By C.J. Hirschfield
It’s not only the key to our own personal happiness, but it is also what will save our democracy.
So get off your butt and join a club, damn it!
In brief, this is the strong message of the new documentary Join or Die that had its world premiere at SXSW, co-directed by Rebecca Davis and Pete Davis. If the title wasn’t directive enough, we are told at the film’s beginning that “this is a film about why you should join a club.”
The film is built around the life and work of charismatic former Harvard professor Bob Putnam, whose groundbreaking research over the last half century and bestselling book painstakingly illustrate the one characteristic that successful democracies share—associations where people come together in real time, based on their shared interests. In his 2000 nonfiction book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community he shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from each other, and how the disintegration of clubs and associations have wreaked havoc on many levels. Bowling leagues, PTAs, church groups—all hold the power to create a healthy, safe and vibrant society. What makes a democracy work? Social capital.
Putnam was first inspired to the work when he was present at John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” speech in Washington. What followed were years in Italy, as he explored that country’s distinct regions trying to understand how some fared so much better than others. His conclusion? Provinces that had a pre-existing culture of high trust, political engagement and “horizontal” connections resulted in better governance.
Although the data in the U.S. over the last couple of decades showing a dramatic decrease in club participation is concerning, the film’s tone is decidedly upbeat, with colorful animation and lively music illustrating the downshift. “Basically, we’re watching Friends rather than having friends,” we’re told.
Interviews with political luminaries including Hillary and Bill Clinton, author/pundit David Brooks, and Department of Transportation’s Pete Buttigieg all support the truth of Putnam’s theory.
The film offers us examples of a number of types of clubs: bicycling, cultural, trade unions, and yes, bowling.
I was surprised by one major omission in the film. Although Rotary clubs (“Service before self”) are present and accessible in nearly every community in America, both Putnam and the filmmakers chose not to feature the world’s most successful changemaking organization in the world. Why? In Putnam’s almost apologetic words, “It’s not like I think we should go back to the Rotary Club…” he says, adding that its principles would be nice to have back, however.
It’s almost as though the filmmakers fear evoking the outdated image of what Rotary used to be—old men getting together to do business. In my own Oakland, CA Rotary Club, the nearly 300 members represent wide diversity in age, sex and ethnicity, and are actively engaged in service projects both in the community and abroad. Actively promoting Rotary as a gateway club would seem to be a no-brainer.
For all of the depressing data, at the end of the day, Join or Die is nonetheless expresses its hope that millennials will start joining groups and turn the trend around, taking us from “social recession to social revival.”
We can only hope.
Join or Die is just starting to play film festivals with theatrical and other screening options to come.
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Directed by Rebecca Davis & Pete Davis 99 minutes // English // 2023
Rebecca Davis is a director and producer based in New York City. She was a senior producer with NBC News for a decade, where her work focused on social movements, environmental and economic justice, and community innovators. She has produced for HBO, VICE, and A&E — and was the supervising producer for Season 2 of Vox’s hit Netflix show Explained. @RebeccaDavis
Pete Davis is a writer and civic advocate — and a former student of Robert Putnam’s. He is the author of Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in An Age of Infinite Browsing. He is the co-founder of the Democracy Policy Network, a policy organization focused on raising up ideas that deepen democracy.@PeteDDavis
Henry David Thoreau once said: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” It is important to tell stories about the various “branches of evil,” but occasionally, it is also useful to help orient the public to the roots of our various social problems. As the unraveling of our social fabric has accelerated in the COVID era, the public is searching for fundamental explanations of our civic decline: Why don’t our politics or government work? Why can’t we see eye-to-eye with our neighbors? What accounts for the gap between the empowered few and the disempowered many?
The answers to these questions are complex—and no single scholar can definitively answer any of them. But Harvard professor and Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam has, perhaps more than anyone else living today, made great strides at clarifying our understanding of the roots of our civic unraveling. Even better, he is a master at translating his trailblazing social science research into engaging stories. For decades, he has explained to rapt audiences around the country—from VFW halls to the Oval Office—his illuminating findings, but the entirety of his work has never been featured in a documentary film with the potential to reach a much wider audience.
With Join or Die, we aim to introduce Putnam’s research on the importance of community to democracy and the decline in American community engagement over the past decades to millions more Americans—and especially to young Americans who were not alive to experience Bowling Alone going viral decades ago.
To bring Putnam’s message up to date, we have paired his story with figures from various sectors—from politics and economics to public health and urban design—who have been influenced by his ideas. And to bring Putnam’s message down to earth, we have weaved throughout the film historic home videos and contemporary community profiles featuring the types of civic organizations that Putnam has found to be foundational to a healthy democracy. We hope that they not only help promote the public understanding of an important field in social science—but that they also shed light on what Americans across the country can do with this newfound understanding.
With the death knell of our national unity tolling from every corner of our public life, we hope that revisiting Putnam’s groundbreaking civic findings—and spotlighting the creative local groups acting in the spirit of them—can serve to inspire viewers to do what needs to be done to save our democracy: Join up!
Join or Die spotlights six community groups working to revitalize American civic life.
Odd Fellows #80 — Waxahachie, TX | @OddFellows80. An old federated society chapter bucking decline trends
Red Bike & Green — Atlanta, GA | @RedBikeGreenATL A Black urban cycling collective
Plainsong Farm & Ministry — Rockford, MI | @PlainsongFarm. An Episcopal church on a farm
Bowl Portland — Portland, ME | @BaysideBowl. A thriving, modern bowling league
CIELO — Los Angeles, CA | @MyCIELO_org. An indigenous mutual aid and advocacy group
Chicago Gig Alliance — Chicago, IL | @Gig_Chicag. Rideshare drives coming together to fight for better working conditions
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”