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‘You Can See It All Over. It’s Unwinding’

The spreading malaise, the coming anarchy

“There is no way a man like Donald Trump has any business being president,” the man told me. “You can’t talk like he does and expect people to give you the authority to run the country. The problem is that there is nobody to vote for. Look at all the rest of them running. This is the first time in my life that I don’t feel confident voting for anybody for president.”

And later, with a look of pained resignation on his face: “I tell you, people who don’t think this country is in serious trouble don’t know what they’re talking about. You can see it all over. It’s unwinding.”

I talked to the man, a conservative, at one of the events I went to over the weekend. Mind you, I am in a foul mood. I am three and a half weeks into this sinus infection I picked up in Italy. Antibiotics were only partly successful, and this past weekend, it started showing signs of possibly becoming walking pneumonia. So that’s just thrilling. I tell you this in case my comments here come across as more gloomy than usual.

Over the weekend, I had to drag my cranky self to several events in Baton Rouge and around my town — made much less cranky, although only temporarily, by the magic of a steroid injection — and ended up having some good Trumpish conversations at all of them. “Good” in the sense of people clearly having thought hard about our political situation, and being pretty worried about it. My supposition is that most of these people are fairly conservative, though in one case I spoke with someone who is active in Democratic Party politics. The sense of foreboding I picked up was deep, and went way beyond politics. I’m going to convey to you details I gathered, though I’m going to obscure some of them to protect identities.

One conversation I had at a Baton Rouge event involved a middle-aged white woman who was a longtime public school teacher in a predominantly black school. She is a Christian, and said that if she had not been able to see the face of Jesus in every one of her students, she wouldn’t have been able to stay at it for as long as she did. The problems of her students were completely overwhelming.

“For a long time, we had grandmothers raising children, because the mothers of our kids were strung out on drugs,” she said. “We used to be able to talk to the grandmothers, to let them know what was going on with their kids, by going out to the churches. Over time, the grandmothers slowly dropped out of church. Nowadays, most of them don’t go. We kept seeing grandmothers encouraging their teenage grandchildren to have babies to get another check.”

“That sounds unreal,” I said.

“I know, but it’s happening,” she said, with a look of sorrow. “I had an 18-year-old senior who had three children. Now, we don’t even know who is raising some of these kids.”

A white college professor told me he’s blown away by how hard his working-class students, especially the black ones, work in the face of the desperate circumstances in which they were raised. He said that most of the students who make it into his classes are older, and are not there to play college. They want to learn something, and work. The lives so many of them come out of were badly broken by their parents, or parent.

The professor said that some of the writing assignments his students get involve personal essays. The things they tell you about the lives they have, and have had growing up, boggle the middle-class mind. He said that getting to know these students over the years has made him acutely aware of how devastating divorce is, or having parents who never married. He told a couple of stories that I don’t feel comfortable relating here, even in this vague way. Heartbreaking stuff.

I mentioned to this professor, and to one of his colleagues, a conversation I had had several years ago with professors at a conservative Christian college, in which they expressed deep concern that their students would ever be able to form stable families. This had shocked me because this school was, well, religious, and conservative. How could these kids be so unaware of what a family is, according to the traditional Christian model? The professors (at that Christian college) assured me that it’s not a matter of knowing in your head, but rather a matter of not ever having seen a stable, intact, functional family. The ideal family for them is an abstraction.

These are not the unchurched poor of the housing project or the trailer park. These are middle-class Christian kids. When I told that story to the professors this weekend, they nodded in recognition. They see it too. Every day.

Also over the weekend, I talked to someone who is an administrator at a Catholic school. She said that the teachers at her school say that they are having the worst time trying to get the kids to write logically coherent papers. They simply do not seem to grasp cause and effect. These are not the poor. These are middle class kids. The administrator is baffled and alarmed.

I mentioned to the administrator a conversation I had earlier had with a man whose job as a counselor brings him into daily contact with the public, and who had said to me — in a Trump-related conversation — how frustrated he was with the middle and upper-middle class people he works with. He said that their family life could be falling apart, but they will not accept responsibility for it. They will go to the mat defending indefensible behavior from their children, and defending their own parenting.

The cases, said the man, can be shocking in their obviousness, but these middle-class parents absolutely refuse to look critically at themselves and the way they live, and raise their children. He said that it’s very difficult to pierce the shield of self-protection and self-deception that these people have erected around themselves. It’s always somebody else’s fault.

“Their kids have no direction,” he said. “I’ll have in my office college-age young people with strong test scores and good grades, but no direction. They’re just drifting, and they’re getting no direction from their parents.”

The counselor is around my age. I suggested to him that our generation was not raised that way, but that’s how we seem to be raising our kids.

“This is new,” he said. “I don’t know where this comes from.”

Again: he’s not talking about the poor or the working class. He’s talking about middle class people. He’s talking about the kind of people who look at the dysfunctional black and white poor and working classes and think, thank God I’m not like them.

But they are like them. They just have money. For now.

Anyway, I brought up the counselor’s conversation to the Catholic school administrator, and she shook her head affirmatively.

“All the time,” she said. And she gave examples of the way middle-class parents treat her and her teachers. It’s always Somebody Else’s Fault. Everybody wants to blame Somebody Else for their troubles, the administrator said. I suggested that there is a connection between this and the kids in her school being unable to write papers demonstrating logical, cause-and-effect reasoning. People have become used to thinking of themselves passively, as objects acted upon, instead of acting subjects.

Another person, a Christian, said to me, later, “I’m sick of churches these days. Everything is geared towards ‘meeting your needs.’ They have so many ministries and programs for every possible group, and don’t get me wrong, a lot of them do real good. But the overall effect is to train us to expect to be catered to. If somebody isn’t meeting our needs, then somebody is failing us. That’s the mindset. But that’s not Christianity. It’s supposed to be hard! It’s the Cross!”

A reader sent in the other day this passage from FDR’s 1932 Inaugural (emphasis his):

“Out of every crisis, every tribulation, every disaster, mankind rises with some share of greater knowledge, of higher decency, of purer purpose. Today we shall have come through a period of loose thinking, descending morals, an era of selfishness, among individual men and women and among Nations. Blame not Governments alone for this. Blame ourselves in equal share. Let us be frank in acknowledgment of the truth that many amongst us have made obeisance to Mammon, that the profits of speculation, the easy road without toil, have lured us from the old barricades. To return to higher standards we must abandon the false prophets and seek new leaders of our own choosing.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same, I reckon.

Honestly, I’ve had it with people. I’ve had it with Trump supporters who think their anger and their outrage gives them the right to punch people in the face. I’ve had it with Black Lives Matter and other Social Justice Warriors who think the so-called righteousness of their cause gives them the right to silence those who disagree with them. I’m sick and tired of people who think everything wrong in their lives is because somebody, somewhere, has wronged them. Guess what? You can’t screw whoever you like, have as many kids as you like, or as many partners as you like, walk away from your marriage (if you ever marry), and expect everything to be okay. You can’t drink, drug, party, “keep it real,” make excuses for your children, make excuses for yourself, allow our degraded popular culture to raise your kids, and expect a good outcomes. You can’t throw money at problems and expect them to go away (e.g., pay to send your kids to a Christian school, and assume that your tuition fee contractually entitles you to opt out of the moral and spiritual formation of your children), or assume that being a Nice Middle-Class Person is sufficient. It’s not. I’m tired of the rich and the middle class who expect everything to be handed to them, and fall to pieces when it isn’t. I’m tired of the working class and the poor who live as if their relative material deprivation gives them a pass from having to live by basic standards of conduct that most everybody understood and affirmed within living memory, but which are all but forgotten today.

Above all, I’m tired of a culture in which so many people have no idea how to tell themselves no, to anything, ever. A culture of entitlement. Believe me, I’m talking to myself as well. This is the beginning of Lent for us Orthodox Christians, and I am taking inventory of my own tendencies to sin, to disorder, and I don’t like what I see. You might try it too.

Consider too Canto XVI from Dante’s Purgatorio, in which the pilgrim Dante encounters Marco the Lombard on the terrace of Wrath, and discusses with him the cause of the anarchy and violence in Italy. I wrote about this in this space a couple of years ago. Excerpt:

In less poetic language, Marco concedes that we all have inclinations toward sin, but we can still see good and evil, and have the power, through free will, to resist our sinful inclinations. If we refuse sin the first time, and keep doing so, there’s nothing within our own natures that we cannot overcome. This is what Purgatory is all about: straightening through ascetic labors the crooked paths within us, making ourselves ready for Heaven. Marco goes on to say that if we submit ourselves, in our freedom, to God (“a greater power”), we free ourselves from the forces of fate and instinct. Here’s the clincher:

“Therefore, if the world around you goes astray,

in you is the cause and in you let it be sought…”

Boom, there it is. If you want a world of peace, order, and virtue, then first conquer your own rebel mind and renegade heart. Quit blaming others for the problems in your life, and take responsibility for yourself, and your own restoration. God is there to help you reach your “better nature,” but because you are free, the decision is in your hands.

But you know Dante: there are always public consequences of private vices. In the next line, Marco turns to political philosophy, explaining that as babies, we are all driven by unformed and undirected desire. If we are not restrained in the beginning, we continue on this path, until we become ever more corrupt. This is why we have the law to educate and train us, and leaders to help us find our way to virtue. The problem with the world today, Marco avers, is bad government, secular and ecclesial — especially that of Pope Boniface VIII (his name cloaked here), a wicked man who leads his flock astray.

The rest of this canto concerns itself with analyzing great political questions of Dante’s time, in light of what comes before. For us, we should focus on how the failure of authoritative moral leadership in the family, in the church, in the school, and in other institutions, has brought about our current crisis. Remember how on the terrace of Envy, Guido railed against the progressive decline in moral order owing to parents not raising their children to love virtue? We see a similar judgment here. Yes, each person must be held accountable for his own sins. But it is also the case that the abdication of authority and responsibility by those who ought to be teaching, guiding, and forming the consciences of the young plays a role. Ignorance of the moral law is ultimately not an excuse, but as ever in Dante’s vision, we are not only responsible for ourselves, but also for our neighbors in the family of God (notice that Marco began his address by calling Dante “brother”). If society’s institutions fail to govern justly and teach rightly, the consciences of others will not be “rightly nurtured,” and will, therefore, be conquered by vice.

As it was in the 14th century, is now, and ever shall be. Human nature does not change. Yes, American institutions have failed. A lot of this stuff really is Somebody Else’s Fault. Big business. Big government. The Republicans, the Democrats. The media. The leaders. The followers. The blacks, the whites, the men, the women, Hispanics, gays, Christians, Jews, Muslims, academics, workers, and on and on.

But here’s the thing: you and I, we are somebody else’s Somebody Else.

It’s all anecdotal, these conversations I’ve had this weekend, but thinking about them all on Sunday night, I recall how very little actual political content there was. I don’t know how many of these people I talked to — most of whom were strangers to me — are Trump voters, or planning to vote at all. (The one acknowledged liberal Democrat I talked to lamented how the extremes run both parties, and how partisanship has disempowered the vast middle by demonizing anything that breaks ideological orthodoxy.) What was present in these conversations was fear and anxiety, and a sense that what is wrong with America is much more deep-seated than any politician’s ability to fix. The rot, the decadence. You can see it all over. It’s unwinding.



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