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Paranoia Problems

Eric J. Plosky

Paranoia is as integral a part of modern American culture as McDonald's. Among other symptoms of a paranoid society, we have a remarkable appetite for restraining orders, personal-injury lawsuits, electronic home alarm systems, and independent prosecutors. We are rude, obnoxious and suspicious; we snoop, nose, and pry; we insulate ourselves from our neighbors and have long since mastered the "not in my backyard" attitude that continues to vex planners and politicians.

It's been getting worse over the years. Fifty years ago, a new family moving into a community was likely to be greeted by the neighbors and perhaps given a welcome pie or pastry. In modern, anesthetic suburbia, you're lucky to even know your neighbors. My own family doesn't know the family that has lived across the street from us for 21 years we call them the "Personalities."

One has little reason to get to know one's neighbors when one doesn't need them for anything. Decades ago, neighbors would often invite each other over to watch television or would encounter one another at the laundromat. If it was uncomfortably hot on a summer night, neighbors would relax outside on their porches and chat. Nowadays, when every household has a full complement of appliances, there are fewer opportunities for socialization. Ever wonder why most so-called contemporary suburban houses lack porches? The air conditioner, of course.

If you think about it for a second, you may realize that the single most popular spot for socializing in most suburbs is the supermarket. After all, everybody has to go to the supermarket; not everybody has to go to, say, the movie theater (not when one has one's own massive home-theater installation). With the opportunities for in-person socialization so greatly reduced, what will happen if on-line grocers manage to take over a significant percentage of the supermarket business? It's likely that the culture of paranoia will simply get worse.

Axiomatically, as human contact diminishes, paranoia seems to increase. Follow the logic: Trust, the opposite of paranoia, is based on knowledge. In our society, when you hardly ever socialize with your neighbors, you don't get to know them. So trust-building doesn't get the chance to take place; it is replaced instead with paranoia. It's laughable, in fact, to call 1999 America a "society" we're really more of a non-society, increasingly insular and suspicious of one another.

It wasn't always this way, of course. Many communities, for example, used to have "neighborhood watches" associations of residents who would observe local activities simply by watching the streets. Crime and foul play were deterred simply by the presence of neighborhood watches; at the same time, watches encouraged a culture of information that let everybody in a community know what was going on and, to a certain extent, what people both residents and outsiders were up to.

We no longer live in a culture of such neighborhood knowledge. The word "neighborhood," in fact, can no longer be properly applied to most suburbs, where a culture of secrecy rules and people tend to ensconce themselves in their own homes. There are now surely more neighborhood-watch signs around the country than there are functioning neighborhood watches, the latter largely being replaced today with the electronic home-alarm system, a potent symbol of our national paranoia.

According to the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association, more than 20 percent of American households are "electronically protected." (This ominous phrase used to be confined to submarine terminology.) Americans spent upwards of $33 billion on home security installations between 1994 and 1997, a number that is on the rise by nearly five percent per annum. Combine home alarms with home theaters and home computers, and the typical suburban house is suddenly transformed into a 21st century techno-fortress.

Alarm companies, consumer electronics firms, and, of course, automobile manufacturers are all keen to encourage paranoia, since it means big business. Car companies ask if you really want to ride on the train with a bunch of strange people. TV, VCR, stereo, and DVD makers remind you that you'd prefer to watch a movie without worrying about whether someone will steal your wallet. And home alarm installers imply that your community cannot keep itself safe, let alone watch over your house.

Although it means big business, paranoia is disfiguring American culture, perhaps beyond repair. The typical post-millennial American will have no need to see the neighbors, or anyone, ever again. Is this really what we want? Don't we prefer living in communities where people know each other, where residents protect their neighbors?

Some years ago in New York, a young woman was brutally raped and killed, and the murderer was allowed to leave the scene because none of the woman's neighbors lifted a finger to help her. The prevailing attitude today is, "Why should I help her?"

These days, if someone so much as rings our doorbell, we're immediately on alert. The construction of our suburbs is such that nobody ever just happens to be passing by; visitors must be on some deliberate errand, and this makes us nervous. In bygone times, when people actually did drop in on each other at a whim, nerves were not nearly as frayed.

We must combat paranoia by resurrecting casual socialization. As college students, we enjoy the peculiar advantage of living in proximity to thousands of like-minded neighbors and are afforded the luxuries of unplanned visits to friends, on-a-whim activities and chance encounters in the halls. Most students, however, do not realize this and blithely move to suburbia upon graduation. The only people who realize the value of casual socialization are those from downtown areas of big cities and small towns, places that have successfully beaten back the deadening influence of suburbia.

But we can all help to reduce rampant paranoia. Graduates, don't move into an alarmed, home-theatered ticky-tacky house and completely isolate yourselves from your neighbors. If you're afraid of getting to know your neighbors, at the very least shop for groceries not on-line but at the local supermarket. Help keep alive one of the last remaining social rituals in suburbia, the supermarket pick-up.

Eric J. Plosky's column appears each Tuesday.