Ferguson: A View From County Kildare
If you read nothing else about Ferguson — and especially if you are reading other things about Ferguson — read Brian Kaller’s excellent TAC essay about what’s happened to the St. Louis suburb. He grew up in the town next door, and his grandparents lived in Ferguson. Brian now lives in rural Ireland, in County Kildare. He says that the media are going to Ferguson and seeing only what they want to see; that Americans, on the left and the right, are making of Ferguson an icon that confirms what they prefer to believe about race and crime in America.
The most interesting part of his essay is Brian’s talking about what Ferguson looks like from where he lives in the Irish countryside. Excerpt:
When my acquaintances here in Ireland see images of Ferguson, they marvel at the ordinance—here most police don’t even carry guns—but they also tell me Ferguson doesn’t look poor. They grew up here when this country had a fraction of America’s wealth—again, GDP-per-capita—but also a fraction of its crime rate. Like people in many countries or historical eras, they were poorer than Americans today, but also less fearful.
Why they weren’t afraid has many possible answers, but I can suggest a few. Most people knew their neighbors, including local police, and that web of trust cushioned the weight of the world. They enforced most community standards through social pressure, without police. Young males were usually occupied with physical labor rather than mischief. Guns were unknown except for hunting in season. Most people had the skills and infrastructure to provide the rudiments of life or themselves, rather than being financially dependent on strangers. People’s perception of each other was shaped by their interactions, rather than a sensationalist mass media.
I use traditional Ireland as an easy example, but you could say all the same things about most traditional societies, or most American communities as recently as several decades ago. Such communities—poor but scraping by, close-knit, self-reliant—are the rule in human affairs; they are what normal looks like.
Most Americans I talk to live far from family and do not know or trust their neighbors. Most went deeply into debt to afford an education, car or house, and must travel long distances to buy food or get to jobs. Their economic relationships—the means of getting food, water, clothing, warmth, and shelter—are vertical, to strangers in distant and possibly unaccountable institutions, rather than horizontal, to others nearby.
Low incomes carry a social stigma, yet traditional means of saving money or being more self-sufficient are often socially discouraged or even legally prohibited. Many Americans feel their main emotional connections to and through electronic media, and they are the most heavily medicated people in history. Perhaps these things seem irrelevant to police vs. rioters in Ferguson, but that’s the point. When something like this happens, the left and right argue about how to change institutions’ top-down policies toward handling people, not to give people less cause to be handled.