as I imagined it.”
Her neighbors in this building are physically closer to each other than she’s used to. “I’m from suburbia and Cambridge,” she says. “The accident of proximity was brought home to me when I got this place.” The smell of meat, distractingly intense, emanates all day long from the kitchen across the hall, whose door backs up catty-corner to Rosenblum’s—a problem she hasn’t yet figured out how to broach. She’s learning new norms, new etiquette, the democracy of everyday life in a building like this one. “The elevator is a phenomenon,” she says. “I’ve begun to see that many, many people relate to one another through the elevator.” They know little things about each other, the kind of information you would get from traveling together for 20 stories. One day, Rosenblum got on the elevator and about two floors down another woman boarded. She was elderly, and Rosenblum noticed she was barefoot. “And she says to me, ‘I can’t put on my shoes.’” So Rosenblum helped her put them on. “I get the sense that there are a lot of people in this building who are older and living alone.” Neighbor relations have a different urgency here, a different rhythm. “This woman was riding down in the elevator to find somebody who could help her put her shoes on.”
In this new environment, Rosenblum is learning again what kind of a neighbor she is. During the dispute with noise bully all those years ago, she was struck not only by the feeling of pride in being a good neighbor and comrade, but also the growing awareness of other neighborly traits she hadn’t realized she had: a limited capacity for friendly exchange in the hallway, a judgmental attitude toward neighbors’ disarray, a reticence that was hard to shake. In Good Neighbors, she writes that those living nearby “can illuminate our reluctance to know ourselves and they can spur self-understanding.” In her Greenwich Village building, she’s discovering herself all over again: sympathy, patience, attention.
Improbably, amid the commotion of old New York and the closeness of a high-rise apartment building with a shoeless old woman and a neighbor’s kitchen that smells of meat, she thinks of Thoreau and his years on Walden Pond. An intellectual polestar for Rosenblum (in 1996 she edited a book of his political writings, and her own writing returns to him often), Thoreau occupies 15 pages toward the end of Good Neighbors. A reviewer for her publisher, Rosenblum says, suggested leaving him out—in some ways that chapter feels out of synch with the rest of the book—but she kept him in. “All the complexity of the neighbor relationship was right there, in the mind and the writing of a great American thinker,” she says. “His somewhat odd relations with people were basically relations with neighbors”: the woodchopper, Irishman Seeley, the inhabitants of a poor shanty where he sought hospitality. She’s particularly moved by what she calls a “romantic bit” in Walden: “the importance of seeing people, neighbors, as not just familiar—his phrase is, ‘the old musty cheese that we are’—but foreign. As unique individuals and interesting.” Thoreau claimed that we rarely see our neighbors for who they are: “We live thick and are in each other’s way, and stumble over one another,” he wrote. Appreciating their separateness is a way of taking neighbors as they take themselves. “Thoreau has this beautiful line,” Rosenblum says. “‘They are our Austrias and Chinas, and South Sea Islands.’” She pauses a moment to let that sink in, Manhattan unfurling out the window beside her. Finally, she says, “Neighbors are our distant places, and they are right in front of us.”
Lydialyle Gibson is a staff writer and editor at this magazine.
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