The Nation of Alcatraz

President Clinton, wagging his finger in accusation, has said that the Republican philosophy of government is, “You’re on your own.”  The sheer absurdity of the statement staggers the mind.  I doubt there is a single person in the nation who knows, even approximately, the number of government programs at all levels instituted to assist the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, the handicapped, and others in special need.  That is not counting the number of private institutions, more effective at what they do, established for the same purposes, nor to mention the charitable assistance afforded by other groups whose main purpose is something else, or assistance given informally by free associations of people, or privately, by individuals.

Almost all of the persistent poverty in the United States—as opposed to temporary rough patches which some families endure—is the result not of misfortunes like the death of a breadwinner, or famine, or the predations of the rich, but of vice.  The sexual revolution that rich graduates of Yale and Princeton justified for us all has been especially devastating for the weakest among us—those who aren’t graduating from Yale and Princeton.  But that aside, there’s something queasy-making about Mr. Clinton’s easy condemnation of the dictum, “You’re on your own.”

I write as a Thomist Catholic; I am quite aware that man is meant for community, and that we find ourselves only in our love for others.  Let me then take the “you” in the dictum as plural.  Then it means, “You, you people, in your own neighborhood, your own parish, your own town, are on your own.”  And that is an altogether different thing from the atomized individualism that is quite happy to share a bed with the collectivist state.  The community—a true community, not some vast abstraction of an anthill—is a threat to both.  The last thing that the atomist or the collectivist wants is a healthy community on its own, competent to take care of its own without the dictates and the protection money of the national government, and competent to uphold its customs and values against the selfish vagaries of the atomist.

Let me illustrate with the example of a man who was simultaneously on his own as much as a man can be, and quite literally hemmed in by the state.  Robert Stroud was a convicted murderer who, while in prison, killed a guard in a violent altercation, and was sentenced to hang.  His mother embarked upon a campaign to have the sentence commuted to life imprisonment.  She sought out Edith Wilson, the wife of the president, whom a stroke had rendered barely able to fulfill the duties of office.  She persuaded Mrs. Wilson that her son was not merely a monster, but was a man of some worth.  The sentence was commuted, but the attorney general, construing matters in the harshest possible way, ordered that Stroud suffer solitary confinement, indefinitely.

One day, while trudging about the blacktopped courtyard for exercise, Stroud discovered a small baby bird that had fallen from his nest.  Moved with pity for it, he took it into his cell and nursed it to health.  The film Birdman of Alcatraz tells the rest, with great care for the particulars.  Stroud fashioned the severed end of a glass bottle, fired in a “furnace” he engineered with matches and sticks, into a birdbath.  He asked for an apple crate from a friendly guard, and, with a small knife and a lot of precise blueprints, constructed a birdcage with hundreds of tiny strips of wood—a job that took him seven months.

The inmates in the cells nearby—whom he never touched and could rarely see, and with whom he sometimes communicated in Morse code tapped upon the water pipes—grew to like the birdsong coming from Stroud’s cell.  They requested from the prison officials canaries of their own.  Stroud soon had a regular aviary, with dozens of birds, in cages and on perches that he had carved, without help from anybody.

Then the birds contracted a disease called septic fever.  A veterinarian—who had supplied him with a microscope and taught him how to use it—made the diagnosis, and told Stroud that there was no known cure.  So Stroud began a frenzied study of avian diseases, while his beloved birds were falling ill and dying.  He compounded various chemicals until finally, after hundreds of hours of single-minded work, he happened upon the cure.  That began Robert Stroud’s career as a researcher and a writer of learned articles on the subject.

It should be noted that none of what Stroud accomplished happened because of the prison system.  A lenient warden allowed him to order bird seed, books, chemicals, and other necessaries, but the work was all his.  Also notable is the fact that this hobby brought the prisoners together—it was the most important thing they shared.

All was going well for Stroud, and it seemed he might even be paroled.  A kindly woman, a lover of birds, had ferreted out the truth, that the writer of those fine articles in bird magazines was serving a life sentence.  She visited him and offered him a business proposition.  She would promote and sell his cures, and they would split the profits.  They fell in love and were married—in part also to protect the business from the law forbidding inmates to engage in any activities for profit.  Stroud had even written an entire book about birds and their care, a book that the veterinarian called a work of genius.  Who knows what this wholly self-taught man could do if he were given the chance to study human diseases?

But his mother turned against him.  The film suggests that she was envious of his love for his wife.  The maternal love had turned sour.  Rather than have her son enjoy freedom owing to the ministrations of someone else, she preferred to have him remain in prison, and said, to a reporter, that he was exactly where he belonged.

I believe we can draw a good analogy between Stroud’s mother, the prison system, and the induced dependency of the welfare state.  Mrs. Stroud did not want her son to be “on his own,” that is, to have established, without her management, a community of persons and of love—the marriage, and the associations of customers and bird-lovers which the married couple served.  She feared that independence, as rendering her superfluous.

Far from gaining a parole, Stroud was soon transferred from Leavenworth to Alcatraz.  He was compelled to leave his aviary behind.  The instigator of the transfer was a longtime nemesis, the warden under whose care he had killed the guard long before.  So Stroud embarked upon his next passion—he researched the history of the American penal system, and wrote a tome condemning it for its stupidity, incompetence, and cruelty.  In a pointed interchange with the warden, he says that the prisons rob the prisoners of their individuality, and that therefore they must fail.

Again, it helps here if we keep in mind the ambiguity of Mr. Clinton’s accusation, “You’re on your own.”  What the imprisoning government does is to rob people, both individuals and the natural communities that those individuals form, of their just freedom of action and of the true adventure of human life.  Take for example the dreadful public schools wherein we confine the urban poor.  We say, implicitly, “You people cannot take care of yourselves,” but what we really fear is that they will find ways of taking care of themselves without our ministrations.  If, for instance, we allocated to the parents a half or a third of the money that the protectors and wardens pour into the public schools, and allowed them to use that money in their own self-invented schools or into local religious schools, the children would certainly benefit—and we know this.  But we don’t do it, for the same reason Mrs. Stroud, in the end, preferred to have her son behind bars.

The welfare state is a soft prison, a system of induced incapacity, to the benefit of the wardens.  It works in concert with public schools, another vast network of compulsions, whose existence is predicated on the assumption that learning, in children, is unnatural, so that only “experts” can fathom the mystery, and so that “good” parents will act as trusties, submitting to the authority and enforcing its often ridiculous and pernicious commands.  The next network of control is an infantilizing media, persuading people that they are stupid or fat or ugly, that they live in a shack, that they wear rags, that they need what the hawkers provide.  The last element is a diseased and counterfeit individualism: the promotion of selfishness and of vices that make true self-reliance, and therefore true community, impossible.

“You’re on your own”—a good father might say that to his son, in love, in communion, and mean, “I am confident in you, I know that you can handle whatever comes your way.”  Or, again construing the pronoun as a plural, the phrase might mean, “You people are free.  We won’t extort money from you in order to buy your allegiance at the price of your liberty.  We are confident that you will come up with fascinating ways to teach your children and police your streets and take care of those in special need.  You can do these things.  More to the point, only you can do these things.  We cannot, and we do not pretend to.”

If only we were given the chance.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Patrick

    I think President Clinton was making the point that the Republicans feel like they have made it up the latter now pull it up so others can’t.
    I hear a lot of Ayn Rand coming from the Republicans especially the VP Candidate–not exactly a Catholic philosopher.

    • Ford Oxaal

      Democrats get poor folks to vote for them, therefore they are incentivized to make people poor. Republicans get rich folks to vote for them, therefore they are incentivized to make people rich. What I wish is that the Democrats were the party of human dignity, pro-life, vocational training, welfare with dignity not dependency, and all the things that keep raw capitalism from trampling on human dignity. I wish the Republicans were the party of free enterprise, entrepreneurship, invention, intellectual property, fair trade policy, and all the things that keep free enterprise going, and keep cronyism out. Then the parties could fight over things that we can actually control and that actually matter — the tug of war between raw economic freedom and human dignity. America would do well to remember God and Christ, and seeing the Democrats boo God at the convention was sickening and mob-like. Nationally, they have become the party of atheism and statism — the worst sort of thugs. I could not vote for them even if they paid me cash for my vote and threw in a year’s supply of gin (I’d rather make my own).

      • Matt

        “Democrats get poor folks to vote for them, therefore they are incentivized to make people poor. Republicans get rich folks to vote for them, therefore they are incentivized to make people rich.”

        Ford Oxaal, this does not appear to be accurate. It is the very poor states with large percentages of people Romney considers deadbeats who tend to vote for Romney. Eight of the 10 states with the highest percentages of “free-loaders” (or people who don’t pay income tax) will likely vote for Romney. Perhaps this has something to do with the positive correlation between education attainment and voting Democrat. It is the least educated and the poorest who tend to vote conservative.

        • Adam_Baum

          What you describe as “education”, many would describe as indoctrination.

          Don’t confuse four years of regurgitating booze and liberal dogma with education.

          • Ford Oxaal

            Would be funny if not so true. Higher education these days is often tantamount to a funding mechanism for sleepy-eyed liberals and careers in “bad sociology”, a branch of sociology dedicated to the pedagogy of relativism, atheism, communism, statism, materialism, public administration-ism, feminism, etc., along with government funded studies such as exploring in situ the effects of southern hemisphere native plant species on the sexual reproductive capacity of tree monkeys and college coeds. How many billions are spent corrupting the culture for short term power?

        • Ford Oxaal

          I watched both conventions, listened to a lot of speeches, saw Clint Eastwood dress down the absentee President in a rare non-teleprompter moment, and watched God get booed by the rank and file at the Democrat convention. Nice crowd there, Democrats! The Democrats were peddling victimization, demonizing success, looking like a goth freak show (except for the Obamas who put on their Cleaver family disguises and pretended to be Dan Quayle-like family values people) and pushing for no spending cuts (as if a bunch of trial lawyers calling themselves Congress can intelligently spend the unfathomable amounts of American greenbacks — soon to become ten cents on the dollar — they are drenching themselves in.) Cardinal Dolan came out at the end of both conventions to perform the exorcism :). You have to realize that everytime the government increases benefits for their workers, it makes it that much harder to hire in the private sector. I know a small prototyping machine shop that could not hire a really good machinist who had been let go, because Uncle Sam extended his unemployment benefits and he thought he would take another year off — sort of like the sabbaticals teachers get. The collateral damage caused by that one “do gooder” act of governmental vote purchasing is enormous — the difference between success and failure — the straw that broke the camel’s back.

    • Adam_Baum

      Do you mean ladder, an apparatus for vertical ascent, as opposed to latter which means after or subsequent?

    • Alecto

      Patrick, I understand the criticism of Rand, and share it from the standpoint that she is not a moral leader. It’s interesting to me that the same critique raised against Rand isn’t mentioned in reference to Marx? The man was clearly immoral.

      Rand came from a totalitarian system and is instructive as far as understanding the argument for economic liberty. Paul Ryan is also well-versed with Bastiat, Locke, Montesquieu, Hayek, Mises, Friedman and others. It is a body of economic philosophy in its totality we should seek to understand, then apply to economic problems, which is what Paul Ryan is doing with his (now defunct) budget plan.

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  • Dawn

    Patrick, Patrick, Patrick. Look at the charitable contributions of Republican states vs Democrat states. Compare the charitable giving of some of the top Republicans vs top Democrats.( truely charitable causes, not political groups) There are multiple stories how Mitt gave of his time, talents, and money to help those in need. What has Barack done personally for people? Haven’t heard any testimonies. He has a half brother living in a hut in Africa and he has never lifted a finger for him.
    Ask a business man why he’s not hiring. The answer is fear of what the government is going to strap on him next, especially with Obama Care.Republicans want to help you climb the ladder. Dems have that ‘saftey net’ they are turning into a hammock.
    I hear a lot of Marx coming from the Democrats–not a Catholic philosopher, either.

    • NH observer

      Don’t forget 0bama’s total lack of ‘generosity or care’ for his aunt who’s in the US illegally, lived off the public dole in Boston for years and finally was granted asylum because she feared ‘violence and health risks’ if she returned to Kenya. Note that multiple members of her family currently reside quite unmolested in Kenya but do not have housing, food, living expenses funded by US taxpayers.

      Then there is 0bama’s uncle, Onyango Obama also not legally in the United States and has been previously ordered removed from the country, arrested for drunken driving and still here. His immigration status is still not clear despite the fame he earned by driving into a police car while ‘under the influence’.

  • hombre111

    According to a poll cited in today”s New York Times, only 40% of Repubs think in terms of community, down from 62% during Reagan’s time. For most Republicans we are, indeed, on our own.

    • Carl

      At least there is something to work with in the Repubs while 110% of the Demorats are socialist-nanny-staters.

    • Mark

      Since the limp-wristed left commandeered the word “community” and redefined it as Federal Gov’t entitlements — who can blame them?

      Community used to mean neighborhood or parish and they practiced real charity. Today, community means 50 million people on food stamps who have money for tattoos,piercings, cigarettes, unlimited texting on i-phones, internet, and watching cable on flat screens.

      There’s a difference between helping those truly in need and being played for fools.

    • Adam_Baum

      To you, “community” is government, and have unbounded and illogical faith in the state, and nothing in voluntary action or associations. I have always thought the insistence on state compulsion by the left is engendered by their own deficient charitable impulse and statistics regarding giving are rather revealing in this regard.

      • hombre111

        Read some of the recent statements on this subject by Pope Benedict. He says government has a definite role to play in maintaining a sound community in the midst of an economic system that creates a few winners and many, many losers. Pope John Paul also explored the same ideas. But Crisis, the Republican Catholic magazine, has probably avoided that subject.

        • Adam_Baum

          And to you, that definite role is unlimited.

          You no doubt can ignore Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical-but I think he anticipated you and your ilk with amazing prescience:

          For, indeed, although the socialists, stealing the very Gospel itself with a view to deceive more easily the unwary, have been accustomed to distort it so as to suit their own purposes,”

          • hombre111

            Read St. Benedict about the evil of private property.

  • Ford Oxaal

    Great article — I really like what Mr. Esolen has to say. And as I am sure Mr. Esolen knows, our federal and oftentimes state overlords don’t want people to have “the chance.” Just this morning I dropped my aging minivan off to get an inspection sticker at a local, family owned garage. The ingenious mechanics there know how to work around the ‘computer’ inside the car — the automatic aging mechanism that blinks fake warning lights at you shortly after you have made your last car payment. These mechanics are heros, fighting the good fight against the planned obsolescence orchestrated by state and federal ‘elected’ official bribe takers and their corporate paymasters. Like the birdman, they operate on the margins.
    Then comes Baronette Obama the ‘do gooder’ and his cohort with the “cash for clunkers” program, spraying their skunklike scent all over the place in the form of filthy, ruling class lucre (confiscated from people like the mechanics who have to buy their idiotic, expensive, junky, inspection gadgetry). Predictably, this misguided munificence and ‘wealth redistribution’ comes with grotesque economic neighborhood effects. Suffice it to say, “cash for clunkers” spelled very hard times for my favorite garage. Like the birdman, my favorite garage has to deal with decidedly atheistic overlords who would not know good if it came to Earth and looked them in the eye. We must choose only the God-fearing for our public servants, not the God-twisting. The federal and state prison doors are starting to swing shut on us all.

  • TricaS

    While I agree with the main point of Prof. Esolen’s argument, he weakens his case with his use of Robert Stroud. The movie, which seems like his sole source of info, badly romanticized Stroud, both his criminal record and his activities in while in prison. A simple widipedia read reveals a lot more about Stroud that is far from admirable, despite his work with birds. Surely there are better examples of truth he can use!!

  • Scott S

    Excellent essay Anthony. Especially about the reliance upon a dysfunctional public education system that is effectively a jobs program for mediocre union teachers not a child enhancing education. Evidence is that we spend the most and have the worst/least results educationally among advance nations. Another major change toward this soft prison mode is already in the planning with the healthcare/Obamacare pending. When we know that our Catholic/parochial, non public, Christian schools, or now “good ” charter schools outside of union/state controlled managemant, have better results for half or third of the price tag. (It’s not rocket science to teach a 4th grader multiplication tables and does not require an advanced degree, with higher union teacher pay for unnecessary educational credentials). Much like the warden and mother’s need for dependence and control of the prisoners, when is government (the warden) going to ” let my people go” , (or be on your own…) to select the best school for their children with THEIR tax dollars? Until this happens on a large scale, significant change toward enhancing our economic prosperity, Christian values based learning and creating a less dependent class won’t occur especially under the current Democratic Party and adminstration

  • Matt

    Romney did not help the thrust of this essay with his recent off the record comments. He said “his job is not to worry” about the 47% (allegedly) of Americans who don’t pay income tax. Of course, Romney’s claim of 47% is an outright fraud, but it was pretty clear he feels that the elderly, the students, the very poor — all those who don’t pay income tax — are “on their own”.

  • I don’t want to romanticize Robert Stroud. I do not say that he was a good man. The movie doesn’t portray him as a good man. It does portray him, however, as a man — not a flunky, not a peon, not a mere victim.
    I’ve been having this same conversation with people up here in Nova Scotia, with regard to “First Nations” people, as the indigenous people here are called. The government first robbed them of their lands and their culture, THEN made up for it by robbing them of their pride and their dignity. Now they are on government strings, and wouldn’t know what to do without them.

  • Greyghosttoo

    God gave each individual person Free Will. He also gave us the Ten Commandments. At death, it is not the community that stands in front of Him, it is only the individual to be judged, alone.

    If the man next door to you is hungry and the neighbor on the right has many cows, is it right for you to take one of the neighbor’s cows and give it to the hungry person? No.
    If some neighbors come by your house and everyone votes to take the cow from the other neighbor to give it to the hungry person next door, is that okay? Well, no.
    How about if you elect a leader of the group and he takes the cow and gives it to the hungry person next door, is that okay? Certainly, not.

    You see, for clarity, doing charity is always a personal choice, not a community choice. Only if you give your own cow are you doing real charity. Forcing or stealing from others, even if part of a group, is not moral.

    Government is never the answer, only Christ is our King. The concept of a benevolent community or government is false teaching, it is only through Him that we will find authentic happiness.

    Think Christ the King, not Man as king.

    • Sometimes the issue can be addressed by discussing the plight of the poor man with the rich man. You may be able to encourage him to join you in assisting the poor man. You might also find that he is already practicing charity as Christ instructed, not letting the right hand (you) know what the left hand (he) is doing.

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