In the comments to the Brooks item below, Neil asks me to address a couple of issues raised by commenters on the NYT site, re: David’s column:
1. One commenter notes that “Community also has its dark side.” Another suggests that Brooks is “lionizing” small-town America with a story that is perhaps unrepresentative. Have you ever fully addressed this “dark side” of community?
I think I have, on a number of occasions, though not in a single post. I experienced bullying and social exclusion when I was in high school — the sort of thing that you’d find anywhere, but when you live in a small town, and go to a small school, there’s really no place to find refuge. When I went off to a public boarding school for gifted kids, I found that my new friends there who had come from big-city schools were different from we who had come from small-town schools. We small-town kids mostly felt like we had finally found solid ground — a place where we wouldn’t be picked on for being weird, or bookish. The big-city kids had found their own niches in their big-city schools.
What Ruthie’s death and dying revealed to me is that the same qualities that a teenage me found so oppressive about small-town life were the very things that held my family up during this terrible trial. I saw these things with different eyes. As I’ve written before, Alan Ehrenhalt, in his 1995 book “The Lost City,” points out that we all want the blessings of 1950s-style community, without the burdens. This is an impossible dream. You can’t have both maximal individual autonomy and a strong sense of community. One has to give. Earlier in my life, I was prepared to give up community for the sake of liberty — not only was I prepared to do so, but I did do so. But as time went by, and certainly when my healthy sister was struck down by cancer at a young age, I came to understand the true value of what I had left behind. And I came to love it again. That’s why I’m here. It’s not that I expect to find utopia here. Some of the same things I bridled against when I was 15 are still present. But there is no such thing as the perfect place, and now I have been given the vision to see and to embrace the goodness that was here all along. With that, though, comes accepting all the limitations and flaws of small-town life, and affirming its goodness all the same.
I was speaking the other day to someone here who told me about an unlikely friendship he’d developed with an irascible older man, who has since died. My interlocutor told me that he couldn’t imagine another kind of place where a man like him could have made genuine friends with a man like the older one, given the radical difference, even hostility, between their views on life. What my interlocutor meant, I think, was that living in this small town compelled them both to look at each other and recognize their mutual humanity, despite their great differences, and to work through that. People who live in big cities like to think that it is they who live in a truly diverse context, but that is often only superficially true. You can, if you like, create a community for yourself in a big city in which you only ever have to deal intimately with people who are just like yourself. That’s just not possible in a small town, at least not in the small town where I live. You know everybody, and everybody knows you.
I suspect that many will worry about exclusion. Would the entire town would have rallied around Ruthie if she were x?
I think probably they would have, though I don’t know. The thing to know about Ruthie is that they rallied around her in large part because she was the kind of person who was a friend to everyone, and who had taught many of the children in the community in the middle school. Ruthie was not a stranger; she was a big part of the community, and gave generously of herself. I can imagine that someone who lived a fairly reclusive life here probably wouldn’t have benefited from such an outpouring of generosity. But I don’t know. Julie and I were sitting here just now talking about the great time we had last night, with people just dropping by and staying late, feasting. I said to her, “That happened 10,000 times in our house growing up.” My folks were, and are, just like that. They’ve always been extremely hospitable, and always genuinely enjoyed it. You make that kind of investment in your neighbors, and people will rally to your side when you need them.
2. Another commenter writes,”I also have sympathy for the millions of other people who don’t have such community support. Not everyone is lucky enough to have extended family and friends to care for them in their time of need, or to mourn their passing.”
It’s too easy, I think, to suggest that such people, who usually go on to suggest universal health care, simply want the benefits and not the obligations of community.
How would you respond to those who suggest that it is just unrealistic to think that most Americans can “rely on the kindness of strangers or a community,” so that Ruthie’s story, though wonderful, isn’t really all that politically relevant?
A few things come to mind. It’s puzzling to me how some folks want to jam this narrative into familiar political categories. I think you’re right that some folks want the benefits of community, but not the obligations. What’s peculiar is the idea they have that this kind of communal solidarity — of neighborliness — obviates the need for governmental support, e.g., Social Security. Why is it an either/or? Ruthie had good medical insurance that paid most of her bills, but insurance doesn’t cover everything, and it was a generous and needed thing for the community to hold a fundraising concert for her. Ruthie and her family took what was to be their final family vacation this past summer to South Carolina. I’m sure they used some of the concert money to pay for that. It was a great and unforgettable gift by the people of this community to the Leming family.
Anyway, to the extent that having the welfare state pay for certain things teaches the rest of us to forget our moral obligations to help our neighbors in time of trouble, the welfare state deforms the moral community. I know some on the right think that private charity should be the only form of charity, but that too is impossible. This place where I live is not wealthy, and it would be impossible for the community itself to meet all the medical needs of its residents. A community-focused conservatism would also be critical of a kind of libertarianism that allows individuals to do whatever they want to with themselves and their property, without any respect for the physical ecology of this place, or its moral ecology (Wendell Berry writes with real potency about this kind of thing, and how neither the conventional left nor the conventional right can offer an adequate accounting for the role of the individual in the community).
I consider it my moral responsibility to pay taxes to support the fire department, EMS, libraries, and other community institutions. But I don’t think my moral responsibilities to my neighbors ends with the payment of taxes.
Plus, given our national finances and the coming burden on the welfare state from aging Boomers, our government is going to be very hard-pressed to do even as much as it does now. We are going to have to find a way to re-establish and/or strengthen communal bonds, out of necessity. This is highly relevant, politically, and will become moreso. Robert Nisbet, I believe, said that the loss of community is one of the chief problems, and perhaps the chief political problem, of our society today. About the contemporary political relevance of the kind of conservatism with which I identify, Allan Carlson writes:
A second less-travelled path was conservative communitarianism, a defense of society’s little platoons, a suspicion of all big entities, including the great corporations and the national security state. While prefigured in Burke and also to be found in Russell Kirk, this orientation received full expression in the work of sociologist Robert Nisbet. His 1953 book Quest for Community focused on “the individual uprooted, without status, struggling for revelations of meaning, seeking fellowship in some kind of moral community.” Nisbet dissected what he called the “ideology of economic freedom” falsely built on an atomistic view of human nature. He argued that “the so-called free market never [really] existed at all save in the imaginations of the rationalists.” The 19th century capitalist system seemed to work, Nisbet asserted, only because it had inherited the moral capital of truly natural communities — the family, the village, the church — “which had nothing whatsoever to do with the essence of capitalism.” Direct social affiliation alone brought acceptable order: “Not all the asserted advantages of mass production and corporate bigness will save capitalism if its purposes become impersonal and remote, separated from the symbols and relationships that have meaning in human life.”
Could it be that the solutions, imperfect as they can only be, to some of our most intractable political and social problems might be worked out more effectively not in Washington, but in places like St. Francisville? I think so.