Normally I would post exceptionally good comments as updates to the original post that generated the comments, but I’m not doing that on the “Political Mental Map” post because I don’t want people to debate them in the comments. I’m moving the comments that struck me strongly to separate posts. I’m going to start this as a series. Please feel at liberty to comment on the particular claims made in these breakout posts.
Here’s one from reader RBH:
In terms of personal things that make up a roadmap to how I actually got here:
1) Substitute teaching at large public high schools. Before I started grad school I was working a bunch of different odd jobs, and taught at a number of big high schools in Austin, and it was just a behavioral nightmare. I was about 10 years out of high school myself, and was just shocked at the crudeness and disrespect of these kids. My empathy for them vanished. There was a difference though school to school, and it had a lot to do with whether or not the Principal backed the teachers in holding the line on rules, or if they wanted to be lenient on students. The lenient schools were a disaster, students always sunk to the lowest expectation. At the end of the day though, I concluded that it wouldn’t matter one bit how good these schools were, it had everything to do with the culture, home, and family they grew up in. No amount of money could fix them.
2) Going to grad school at a policy school, and being disappointed. These schools are the epitome of managerial class thinking. It’s all about data this data that – social problems are seen as an equation. There was little discussion of separation of powers, the limitation of agencies based on their governing statutes, let alone culture or human nature, people were just seen as rational actors that responded to various incentives – regardless of culture or social context. And indeed our government has turned into a massive, mostly-failed, experiment in applied social science, and when programs don’t work, they don’t go away, they get bigger. There was a divide in the school though among scholars and practitioners, and I got a lot more from the political theorists. It always struck me, and still does, that we aren’t even working off the same concept of human nature, especially as a Christian that believes in human fallenness and propensity toward sin. I learned just as much from a couple of guys I met there that liked to get together and talk about all this stuff, and knew way more than I did. They’re still my best friends, and one – who was deeply influenced by and introduce me to people like Wendell Berry and Patrick Deneen – finished first in the class, but followed his theories to their logical ends, and upon graduation, moved back to his hometown, and got involved in a local business that is very tangible, real, and employs local people. I don’t doubt one bit that he’s happier than our classmates pushing paper in DC trying to fix people’s problems they’ll never see, he’s actually doing something about it – he sells beer.
This brought to mind a formative experience I had, that I had forgotten about. I can’t believe this slipped my mind. This is probably the MOST politically formative experience for me!
Longtime readers know that I went through a period in my life — ninth and tenth grade, which I guess is ages 14 and 15 — in which I was bullied in school. What made it especially painful was that the bullies included guys who had been my best friends throughout elementary school. They wanted to be part of the cool older crowd once we got to ninth grade, and for whatever reason, that meant throwing me over the side, and joining my tormentors. The initiating event for that, as I’ve written before, was a group of the cool kids — boys — holding me down in a hotel room on a beach trip, and trying to pants me to impress their girlfriends, who were looking on. There I was, pinned to the floor, begging the two adult chaperones in the room to help me, and they literally stepped over me to get out of the room. They wanted to be cool parents, and that meant not saying no to the cool kids.
In the two years I spent in that school after that event, I learned that the people you thought were your best friends will turn on you just like that, when they perceive their self-interest requires it. I learned that people, when they mob up, are horrible, and only strong authority can protect vulnerable individuals from the mob. But I also learned that authority cannot be trusted — that those in authority will look for every reason they can to avoid exercising it when it would involve punishing those they favor.
To see that lesson play itself out decades later, in the Catholic abuse scandal — well, suffice it to say that that confirmed my priors with the force of an asteroid strike. I believe that writing about the scandal twenty years later as a journalist reactivated a lot of ugly crap that I had buried, and led to my loss of Catholic faith.
A much more minor, but still interesting lesson that formed my political mental map — this, related to RBH’s story.
I left home to start my junior year in high school at a publicly-funded boarding school for gifted kids in Louisiana. After the first six weeks, we were sent home for a long weekend break, and I visited my favorite teacher in my old school. I sat in on one of her classes. I was shocked to see how much time she had to spend disciplining the class. It had been invisible to me before, because I had never known classrooms to be different. In the first six weeks at my new public school, teachers never had to discipline their students. Everybody was quiet, well-behaved, and wanted to learn. Because teachers didn’t have to spend so much time and effort disciplining classes, we were able to cover so much more ground, and the classroom process was much less stressful.
Like RBH, from that I learned that most people lack self-discipline. In most cases, the lack of strong home training will show itself. The point of government is to protect those who want to do the right thing, and build up the community, from the jackasses who want to ruin it for everybody else.
I have a complicated and contradictory political view. I do not trust the People, but I don’t trust Authority either. The paradox here, as I wrote about in my book The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, is that the same tight communal bonds that made small-town life very hard for outsiders and marginalized people like me were what made things so beautiful and loving for my late sister as she suffered from cancer. That is, the things that held me down when I was a teenager living there were not all that different from the things that held her up when she was terminally ill. I don’t know what to do with that. Still don’t.
I tend to have a mildly authoritarian personality, because I fear chaos (which empowers bullies), but I also do not trust authority to do the right thing. If it does, I’m pleasantly surprised. As I wrote in that first post, I came to trust conservative government and the Roman Catholic Church to be sources of authority, and good exercisers of it. The abuse scandal and the Iraq War (as well as Bush administration cronyism) destroyed that.
I hadn’t thought about it till now, but one reason I push the Benedict Option is because I have no faith in the leadership of our large institutions to address effectively the crisis in which we all find ourselves.
Oh, one more thing: watching the 1978 TV miniseries Holocaust. I was 12 years old, and interested in World War II. I had a vague knowledge about the Holocaust, and wanted to watch the show because I was interested in the war. I recall watching with mounting horror as things turned for the German Jews. On the second or the third night of the week-long broadcast, there was a scene in which the Germans lined a bunch of naked Jews up beside a trench, and shot them en masse. I was lying on my left side on the green shag carpet floor in our living room watching that — and I started to sob. I began convulsing. My father rose from his chair and carried me to my bed. That was the end of Holocaust for me.
That right there was the beginning of my fear and loathing of the mob.