Now, a more serious topic via a couple trivialities : I’m not really complaining, here, because I do get how blessed we are that I have a job that lets us send our kids to excellent Catholic colleges and live a comfortable suburban life. And, in general, our company spoils us worker bees rotten – excellent bennies, good vacation policy, well-stocked free snacks. But life at work has gotten slightly less pleasant over the years due to a very trivial thing: the coffee drinkers here, without any fuss or falderol, used to make a new pot if they emptied the old pot before about 11:00. Just a tiny, thoughtful thing among a bunch of geeky guys.(1)
Sometime in the last year, this practice started to fade, until, now, it’s as likely as not the pot will be empty in the morning. One or more people have decided, it appears, that making another pot is beneath them. So a small, almost always anonymous, communal gesture of consideration has ceased, and we’re all a little less blessed because of it.
Twice in the last couple days, I’ve watched people simply run red lights, clearly on purpose. They just thought they saw a clearing, and went for it. This is not the ubiquitous running of red lights and stop signs to make a right turn, which has become so common I hardly even expect people to slow down, let alone make a rolling ‘stop’. Nope, this was somebody approaching a red light, taking a quick glance for traffic, and then just gunning it. One dude did this on three consecutive red light as we watched.
Stupid and dangerous, yes. But more important, illustrative of a defining trait of our post-post-modern world. For any culture to survive, the people in it must *voluntarily* observe all kinds of restrictions. For most required behaviours – required for the functioning and continuation of any society worthy of the name – there are few if any immediate negative consequences. Eventually, perhaps, whatever serves the function of polite society within a culture will enforce some sort of censure, but that most often takes some time. You may be a cad and a bounder, but people need to figure this out and promulgate it before start not getting invited to parties, not welcomed in homes, and shunned in public.
Your desire to be part of a functional and, insofar as possible, pleasant culture was what drove your behavior, in the event that your sense of right and wrong, especially in the Christian sense of loving one’s’ neighbor, was not sufficient to make one civil.
All this social pressure is before the law enters into it. American culture was built on the idea that law was just to cover egregious, outlying cases. Nobody would be so foolish to think that the law defined the boundaries of acceptable behavior. It’s not like assault and murder were lines a person could legitimately approach so long as he didn’t cross them; or libel and slander the unacceptable points in otherwise acceptable behavior. No, society was in some senses a reflection of family life, in which one has duties and enjoys benefits outside and prior to any legal considerations.
This sense of social duties in the merely day-to-day interactions of polite people in America has been under attack for a couple hundred years now. The real progress in this regard seems to have been made since the end of WWII. (2) I have growing sympathy with those who thought rock and roll was the Devil’s music, if only because it became the premier vehicle for rejection of existing culture behavioral norms. The Summer of Love (sic) was also the summer of some of the best rock music ever – not a coincidence.
After WWII, Americans began raising hippies.(3) Hippies are characterized by choosing their dress and behavior precisely because it was an affront to established social norms. Liberation was indistinguishable from indulgence. As is always and often tragically the case, mixed in with the narcissistic self-indulgence of sex drugs and rock-n-roll were several real issues – the war, civil rights – which, frankly and in retrospect, for many if not most of the people involved, merely provided cover for what was, in essence, a prolonged adolescent melt-down. (4)
The hippies got older (I won’t say grew up) and, as they obtained power, ushered in the Age of Greed, during which only a few people bothered to pretend that their actions were not totally selfish (“Greed is Good”) – most merely Got Theirs, just as they had earlier gotten their share of sex and drugs irrespective of the effects their activities had on others. Less talented or focused people may have failed to seize power and wealth, but the wreckage around us says they didn’t fail to incorporate the attitudes.
How do such people raise their own children, when they failed to abort them? Short answer: mostly, they don’t. Mostly, such children are bounced around between divorced parents, raised by day care workers or teachers reduced to day care workers. As their parents show no loyalty to or even awareness of social obligations and little if any to even family obligations, we’ve now raised millions of children who have learned with their mother’s formula that they are on their own and in it for themselves. Their unhappiness is their problem. When they cry about daddy going away, or being shipped off to day care, they learn quickly and harshly that those feelings of abandonment are their problems. (5)
And so, in increasing numbers, they kill themselves. Or turn to drugs or some other numbing elixir. What they don’t do is see any obligations to anyone or anything that can’t be rejected and ignored the minute they feel like rejecting them.
Which brings us back to running red lights and making coffee. Why should a post-post-modern person stop at a red light, if he thinks he can make it through and there’s no cop? It’s just a dumb law. If I don’t cause a wreck, I’ve kept the spirit if not the letter. Why should he make more coffee? Anybody who wants to can just make his own.
A functioning society worthy of the name (6) relies on the willingness of the people in it to behave well without any immediate enforcement. The key expectations are not and cannot be laws. This body of social requirements includes, at its roots, the ideas that you get married and stay married, you raise your own children, you take care of your own responsibilities while not interfering with the next guy’s efforts to take care of his, and that you look out for each other and support each other’s efforts to keep the society going (e.g., no homewrecking).
Chesterton points out somewhere that people keep seeking freedom in society and law that is only ever realized in private: that the place to be eccentric is the home, not the public square. But this assumes (perhaps a safe assumption in 1930?) that people would typically have a home in which to be eccentric. Now, we’ve reached the point where, for many people, the idea of a home in any but the gross physical sense is foreign. Do you mean the place mommy hangs out, or daddy, or some other place? Grandma’s? Thus, all acting out has to be done increasingly in public, all acceptance must be public acceptance.
And all rules must be public rules. Everything must be expressed in laws.
Except, now, obeying laws is optional except when the cops are around.
The cops are almost never around.
- Because I’m a coffee snob, I’d even wash everything in soap and water once in a while when I’d be on for making the next pot. Brewing Peet’s in a dirty pot is a crime! But I knew that was just me, and didn’t mind at all. Hey, it’s an office of geeky guys.
- One of the things I’ve always loved about Guys and Dolls, which is set in the ’20s or ’30s, is how polite (and well-dressed!) the low-life gamblers and petty gangsters are – even Big Jule, who is hardly more than a thug, wants to be thought socially acceptable. Part of the humor, of course, is listening to dialogues between such riff-raff as they attempt with mixed success to sound like the upper crust they aspire to be. They key is that even they did aspire – they wanted to be respectable.
- Catholics began raising the future priests for whose retirement – and, we hasten to add, replacement by young, orthodox priests – we fervently pray. As well as raising the Nuns on a Bus crowd and their equivalents. Not a good record for the Greatest Generation.
- I’d have said toddler’s meltdown, but toddlers don’t whine about about getting all the sex they want. Otherwise, fits better.
- Ask any school administrator for stories about parent-teacher conferences where the single parent on their 3rd live-in lover wants to know what the school is doing to cause their boy to act out so much. This reveals 2 key assumptions: that the school is raising their kid, and that their own chaotic lives have nothing to do with it. That last is DOGMA. Cross it at great risk.
- I keep throwing that ‘worthy of the name’ stuff in there because I’m thinking of what would have to happen if our Marxist or Alinskyite comrades manage to burn this society down: they need to destroy the social underpinnings to create the level of chaos needed to seize power, but once in power, they need, somehow, to enforce their rules. History shows us how that works. Which is why I mostly feel pity for the True Believers – they are headed to the guillotine or the gulag right after me and mine, and they just can’t see it. They think *they* will be in charge! Insert bitter cackle here.