Friend­ship in a Face­book

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Suzanne Fields

If you’re ever in a jam, here I am

If you ever need a pal, I’m your gal

If you ever feel so happy you land in jail, I’m your bail It’s friend­ship, friend­ship Just a per­fect blend­ship When other friend­ships have been for­got

Ours will still be hot.

Cole Porter’s lyrics came back to me the other day on read­ing a com­men­tary by a young wo­man, age 18, on the na­ture of friend­ship in the Age of Face­book. She be­moaned the new mea­sure­ments in so­cial net­work­ing. The num­ber of “friends” who re­spond to a Face­book mem­ber are posted in a run­ning count un­der your pho­to­graph.

“Face­book has brought to the fore­front of my so­cial life a ne­ces­sity I sel­dom con­sid­ered be­fore sell­ing my soul and sign­ing up two months ago, friend quan­tity,” laments the young wo­man in a mes­sage to The Wash­ing­ton Post. “Sure, we knew that the cool girls reigned in high school, but never be­fore has such an un­ques­tion­ably ac­cu­rate pop­u­lar- ity me­ter in­di­cated down to the last in­di­vid­ual your worth as a hu­man be­ing (or, at least, the pre­cise num­ber of peo­ple who thought you were worth the two sec­onds it takes to ‘friend’ some­one).”

A writer in Na­tion mag­a­zine de­fends youth­ful promis­cu­ity as a pos­i­tive way of iden­ti­fy­ing deeper in­ti­macy. “Re­gard­less of the (some­times harm­ful) re­sults of one-night stands or sex be­fore high school,” she says, “th­ese women are look­ing to ex­per­i­ment, to find a con­trast to im­me­di­ate, eter­nal com­pan­ion­ship.” Uh, huh.

It’s not just sex and so­cial net­work­ing that quan­ti­fies value. Men and women sit through pub­lic meet­ings scrolling their Black­Ber­rys for mes­sages as if whoever might be “mes­sag­ing” them is more im­por­tant than whoever they’re with — like some­one look­ing over your shoul­der at a cock­tail party in search of some­one more im­por­tant to talk to. Be­fore cell phones be­gan to grow out of ev­ery­one’s ears a cer­tain prom­i­nent Wash­ing­ton man I knew car­ried one of the clunky early phones and as­signed some­one at his of­fice to call him dur­ing lunch or din­ner so his din­ner guest would see him as some­one re­ally im­por­tant. Now we’re told to turn off the phone in so­cial sit­u­a­tions, and there’s al­ways some­one who re­mem­bers to “for­get.”

This im­per­son­al­ity of “friend­ship” prob­a­bly grows from the worka­holic na­ture of Amer­i­cans, es­pe­cially in Wash­ing­ton, where pol­i­tics is all, and in New York, where money is nearly all. But it might be as well the ab­sence of real friend­ship, of the trust­ing in­ti­macy of gen­uine friends. Even a last­ing mar­riage to­day is no bet­ter than a 50/50 propo­si­tion; the odds against other re­la­tion­ships last­ing are con­sid­er­ably longer than that. De­pres­sion re­places de­vo­tion.

Hav­ing a thou­sand Face­book “friends” be­comes a new Amer­i­can dream. “Here in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., we know net­work­ing,” the Rev. Scott Gar­ber told his con­gre­ga­tion at the Wash­ing­ton Com­mu­nity Fel­low­ship. “We can build con­stituen­cies. We cau­cus for causes and bond with co-bel­liger­ents. What we don’t do so well is gen­uine friend­ship. Be­cause when you pur­sue friend­ship for the pur­pose of power, the power of friend­ship dis­ap­pears.” Ac­ri­mony on Capi­tol Hill is not new, but what is new is the lack of col­le­gial­ity af­ter hours. Harry Tru­man’s fa­mous cau­tion about friend­ship in Wash­ing­ton (“If you want a friend, get a dog”) has be­come “treat your friends like dogs.” De­bates move quickly into per­sonal at­tacks. The mild-man­nered El­iz­a­beth Ed­wards ac­cuses Hil­lary Clin­ton of “act­ing like a man” and the com­edy be­comes farce when Bill Clin­ton chival­rously rides to his wife’s res­cue, telling us that no, she’s not like a man. Well, he would know.

Could there have been a dumber “ques­tion” than the one posed in a re­cent pres­i­den­tial de­bate than when each can­di­date was in­structed to turn left (or was it right?) and say some­thing that he doesn’t like about his ri­val. We act as though we have no com­mon goals.

“Pol­i­tics ain’t bean­bag,” as Mr. Doo­ley duly noted, but it doesn’t have to be be­head­ings, ei­ther. The friend­ship that con­tin­ues be­tween Supreme Court Jus­tices An­tonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg proves it. Jus­tice Scalia, a Catholic and a staunch con­ser­va­tive, and Jus­tice Ginsburg, a Jew and ded­i­cated lib­eral, are fast friends off the bench and their fam­i­lies cel­e­brate New Year’s Eve to­gether. There can be more to talk about than pol­i­tics.

John Adams, our sec­ond pres­i­dent, and Thomas Jef­fer­son, our third, were se­ri­ous en­e­mies af­ter John Adams left the White House. But they dis­cov­ered com­mon affini­ties in old age and a thriv­ing cor­re­spon­dence on many sub­jects flour­ished — with­out Ap­ples or Black­Ber­ries or any­thing but quill and parch­ment — un­til they died within hours of each other on the Fourth of July. If we tried most of us wouldn’t have to wait that long to make a real friend.

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