How many clubs do you belong to? I’m counting churches, athletic leagues, book clubs, fraternal societies, any sort of group that gets together around a common idea. I’ll be completely honest and admit my answer: just one (sort of). Like the good born-and-raised, guilt-riddled Catholic I am, I still go to church on Sundays. I don’t actually talk to anybody or engage in any activity outside of the hour-long Mass, but I guess technically I’m a part of it. Otherwise, I can’t say I’m much of a joiner.
Well, turns out I’m what’s wrong with America. And if you’re like me, a club-free atomized individual, you might be, too.
Ok, I’m exaggerating for comedic effect, but still. Join or Die, which screened at the Milwaukee Film Festival this weekend, makes a compelling case for the importance of involvement in civic organizations for the healthy functioning of a republic. The documentary revolves around the work of Robert Putnam, the author of the seminal 2000 political science book Bowling Alone. Putnam, over years of research, came to the conclusion that American involvement in clubs was dropping at an alarming rate, and that this has a disastrous affect on politics. Clubs provide social capital, which means resources, friendships, connections and a generalized norm of civility between people. Rich civic involvement creates thick and complex ties in a community, the kind of ties that engender trust and allow it to govern itself successfully and not pathologically.
Putnam’s titular metaphor is the American bowling league, which has been in steep decline for decades. According to studies at the time he was writing, more people than ever were bowling – they were just doing it alone.
The core of the film, made by a former student of Putnam’s, is its interviews with the man himself. At over 80 years old, he remains an erudite and thoughtful figure whose theories are just as insightful and relevant as ever (if not more). The movie takes a lighthearted approach to the fairly serious subject matter, interspersing scenes with bright graphical depictions and funny intercuts from old films. (The most memorable is an old slapstick clip of a man slipping at a bowling alley and sliding down the lane into the pins.)
The approach is fitting for a film about Putnam, who exemplifies Wordsworth’s “Happy Warrior.” While his work has consistently charted American decline, and his efforts have failed to spark an increase in club membership, he remains an optimistic and charming figure, imbued with a strong sense of stick-to-itiveness that provides the documentary with its motor. A crucial turning point in the film charts his later-career efforts to understand why people join clubs, as opposed to his decades of work charting the American exodus from them.
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The documentary is primarily concerned with translating Putnam’s dense political science into straightforward explanations for a broad audience. It does this, in part, by including a series of fractured vignettes following normal Americans who’ve become involved in civic organizations. There’s a member of the “Odd Fellows” secret society; an Atlanta transplant who started a communal bike-riding organization in the city; a man who enlisted in a gig workers union. Each illustrates the benefits of membership and involvement in a ground-level way that gives a tangible view of Putnam’s loftier ideas.
There are also interviews with prominent politicians and economists throughout. These range the political spectrum leftward from Hillary Clinton and Pete Buttigieg, rightward to Senator Mike Lee and economist Glenn Loury. The film maintains a relatively apolitical slant, opting for the general promotion of individual involvement over the thornier policy implications politicians might take from that. This seems like a smart approach to me, as the movie serves as more of a clarion call for all of us to wake up and get involved than as an attempt to push a political ideology.
The film, like Putnam’s work, is engrossing and, ultimately, convincing. It’s hard to watch without feeling the personal impact of Putnam’s ideas in your own life – the social disconnection, the apathy, the cynicism – and as the credits role you might just find yourself wanting to join a bowling league.
While Join or Die doesn’t have any more in-person screenings during the festival, it is part of the virtual festival, which is available to all-access passholders from May 1-7.
Watch the Trailer: