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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

1 - Community and Special Obligations


The 1938 movie Boys Town tells the story of how the young hoodlum Whitey Marsh learns about democracy, authority, fair play, and friendship from the other boys in the town and from its head, Father Flanagan. Boys Town was based on the founding of a real Nebraska orphanage, whose iconic statue shows one boy carrying an even younger orphan child on his back. The motto of Boys Town, which accompanies this image, is “He ain't heavy, he's my brother.” The articulation of “my brother” helps outsiders see the act of lifting another boy (physically or metaphorically) as an obligation to be embraced, rather than as an encumbrance to be avoided. More generally, the answer to the question of “who counts as my brother?” or “who is a member of my community?” is central in a democracy where citizens debate about to whom the government should allocate resources.

This book provides empirical evidence for what has largely remained a theoretical discussion, showing how ordinary Americans imagine their communities, and the extent to which their communities' boundaries determine who they believe should benefit from the government's resources via redistributive policies. How do people draw the boundaries dividing Us and Them, and how do they represent these “pictures in [their] heads” (Lippmann 5)? Where the boundaries of communities are drawn depends on who someone believes to have a quality in common.

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Boundaries of Obligation in American Politics
  • Online ISBN: 9780511802874
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