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God save the queen – and society – at lunch

In America and Britain, ideas to integrate a diverse society are being touted and tested. One idea is a 'big lunch' of neighbors for Queen Elizabeth's diamond jubilee. But can government enhance social cohesion?

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Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron greets apprentice Jack Hathaway at a food distribution center in Bracknell, England, Jan. 5. Cameron awarded the company a Big Society award for its work with local communities.

Alastair Grant Pool/AP Photo

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People living in highly diverse countries often look to government to mend the rips and tears of their social fabric. In 2008, Barack Obama promised to bring Americans closer together. In 2012, Rick Santorum is the lead proponent for restoring social cohesion, starting with the family.

And then there is the British experiment to create an “integrated” society based on shared common values.

The best example is an event planned for June 3. Millions of people are expected to sit down with neighbors for a lunch in street parties across Britain. Breaking bread together, it is hoped, will break down social barriers between people, reducing crime, racism, and religious extremism.

And maybe, just maybe, the English street riots of 2011 won’t be repeated. And alienated Muslims won’t become home-grown terrorists.

The idea for this nationwide “Big Lunch” was started in 2009 by a private group, the Eden Project. Last year, more than 2 million of Britain’s 61 million people took part. This year, the event could ballon. It happens to fall on the same day as the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s 60 years on the throne. Her Majesty has heartily endorsed the local community-building as a way to mark this diamond jubilee.

Big Lunch fits into the concept of a “Big Society” promoted by Britain’s Conservative prime minister, David Cameron. While his idea has floundered in a difficult economy, it has found some traction by pushing more authority to local bodies. A “national citizen service” is being started for 30,000 young people. And to help children feel part of a community, 20,000 volunteers are being enlisted to build playgrounds.

A recent survey of integrity by the University of Essex finds people in Britain to be less honest than they were 10 years ago. The study’s author, Paul Whiteley, says this lower level of integrity reduces a person’s sense of civic duty.

“If social capital is low and people are suspicious and don’t work together, those communities have worse health, worse educational performance,” he said.

For decades, both America and Britain have struggled to counter increasing social isolation – at least physical isolation. In the United States, for example, the majority of adults over 18 will be single within a few years. Yet with the Internet, many people have found electronic niche communities, even if their “friends” are 10,000 miles away.

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Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” books about the nation’s social fabric have tried to explain what brings people together or pulls them apart. In 2000, “Bowling Alone,” by Harvard scholar Robert Putnam, gives a measure of the  decline in civic health and trust. He found that about half of social cohesion depends on religious activity and commitment.

A new book, “Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion,” written by a Swiss writer in Britain, Alain de Botton, argues that religion has long created a sense of community, but its decline now calls for secular ways to do the same task.

“There once existed a degree of neighborliness that has been replaced by ruthless anonymity, by the pursuit of contact with one another primarily for individualistic ends: for financial gain, social advancement or romantic love,” he writes. One of the author’s ideas is to create “Agape Restaurants” where diners are encouraged to mingle and talk – which sounds a lot like Big Lunch.

Government can overplay its hand in trying to restore social cohesion. Critics rightly warn of forced assimilation and conformity. Finding a balance between coercive methods and simply kick-starting a voluntary effort at community building can be difficult.

The Big Lunch for the queen’s jubilee may be the right mix. The big test, however, will come in 2013. How many of those same neighbors will break bread again in street parties?

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