So Where’s the Social? – Recovering Words and Culture in the Unsociety

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“Where,” asks the editor, “will your town get the money to build new school rooms, and pay better salaries to more teachers?  Thousands of communities are wrestling with this problem, or will soon be faced with it.  We offer a suggestion.”  It is really quite simple.  Everyone, from the PTA to the local Rotarians, should “work for the adoption of the Federal economies in the Hoover Reports.”  Those recommendations will cut federal spending by six billion dollars a year, “just about what the schools cost now.”  The savings would go a long way towards building new schools and hiring new teachers, and we are going to need to do both, he says, since in ten years we will have about twice as many pupils of school age as we did ten years ago (136 to 72).

“What we are saying here, of course,” he notes, “is that the heavy taxes levied by the Federal Government deprive local communities of tax resources with which to meet local needs.  Far better than to ship money to Washington and then ship it back again as ‘aid’ will be to leave the money at home in the first place.  Those shipping costs are mighty high.”

I am quoting from the September 1955 issue of Town Journal, “the family magazine of home-town America,” which boasted a subscription rate of nearly two million families.  Immediately we face matters of translation.  Since the median annual salary in 1955 was a little over $4000, we can multiply the numbers by ten and come up with a fairly comparable estimate of costs: $60,000,000,000 for the public schools every year, and the same amount to be trimmed from the federal budget by the recommendations of the Hoover Commission.  That amounts to about $200 per year per citizen, a little more than one day’s wages, or one week’s wages for a family of five or six.

We’d take that for public school expenses in the United States, in a heartbeat.  I pay almost four percent of my salary for our local public schools; that would be two weeks’ wages, and I know well that those property taxes do not cover the entire expenses, as the schools also receive money from the state and from Washington.  I do not know what the total is.  But there are more items to translate here than the value of the dollar or the size of various budgets.  The editor clearly believes that the tax money should stay in the local communities, because it costs money to ship those taxes hither and yon.  He’s quite right about that, but note what he does not say.  He doesn’t call attention to the control, the manipulation, occasioned by the ‘aid.’  He doesn’t say that when money is siphoned out of the town and is then bundled up and shipped back, it comes with conditions attached, just as the boss of a protection racket will provide ‘help,’ provided his beneficiaries line his pocket and honor his wishes.

I’d wager a day’s pay that the moral entanglements hadn’t occurred to the editor, because Washington had not yet intruded itself so intimately in the administration of public schools.  There’s something else that did occur to him, and would hardly occur to us.  His editorial presumes that there is such a thing as a town, full of people who know one another and who take pride in where they live.  For the same issue presents a forty question test to see whether you live in a healthy town, with thirty ‘yes’ answers being the standard to shoot for.  The first criterion?  “Most high school graduates stay in town.”  Also telling: “More than half the church congregations [sic] are under 40.”  Are the streets lined with shade trees?  Is there a recreation center where young people dance?  The Ike-liking editors aren’t laissez-faire economists.  They aren’t the sort of pseudo-conservatives who see devotion to the family as an obstacle to “progress,” whatever that is.  They want the money to stay nearby, so that it will be spent nearby – even taxed nearby.

In other words, these are deeply civic-minded conservatives.  I doubt one could find more than the thinness of a dime between what they assume about civic duty and Catholic social teaching.  For both assume the existence of a society: people who are socii, companions, fellow travelers, neighbors.  Behold another telling criterion for the good town: “There’s as much interest in local as national elections.”  That can only be so, if local elections matter, and local elections can matter only if local people feel they actually have some influence upon their common life – and if there is a common life to begin with.

And here we arrive at the great fact staring us in the face.  Romano Guardini, shortly after the war, had already asserted that the people of western Europe no longer possessed a culture.  Such words as culture remain like wraiths, long after the reality they once described has passed away.  Alasdair MacIntyre, indeed, says that that fate has befallen our entire language of morality.  The word society is, I believe, in that same category.  So the riddle we must now solve is how to apply Catholic social teaching to the whatever-it-is we have, the mass of habits inculcated by bad education and worse entertainment–the Unsociety.

It will require a great deal of hard thinking, a deep knowledge of history and of human nature, and patient prayer–just the things that our electoral politics makes nearly impossible.  But it must be done, for the sake of humanity itself, threatened by the collusive interests of technocrats, bureaucrats, mediacrats, and all the other crats who burden us with their wisdom and their insufferably benignant lust for power.

I won’t recommend any particular program here.  I have an innate loathing of programs, anyway.  But any solution must provide people with the wherewithal – economic, political, and moral – to rebuild the social ties we have lost.  Consider, for the sake of argument, a young couple moving to Freemanville, with its thousand or so subscriptions to magazines like Town Journal.  They are, of course, married; notably absent from Town Journal’s questionnaire is any reference to crime or to out-of-wedlock births.  They have, then, already engaged in that most social of all actions, without the corrosive shacking-up beforehand.

The lady down the street, a member of the town’s Welcome Wagon, shows up that week with a couple of apple pies, and asks if they need anything of a practical nature – because when you move into a house there’s always something you forget to bring along, like soap or shaving cream or a broom or a dustpan.  Within two weeks you’ve met a good dozen of your neighbors, and you’ve been invited to church, or to the block party, or to the fireworks display on the Glorious Fourth.  I am not sentimentalizing here.  This is how people lived; or rather, this is how people live, if they but have the opportunity, just as dogs outdoors will run about and sniff things, and cats outdoors will sleep in the shade and hunt mice.

All of these human connections are founded upon, and imply, moral expectations.  That is what our pseudo-liberals continually fail to acknowledge.  The moral law is liberating.  It builds trust.  A person entering a community enters, ipso facto, a moral community, whose freedom and breadth of action is predicated upon, at least, the practical virtues of neighborly and family life.  In a genuine community, a teacher would no more expect to be able to describe sexual perversions to ten year old children without suffering the opprobrium of their parents – without losing his job and being run out of town or thrown in jail – than you would suppose that your next door neighbor was inviting your son into the parlor to look at smutty magazines.  The teacher, the neighbor, the clergyman, and you might disagree on which road to pave, or which senator is the less dishonest, but your wide moral agreement will make you socii even when you do not like one another.

And what about the poor?  Those we will always have with us, says Jesus.  In the Unsociety, the answer is the heroin of entitlements, detached from responsibility, from gratitude, and from love; an inhumanity for inhumanity.  As to what that engenders, places like Detroit can testify.  Jesus, I am sure, did not come among us to preach abstractions about federal largesse – the largesse of the heads of a tax-farming protection racket.  He preaches love, and that can never be comfortable.  Somehow we must once more engage the poor as human beings–-with all the sinning and the folly from which our common humanity suffers.  But we will never do that so long as we allow most human engagements to be blotted out or attenuated by our own anticultural bad habits, and by those in government and its feeders who benefit from the alienation.

Anthony Esolen

By

Professor Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. He is a senior editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine. His most recent books are The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press, 2010) and, most recently, Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). Professor Esolen has also translated Dante.

  • Tisantir

    “a forty question test to see whether you live in a healthy town”
    implies that there were already plenty of unhealthy towns in 1955.

    More seriously, the problem is an inability or the resistance of the conservatives to a social-type  thinking. They are like Familist

    • emer83

      Of course there were unhealthy towns  as there were 100, 1000, 5000, years ago. Human nature doesn’t change. It’s a liberal trope: stamp out ignorance, obesity, injustice. Why not ugliness, low intelligence, cruelty? Government has limited ability to mold a man and maybe that is good because the societies that try to control human behavior to the extreme have names: North Korea, China during the Cultural Revolution, the Soviet Union, Syria.

      Civilization is a sloppy struggle; the present education system is an expensive monopoly. We are not getting smarter kids for our enormous investment. Time to encourage competition.

      By the way, a terrific article by a true scholar.

    • JP

      Not as many as there are now. And if you consider K-12 education (usually the largest budget item of any town, city, or state) you must conclude that Americans today are quite insane. K-12 Education consumes hundreds of billions of dollars. Today, Americans spend more on K-12 Education than any G-20 nation. And what do we get for this extravagent expense?

      I, for one believe even the states can no longer manage public education. In most states, education and property taxes are collected and administrated from a state bureaucracy. Local cites, townships and counties no longer have control of their main form of revenue -property taxes, as well as their largest expense item- K-12 schools. To make matters worse, federal mandates such as the No Child Left Behind law create a level of bureaucratic control and cost that drive education even higher.

      For the sake of the fiscal health of our cities and counties I suggest we abolish public education in toto, and leave it up to the families and neighborhoods to educate their offspring. The results wouldn’t be much worse than what we have today.

      • givelifeachance2

        Hear, hear.  Many more people could homeschool than do.  If the mom was not well-served by her own public schooling, now’s the time to dig in and learn something along with, (or right ahead of) the kids.

      • Martial_Artist

        JP,

        I am thoroughly unclear why you state

        Local cit(i)es, townships and counties no longer have control of their main form of revenue -property taxes, as well as their largest expense item- K-12 schools.

        If they do not have control, who would you assert does control property tax revenues?

        Pax et bonum,
        Keith Töpfer

      • watcher1954

        JP,
        I agree on the cost control comment. Today you have many more “school boards” and education is a business. The leaders of these boards are now preffesionals and in the larger districts they make considerable salries and are layered away from accountability. Add to this the 2 working parent or single working parent situation where responsibilty for raising the child is left to the school and ultimately to complaints when the child has been disciplined and you get a structure that is more politcal in nature and the interest of the child suffers.

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  • Martial_Artist

    I think there is a better (doubtless not perfect) solution to the present morass. The problem, in my opinion, is not as much the public funding of education as it is the public operation of the schools. Herein follows the rough outline of a proposal that observes the Rule of Law (i.e., treats every student equally before the law insofar as public funds are concerned), yet provides at least some market pressure to improve the return on investment of those public funds:

    • Allow any school to be formed and offer its services to the public that can demonstrate they meet a published standard of educating children (i.e., is accredited by a truly impartial accrediting agency).

    • The parents of each child will be given a voucher, redeemable at any accredited school of the parents choosing, public, private, parochial. The value of the voucher will be equal to the cost for a child of the same age/school year to be educated in the public schools.

    • Any parents who wants to send their child(ren) to a more expensive private or parochial school will have to pay the difference between total tuition and the value of the voucher.

    • At the end of each academic year, the children will be tested using a standardized test, and renewal of accreditation hinges on the aggregate performance of all the children in a particular school/grade.

    It may not be perfect, but I think it reasonable to start from the assumption that, as a general rule, the parents are most likely to hold the interests of their children’s education at a higher level than anyone else. And I seriously doubt that it could possibly work out worse than the present system of government-operated, union-dominated schools that are characteristic of many of our larger cities.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

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  • swoltze

    I have only experienced two real societies in my life–that is, where the inhabitants shared the same substantial worldview and a high degree of solidarity.  Firstly, in a small town of dairy farmers where the parish priest joined the SSPX after then-bishop Levada ignored his pleas about a cadre of homosexual priests (weren’t the 80s great?) as well as heretical teachings and practices.  That was my grandparents’ community, and it was a refuge from my abusive home life.  Then when I went to maximum security prison for robbing banks at the age of eighteen, I “earned” my way into the ruling society of “solid cons”, and enjoyed real friendship and recovered a strong moral sense (yes, there is honor among thieves–at least when they are locked up for a long time!).

    I’ve been out of prison eighteen years now, and the closest friends I’ve had in my life were some of the murderers, robbers, drug dealers and confidence men I was locked up with.  Deep friendships depend upon trust, and there is no trust where there is not a shared worldview that involves a deep commitment to selflessness.  That’s why you meet so many Vietnam vets who cherish the most hellish time of their life–a time when they had real friends.  Our fragmented country has lost so much…

  • Alecto

    This loss of society, or Unsociety to which Mr. Esolen refers, is a direct consequence of loss of morality.  The attractive solution would be to instigate “programs” to construct false community.  The much more difficult and honest solution is to rediscover and strengthen the moral component of every individual.   However, in order to do that we must allow suffering, consequences and we’re clearly not up for that! 

    How can we do that when we live in a country led by those who are increasingly hostile to any moral code, hellbent on avoiding or mitigating the painful consequences of immorality to the point that they embrace and codify immorality?  A country where an honest prayer is banned in the public square, the public school and I would assume eventually anywhere? 

    We no longer live in a country rule by law, nor by men, but by mewling clodpoles.  We’ll have to formulate our own society without regard to anything outside of it. 

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