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What Is A Good Society?

That was then. (Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com)

Reader Geoff Guth has a great comment:

I recently moved back to Arizona to (finally!) complete my education. Until the semester begins, I’m supporting myself by driving a tow truck. So I’ve got an interesting perch to observe some of the problems of the working class first hand.

There’s a guy I work with I’ll call Steve. he’s probably about my age, The sweetest guy you’ll ever meet: friendly, generous with his time and effort if you need a hand. He works hard, consistently scores well on his evaluations. And he’s found his niche, because he pretty clearly has some kind of learning disability. He’s good at his job, but he’s never going to advance any further. He’s not going to go out and start a business.

Can we not have an economy that works better for him? When you talk about the problems with privatising social security, I think about Steve and nod my head. When I think about the virtues of single payer health coverage, I think about Steve, who is absolutely not equipped to navigate all of the choices and variables of the private health insurance system we have.

Then there’s “Joe”, who was born into the dysfunctional kind of environment you’ve been discussing with KDW. He’s got a past that includes drug abuse and prison and association with some really bad people. He’s a great teacher, very conscientious at his work. He’s raising kids on his own. He works nights so he can be there during the day. He picks up extra shifts (for which he doesn’t get paid overtime due to a loophole in the law) to make ends meet. He has made the choices to repent and to turn towards a better path.

In exchange for about 50-55 hours a week, these two guys can expect maybe $30k at most. By any measure, they’re doing the right things, making the right choices.

And this is work that is absolutely vital to the community. If we don’t do our job, your commute doesn’t happen.

Contra KDW, who seems content to throw up his hands when confronted with these problems, we know, from the experience of other nations, that there are ways of helping my co-workers live better and with more security.

That is not to suggest that we don’t have an issue with the culture or that we shouldn’t encourage people to make better choices. I’ve had that I. my own life and I’m deeply grateful for it. But we also need better encouragement and better support for people who are doing the right thing.

A $15/hour minimum wage would give every man Jack at my workplace, many of whom are doing the right thing by supporting their families, a pretty substantial raise. Canadian-style single payer (which I have seen first hand and which I know works fairly well) would lift a major burden from them. Maybe there are better solutions that these; maybe there are market reforms that would work better. But all too often, these arguments to the culture from conservatives strike me as nothing more than an excuse to do nothing.

Which brings us back to the attraction of Trump: he has actually correctly diagnosed the problem that the working class (emphasis on working) needs help and support and they have not been getting it.

This is a very good comment. I once read a remark apocryphally attributed to either Peter Maurin or Dorothy Day, I forget which, that defined the “good society” as a society that makes it easier to be good. By that standard, we should structure our society, including our economy, in ways that make it easier for people in it to be good, to do the right thing.

But to do that requires agreeing on what goodness is, and what it looks like in community. This is not something we are prepared to do. If we can’t really agree on a goal, even a broad goal, then we can’t even talk about what we have to do collectively to reach it. Reader Chris Rawlings makes a good point about how the way the most successful (socially and materially) Americans live can be extremely alienating to others:

I also think that one big impediment to the upward mobility of working class whites is how unattractive American success these days really can be. America’s cultural standard is hugely alienating, even to Americans. When working class whites see “success” they see 19 year-olds in New Haven marauding against “microaggressing” professors at one of the country’s most prestigious schools. They see tech designers in skinny jeans and ironic t-shirts modeling the newest iPhone, iWatch, or iWhatever. They see grown men—Olympians!—being feted in the media for supposedly “courageous” decisions to live as women. They see a lot of things that don’t make sense and don’t seem right (and, in fact, are not right).

The same phenomenon is at work throughout the West. French leaders continue to grapple with the challenge of integrating millions of Muslims who find crepes, egalitarianism, and pristinely-spoken French to be bothersome relics of an imagined French moral supremacy. And, conversely, you have plenty of German and French voters, as a reaction to that, who also want to throw aside traditional European pluralism for a meatier nationalism that likewise roots itself in something other than le “triomphe” de l’egalite.

The reality is that the same culture that conservatives’ wildly free market has created has become an odious farce, devoid of anything substantive and transcendent enough to inspire people to cultivate and safeguard it. And without a national, cultural “center,” you have a kind of societal chaos that we have now, where nationalists, technocrats, and nihilists tumble together toward a post-liberal future.

All that Reagan-era language from conservatives about “freedom,” without any reference to what freedom is for, has helped produce this mess. Remember Barbara Bush’s 1992 GOP convention speech, in which she tried to blunt the culture war rhetoric of Pat Buchanan? She said, “However you define family, that’s what we mean by family values.” She surely meant well, but that line showed how vacuous the Republicans were about this stuff. They wanted to instrumentalize the language of moral traditionalism to drive votes, but didn’t really want to affirm moral traditionalism if it contradicted with Freedom, and Individual Choice. A society in which Individual Choice is the highest good, not what is chosen, is one that cannot do anything other than fragment.

Hence the secession movement among moral traditionalists who are ceasing to identify the good life with shoring up the American imperium.  Reader Dominic1955:

[Quoting me: “If you aren’t troubled by KDW’s question — “Why didn’t someone say something?” — then you aren’t thinking about it hard enough. If I saw a situation (again, non-criminal) in which children were suffering and the parents, or parent, appeared neglectful, there’s not the slightest chance that I would say a thing to them.”]

I wouldn’t either. At best, they’ll just think something like “Who the hell does that guy think he is and what kind of nerve does he have telling me how to do X?!” more likely they’ll just tell you to eff off, at worst it might come to blows.

I’m thinking strategic retreat is about the best option as well, and no liberals, that is not merely “I got mine social Darwinism”. I did get mine, but while the working poor might be a new set of tires away from disaster, I’m not there but I’m a bad car wreck or a serious illness away from disaster. I do have to look out for number 1, its my duty as a husband and a father. I got mine and I would be derelict of duty to decide to go trying to “save” other people from their largely self-inflicted vicious poverty.

Other people in my group think the same way-one could say we were “privileged” in that we were raised by responsible people who imparted to us some degree of work ethic and morals but regardless of the nuts and bolts of it, we need to preserve it against any and all encroachment. That isn’t just material things, its also culture, its also religion, its also philosophy and thinking. That’s why I’m in favor of a Benedict Option, I see it happening all around me in embryonic form as we type.

The poor we will always have with us-same with dysfunctional and self-destructive. Sinners all of us, we can only do so much with what we all have. We will never “fix” the whole world or our own country and its a dangerous pipe dream to start down that road to Utopia. Whether people are honest about what they are doing or not, and most progressives will never cop to chasing Utopia, the tendency must be rejected.

And not only the poor, but the dissolute middle and upper classes. As I was writing this post, a reader e-mailed this. I’ve slightly edited it to obscure certain details, for the sake of privacy. The reader knows people directly involved; she’s not just passing on hearsay:

Last week, a high-school honors teacher at [a very upscale school in the reader’s area] discovered his honors students—nearly all of them—were involved in a cheating ring. The administration arranged a sit-down with all of the students and the teacher who had uncovered the cheating conspiracy. Rather than dressing down the students and devising a punishment and process for restitution, the administration invited the students to tell the teacher how they felt after having been found out. Of course, this turned into a free-for-all roast of the teacher—he was too tough, they were driven to cheat by his unrealistic expectations, etc.—after which the students felt much better and “relationship was restored.” And their parents, apparently, were pleased with how the administration handled the crisis.

To borrow a phrase from Chris Rawlings, that rich school, and that wealthy community, has become “an odious farce, devoid of anything substantive and transcendent enough to inspire people to cultivate and safeguard it.”

What kind of children are those wealthy parents and the administrators of that school raising? If my children were attending that school, I would do everything possible to get them out of it, because I would not want them corrupted by the values of the students and parents who make up that community. It takes a village to raise a child — and when the village has gone bad, all the money and appearances of bourgeois stability in the world will not save it.

What is a good society? What are we prepared to do to defend it, and pass it on to our children? Hard choices are upon us, and they’re going to get harder.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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