Thoughts on the British Riots

by Mark A. Signorelli on September 16, 2011 · 41 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Politics & Power

riots

I suppose by now just about everything that can be said about the British riots has been said.  Every culpable feature of modern Western society – from consumerism to the welfare state – has been implicated in the devastation, with much truth on all sides.  The violence is barely behind us, and yet I am already late to this topic.  Still, I think there are a number of points about these events which bear mentioning, and which I have not yet encountered in the press.

The general reaction to the riots strikes me as a very curious admixture of over-reaction and under-reaction.  In and of itself, a riot is no symptom of general societal decay; it indicates next to nothing about the historical trajectory of a people.  There is no period and no nation which has not witnessed the occasional outbreak of mob-perpetrated violence.  London itself, where the recent rioting originated, has seen such things throughout its history, even during eras we might regard as the most illustrious in English history.  For instance, I hold an unabashedly romantic notion of London life in the second half of the eighteenth century, the “Age of Johnson,” a time when one could sit sipping claret in the Turk’s Head with luminaries like Burke, and Joshua Reynolds, and Edward Gibbon.  Yet that generation saw the eruption of the Gordon Riots in 1780, a convulsion of rioting which, in its ferocity and the extent of its destruction, vastly overshadowed what we have just seen.  So there is no reason to rush to fatalistic prognoses about the future of English society just because of a riot.

And yet, such prognoses do seem in order, not because of the riots per se, but because of the character of the rising generation which the riots evinced, a character aptly summed up by Max Hastings, writing in the Daily Mail, thus:  “They have no code of values to dissuade them from behaving anti-socially or, indeed, criminally, and small chance of being punished if they do so. They have no sense of responsibility for themselves, far less towards others, and look to no future beyond the next meal, sexual encounter or TV football game.”  The inarticulate purposelessness of the rioters, their evident relish of destruction for the sake of destruction, is something that has not been seen in the Western world for many centuries.  If we speak candidly about what we saw, we must say that it was barbarism in one of its purest forms.  But the barbarism of Western youth has been there to be seen for quite some time; that is why Theodore Dalrymple wrote that: “To have spotted it (ie, the criminality of the English population) required no great perspicacity on my part; rather, it took a peculiar cowardly blindness, one regularly displayed by the British intelligentsia and political class, not to see it and not to realize its significance.”  Western peoples, and their ridiculously labeled “elites” most especially, have deliberately closed their eyes to the barbarizing effects of modern culture upon its youth for decades.  The riots did not reveal anything not perfectly obvious to an intelligent person for years now, but they have shoved reality into everybody’s faces, and there is no ignoring the facts anymore.

Confronted with the brutality of our youth, the conclusion reached by many observers is that we are in store for a future of riots.  This is what I call a dramatic under-reaction.  To be sure, the kind of mass devastation which we observed in London is soon to become commonplace throughout the West, once we all finally tumble over the precipice of financial ruin (currently being forestalled for a year or two by the central banks’ accounting tricks).  But that is the least of our worries.  Indeed, the least destructive activity in which most of our young people can engage is rioting.  The really horrible thing to contemplate when you listen to interviews with those nihilistic cretins who smashed into electronics boutiques to show those in power “they could do what they want” is what kind of polity they will create when the smashing is over, when time goes by and they grow up and assume control of their country.  What kind of leaders will they appoint? What kind of laws will they enforce? What kind of pleasures will they consume their spare time in?  The picture forming in your mind should be something like the war-camp of Attila.  The raw energy of mob violence will recurrently surface and dissipate, without greatly affecting the overall tenure of society, but the steady influence of the rising generation’s incivility upon every aspect of life threatens to render Western societies, in no very great span of time, places that no decent, sensible person can inhabit comfortably.

I have taken for granted that the rioters were representative of their generation.  In their aggression, their capacity for demolition, perhaps they are unique specimens, but in their brainlessness and vulgarity, they are undoubtedly fine representatives of their peers.  I do not buy for one minute – and neither should you – the notion that these untoward traits are limited to the under-classes, what Hastings refers to as those “at the bottom of our society.”  The barbarism of the youth transcends economic status.  Having some acquaintance with young persons placed in affluent circumstances, I am quite certain that they are every bit as stupid, amoral, and crudely materialistic as the less fortunate.  Their aspirations do not rise any higher than the inhabitants of the projects; they too “look to no future beyond the next meal, sexual encounter or TV football game.”  They simply have, for the time being, better means to satisfy their impulses than the others.  They do not smash shop windows to get their hands on plasma televisions, because their parents’ wealth makes such toys readily available to them, but they really have no greater desire in life than to have a plasma television.  And when their parents’ wealth vanishes, as it shortly will, I have no doubt that many of these formerly comfortable children will find criminal enterprises quite as palatable an avenue to their wishes as slogging through a greatly constricted job market.

Along these lines, I have also obviously assumed that the character of the adolescents burning and looting in Tottenham and Birmingham more or less mirrors the character of adolescents here in America.  This is really understating the matter.  The fact is that the adolescents burning and looting in Tottenham and Birmingham are Americanized adolescents, the creatures of an Americanized culture.  The thugs swaggering around in hoodies and mimicking gangster mannerisms have gone to school on the rancid culture excreted out of America’s urban centers for decades.  What does it tell us when the British authorities are now turning to American law enforcement specialists because of their experience dealing with this vile subculture?  As explained in a recent AP article:

“analysts of gang culture say it seems logical to seek American assistance, because today’s British gangs consciously ape American gang ambitions and style, from the bling to the lingo. They talk in a street patois shaped by U.S. rap lyrics, use noms de guerre lifted straight from American gangster films and crime dramas, and choose such icons as Don Corleone, Al Pacino’s Scarface or Baltimore ganglord Stringer Bell of “The Wire” TV series as their avatars on social-networking sites.  ‘These teenage gangsters are creating their own criminal worlds, and in their minds it’s very much an Americanized world…” said Carl Fellstrom, an expert on England’s gangs.”

Such words should be a source of unending shame to every decent American.  When, during the Quartocento, the Italian peoples led the cultural vanguard of the West, the result was a renewed enthusiasm throughout Europe for the literature and art-work of antiquity. When, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the British Empire transmitted the fruit of England’s cultural heritage around the world, Shakespeare was taught in Mumbai, and Blackstone studied in Melbourne.  When, since the latter portion of the twentieth century, America has become the dominant cultural force in the Western world, the upshot is a bunch of sub-literate hooligans in Manchester, yanking on their scrotums and howling about how many ho’s they be gettin’ wit.  This is our legacy, the legacy of American cultural priority.  This is the hideous truth which needs to be digested by that certain kind of conservative still among us – call him a “neo-con,” or “movement conservative,” or what have you – who belligerently asserts that America is the greatest country in the history of the world, that she has a divine mission to spread democracy all over the globe, etc., etc.  Such persons should be compelled to reconcile their jingoism with the fact that, over the last fifty years, wherever American influence has gone in the world, cultural degradation has followed after.

Throughout the Cold War, various reports would emerge out of the Eastern bloc nations concerning the demoralized conditions of those populations living under the thumb of the Politburo.  In the contest between American-style democracy and Russian-style communism, there can be no doubt about which was the more repressive, more bloodthirsty, more wicked system.  There can be no serious doubt about which system an honest man would wish to live under.  I am not proposing an equivalence of the two things, not by a long shot.  By what I would suggest, by way of analogy, is that we are beginning to see, in rather unmistakable forms, the demoralizing and dehumanizing effects of our own system, on all the peoples who have fallen within the cultural ambit of America, including ourselves.  The children tell the whole story; a culture which produces the sort of generation which rampaged through the streets of England is, by definition, a failed culture.

I think this is the important point to grasp, because what we are witnessing at this stage of history is a crisis of the first order, and it is imperative to understand what kind of crisis it is.  It is not fundamentally the crisis of the welfare state, or the crisis of consumer capitalism, or the crisis of multiculturalism (though it is the crisis of all these things to a lesser extent).  Fundamentally, it is the crisis of liberal democracy – American-style democracy – by which I mean something much more than a strictly political arrangement.  I mean the sum of those prejudices concerning man and society which Americans receive as a birth-right, and which themselves give shape to their political character – the belief that liberty is just doing what you want, and that the sole end of government should be to magnify such liberty to its greatest extent possible; the conviction that the “will of the people” ought to be a controlling concept in all public deliberation; the certainty that one’s rights against society infinitely outnumber one’s duties to society; the faith in progress, defined as the improvement of technology and the accumulation of material goods; the sanguine reliance on the rectitude of the “common-man,” and the corresponding exaltation of commonality – otherwise known as mediocrity – as the standard in all things; the suspicion of intellectual cultivation; the substitution of market value for artistic criteria; the unshakeable assurance that society and all of its resources exist solely for the satisfaction of each individual, who is also the final arbiter on what such satisfaction ought to entail.  There is not one of these suppositions which does not lie at the heart of the “American experiment,” and there is not one of them which is not a screaming falsehood.  These are the lies which make possible things like the “nanny-state” (which rests on a series of rights-claims against the state) or consumer capitalism (which recognizes no other legitimate source of desire but market value).  Most pertinently, they are the assumptions which motivate the ugly behavior of our young people.  Say what you want about the slack-jawed, baggy-panted, iPod-deafened teenager, prowling around the mall for his next hook-up, but he is not being untrue to his cultural inheritance.  Now the cultural assumptions of America have traveled around the world, and the ugly behavior has gone right along with it.  What we need to face is the possibility that the modern West is being corroded by the most cherished, most characteristic beliefs of the American people.  What we need to face is the possibility that liberal democracy is no longer a salvageable thing.  That is what the riots were telling us, and what nearly every other looming crisis in the news – the sovereign debt crisis, the “war on terror,” the failure of our schools – is telling us too.

I have no expectation that we will ever be able to come to grips with such hard truths.  We do not as a people possess even a minimal capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism.  I think this is because we are used to being addressed almost exclusively by two sorts of people: politicians seeking our votes, and advertisers seeking our money, both of whom have the most evident motives to flatter us.  So liberal society will remain undiagnosed and untreated, lapsing ever further into the terminal stages of her disease.  The best that the rest of us can hope for is to get clear of her death-bed convulsions.  Then, perhaps, we can start all over again.

 


{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jordan Smith September 16, 2011 at 10:19 am

Preach it brother! This is the best essay FPR has seen in awhile.

avatar Anymouse September 16, 2011 at 11:02 am

This is an excellent article. I would have implicated technological modernity a bit more, but you have captured the fact that this rioting is endemic to our society.
“their parents’ wealth makes such toys readily available to them”
“we are used to being addressed almost exclusively by two sorts of people: politicians seeking our votes, and advertisers seeking our money”
I think this helps implicate the middle class tendency to support “social reform” movements. It is they who are most eager to deprive the young of responsibility for their actions, and to support the politicians non solutions.
“So liberal society will remain undiagnosed and untreated, lapsing ever further into the terminal stages of her disease. The best that the rest of us can hope for is to get clear of her death-bed convulsions. Then, perhaps, we can start all over again.”
This is probably our best hope.

avatar Anymouse September 16, 2011 at 11:31 am

Yes, Tom, I understand that blacks are different from whites. They are generally more likely to come from a social class given to rioting. That doesn’t mean the wealthier fair skinned types amongst the middle class are any better: they are simply more likely to commit abortion and riot against their culture by glorifying sodomy, and supporting additional welfare checks to the rioters.

avatar Nagle September 16, 2011 at 6:45 pm

The central tendencies of ethnic groups do not, on most occasions, make for very useful discussion. I mean, Tom, unless you are a racial essentialist, why talk color without talking culture. The kind of analysis we need will account for economic, ethical, and educational contingencies in a given time and place. John Mibank took a good swing at it. http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/08/15/3293122.htm

avatar Gene Callahan September 17, 2011 at 12:04 am

I don’t know, in my experience having lived in both places is the UK is farther along in decline. I have been all around the US, and have never seen anything remotely resembling a Saturday night in downtown Cardiff!

avatar Cecelia September 17, 2011 at 12:36 am

seriously agree with Mr. Callahan – after you check out Cardiff try Glasgow’s less delightful neighborhoods – I hesitate to describe the vulgarity of what I have seen young men and women doing outside of the local pub on street corners in Glasgow.

British youth have a nasty reputation all over Europe – so much so that they are often not welcome in some establishments on the continent – and this reputation is not limited to the lower classes. Young Brits during the heyday of the Celtic Tiger would go over to Dublin for the weekends – drink themselves unconscious and then vomit all over the streets. I once heard a local ask why they bothered to spend the money on the airfare when they could have just drank themselves unconscious back in the British pubs.

So I’d suggest that we ought to worry more that we’ll become more like them and not claim their vices as a product of our culture.

avatar dave walsh September 17, 2011 at 8:30 am

Mr. Signorelli,
well done, thank you. Now I’m going to quibble.

I know a lot of good kids, so there’s a counter balance. How significant or large, I have no idea. We’ll see. I’m guessing the leaders of this generation will predominately be female, however. And to me, that’s a problem. Not that women are rising, but that there are too many young men who are failing. And from what I’ve read, that has to do more with the changes in the structure of the economy, the types of jobs that are available, and the skills that this new work require.

And odd I am, but talk of clothes always makes me think how similar we are to other species -the use of display and vocalizations to communicate mating status and so on. So bling-bling to me normalizes, right along with silk ties. I believe it is customary for nomads to wear their wealth, and the display of wealth is a sign of fitness. Hoodies, outside of being comfortable, seem like a predictable response to our current surveillance state.

And if home is some blighted cell, one is necessarily a nomad. In my opinion, that the music and culture of our inner cities is found to resonate with other youths is less a case of cultural imposition than it is one of the adoption of our economic and social mores, leading to a breakdown of community that in turn leads to a ready ear: That Friend speaks my mind.

It is hard for me to see the politics of some of my friends to my right and left as little more than a feral rejection of community; that there is no we, no commonwealth with those people, no living or working together with people who are like that or think those things. And Prof Peters recent diatribe demonstrates something important – you can watch the destruction of place, the dissolution of the midwest and appalachia into meth and oxy and blooms in the gulf for only so long until you must cry out if truly there your heart resides. The response? How rude of him. Which is to say, this “I have no expectation that we will ever be able to come to grips with such hard truths. We do not as a people possess even a minimal capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism.” gives me the opportunity to say, Friend, you speak my mind.

avatar Rob G September 17, 2011 at 11:35 am

“I’d suggest that we ought to worry more that we’ll become more like them and not claim their vices as a product of our culture.”

In this case, we tossed them the ball and they ran with it. In other cases, the influence has crossed the Atlantic in the opposite direction. But let’s not kid ourselves into believing that nihilistic individualism and various sorts of multi-culti crapola don’t ride like ticks on the back of currently existing “democratic capitalism” when we ship it thither and yon. It’s a package deal. You want McDonald’s? You have to take porn too. Want Britney? Got to take gansta culture as well. Etc., etc.

avatar Anymouse September 17, 2011 at 11:51 am

That is the truth.

avatar JonF September 17, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Re: To be sure, the kind of mass devastation which we observed in London is soon to become commonplace throughout the West

Yes, and the 60s upheavals presaged a new and bloodier civil war, and in the Great Depression we were going to end as (pick one) a Fascist or Communist state. It turns out, in personal life and in the history of nations, the present is not a good predicter of the future, for which reason both Polyannas and Cassandras are usually wrong. Aeschylus had it right: “God brings the unthought to be.”

Re: I have taken for granted that the rioters were representative of their generation.

In which you are almost certainly wrong, just as the Hippies were not representative of their generation, nor the “burn, baby, burn” rioters of Detroit and Watts and Newark in the same era. And in the case of the London rioters, it’s recently been noted that those arrested in the fracas tended to have criminal records already– often long criminal records. So what the London riots really represent was a bunch of criminals going on a toot with the fig leaf of political protest to excuse them– much the same as the Detroit rioters of 1967.

avatar Anymouse September 17, 2011 at 5:53 pm

I have no reason to believe that the criminal population would not be larger without the large amount of consumer conveniences available without criminality. If they become harder to get, crime will go up.

The modern order has been breaking down and perverting itself for sometime, and these just underscore it’s bankruptcy and degeneracy.

avatar JonF September 18, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Anymouse,
I dislike (and disbelieve) the formulation “poverty–> crime”. It does a huge disservice to poor people to suggest they are all naturally wicked, as well as being poor. They aren’t– only a small minority are, though to be sure the poor do suffer as crime victims more often than the rest of us.
Nor do I foresee a future without ‘consumer covneniences”. Our technological toys have been getting cheaper, not dearer. It’s the big ticket items (housing, healthcare and education) that are soaring.
And again, I reject any sort of determinism when it comes to human behavior. Our grandparents* lived with less than we have– and they did not all become depraved on account of that fact. There’s a lot more to making a criminal than straightened material circumstnaces. I doubt even the most bleedingheart of liberals would disagree.

* My grandparents were all born in the late 1800s so you may know where I am coming from on this. I realize others here may have shallower roots.

avatar KenJ September 19, 2011 at 10:18 am

Europe (incl Britain) has led the way into the welfare state (socialist democracy), which has undermined the liberal democratic values and mores on which it was built. For all of its problems, American consumerism/capitalism is hard to finger as the root cause of Britain’s current social ills. What we have, here and abroad, are droves of twenty-somethings who have spent their entire lives connected to parental or government tits and haven’t learned the value or necessity of working to achieve or acquire.

avatar FLD September 19, 2011 at 2:45 pm

Please. This “I’ve met some young people and they are just the worst, so clearly all young people are worthless” reasoning is just bad. Like young people are a different species, incapable of critical thought, generosity or aspirations? It’s barely a complete thought, and only serves to indicate that, whatever you may say, you’re willing to accept the limit of your experience as the limit of all empirical truth. But I am just killing time in between sexual encounters and TV football games.

avatar JonF September 19, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Re: Europe (incl Britain) has led the way into the welfare state

Yes, such a horrible idea that those of modest means are not doomed to lives nasty, brutish and short.
With Social Darwinist sentiments so much the rage these days I am glad my Church history goes back a far distance so as to include worthies like Cyril of Alexandria, whose sermons on the subject of wealth and poverty could bring a smile to Karl Marx’s sour mouth, and John Chrysostom who told an Empress to her face that she should quit with the wild partying and start taking care of her people which is what Christian governance exists for.
The alternative of the welfare state is the ill-fare state (of which history is replete with examples) and if it makes a return you will not be so happy with things.

avatar David September 20, 2011 at 1:26 pm

JonF and those others who think that these are more isolated silos of malediction, consider for a moment the state of marriage in America. You say, “the world didn’t go down the crapper because of the 1960′s” but that’s because you’ve accepted the crapper. For the first time in the recorded history of man adults who are in some sense “single” out number adults who are “married”. This alone is a disaster of Biblical proportions. That you don’t think it is the crapper because we have MRI machines, plenty of meat on the BBQ and folks still stopping at traffic lights is telling.

I am no Malthusian (some FPRers turn that way) but I do believe that as long as we can keep feeding the beast cheaply, the sorts of things you consider “evil” will remain relatively isolated. However, abortion, drug use (both of the narcotic and more subtle kinds), and the ignobling swill of modern hedonism will rule the pointless lives of our inhuman little consumers.

Frankly my divorce with my first wife is a worse crime (with far greater consequences socially and ontologically) than a hoodlum smash and grabbing an iPod. The difference is, we’ve accepted the sin I commit and decided his is worthy of incarceration. That tells me more about our complicity in evil than any essay on FPR (mind you, I think this one was excellent).

avatar Caleb S. September 20, 2011 at 2:17 pm

When did this site become a boiling stew of self-loathing…?

avatar David September 20, 2011 at 11:06 pm

Caleb S, self-loathing? Is that what you see in our willingness to engage in introspection. Hardly. Not everyone drunk on the wine of dominant cultural mythos is self-loathing. In fact, I’m quite a prideful fellow.

I suppose the Pharisee never really understands the prayer of the publican.

It can be demonstrated that divorce is worse than theft. We accept the one (claiming that in fact, things ain’t so bad) and we put the perpetrators of the other in prison (and call the perps “bad people”).

We do this because a significant portion of society refuses to look at the situation any other way. They have the political power to legitimize their sin. But they cannot wish away the consequences.

Frankly the London riots are child’s play in comparison to the horrors of your local family-court. I’ve met people who were in family law. They’d prefer a riot most days.

avatar Anymouse September 21, 2011 at 11:21 am

“I dislike (and disbelieve) the formulation “poverty–> crime”. It does a huge disservice to poor people to suggest they are all naturally wicked, as well as being poor. They aren’t– only a small minority are, though to be sure the poor do suffer as crime victims more often than the rest of us.”
I as well. But I think that the welfare state is precisely the problem, and causes more criminality and degeneracy rather than reducing it. Your grandparents were probably better people than today, despite being poorer. I see consumerism and the welfare state as the problem. I don;t see how you can support those things and not be surprised at the social degeneracy around this country.

“Frankly my divorce with my first wife is a worse crime (with far greater consequences socially and ontologically) than a hoodlum smash and grabbing an iPod. ”
Yes. This is basically the truth, and not enough will acknowledge it.

avatar MrsW September 21, 2011 at 5:59 pm

I am troubled by seeing that so many comments attack the “welfare state” as the source of this dysfunctional behavior. None makes the observation that when the looters know that their superiors are looting the global economy and getting by with it without sanction, they think they’ll claim the same right for themselves. I agree that US pop culture has coarsened and demoralized both US and UK; however, what do you propose as the solution? Starvation? Did it ever occur to you that the welfare state prevails when there are no living wage jobs and no one learns anything about the dignity of labor, and one’s superiors think that anyone who has to work for a living is a piece of trash? (I’ve worked for mostly conservatives all my career, when I used to be able to get a job, and nary a one has respected me as a person, despite my education, life experience, et al. I had to read – by accident – in a Catholic book that St Augustine said one should never disparage another’s means of earning a living, because absolutely zero of my conservative employers ever communicated that my work was honorable or worthy – maybe why they outsourced my department’s jobs and replaced us with technology? while claiming huge bonuses for themselves? – sorry to drag in my own life but I’m getting tired of the “welfare state” being blamed but never the profiteering or rapaciousness of the rentier class, nor the sneer of the haves toward the have nots. I only WISH that traditional conservative or Catholic values could return to replace the faux conservatism in vogue since Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

avatar Anymouse September 21, 2011 at 10:01 pm

I agree that there is a false conservatism in this country, but both consumerism and the welfare state must be implicated. We lived for thousands of years without such a thing, and I cannot see it as a benefit. It is not the only problem, and I would rate consumerism as equally a problem, but I still reject it. The church, the landlord, and the community are the only organization I trust to help assist in welfare.

avatar JonF September 22, 2011 at 9:18 am

Re: But I think that the welfare state is precisely the problem, and causes more criminality and degeneracy rather than reducing it.

If mercy and charity are the source of wickedness then the Gospel is false. And no, it does not matter who administers such things. The state is not some alien institution that has descended upon from Planet QueQuaz. The state is us– and if it is wicked or foolish there is no where to look but in ourselves.

Re: Your grandparents were probably better people than today, despite being poorer.

Well, I never knew them since the generations of my family are strangely elongated and all four grandparents had gone to their graves by the time I was born. But from tales about them they had the virues and sins that were common to their age, as we do ours. It’s a rare saint who rises well above the besetting sins of his era, and a rare sinner who falls well below its virtues..

Re: I don;t see how you can support those things and not be surprised at the social degeneracy around this country.

The “degeneracy” of this country is the degeneracy of human beings period, in every age and nation. As I have posted elsewhere, this is not the New Jerusalem and we can make it so. But the Christian response is not to tear one’s hair and rend one’s garments over that fact, but to keep trust that the New Jerusalem will someday come- -and meanwhile to live one’s life. Two great and ancient principles though I recommend to all reformers, whether of he Left or the Right: Nothing in Excess and First, Do No Harm. Your notion of ending the welfare state which would leave multitudes wth food, medical care or other needs fails both tests.

avatar David September 22, 2011 at 11:41 am

It is not a matter of the nature of the entity, except that such a fictional nature of a nation-state makes it impossible for charity to be such. Charity is more than a giving away of goods or services (the state has neither of its own, but takes from one under the threat force to give to another).

Charity is a relationship. Feeding the mouth alone is dehumanizing. You act as if “well as long as they are biologically sustained, then all is well with the world.” It isn’t. If we don’t pray over what we eat, we are better off hungry.

The most important thing about charity is that we meet Christ in the least of these. A humane prison is pointless unless I personally visit the prisoners there. It does nothing for my salvation, nor the souls sequestered within. It is a utility only, a useful “box” for the functioning of the fictional nation-state and the convenience of property owners.

Who the ever loving Jehoshaphat is my neighbor? Right? When I give to a stranger, he becomes my neighbor. A relationship, no matter how primitive is developed which is for the good of us both. We are humanized, because the human, Christ, appears amid the exchange.

Otherwise America is just a zoo with animals that require shelter, well-kept pens and feeding on schedule.

Go help them. Even the libertarian, atheist Penn Teller knows this in an interview I saw he mentioned that liberals always ask him about the 1 in 7 people in America on food stamps and he replies, “That’s great it means there are 6 people that can help them. I do, other people I know with money, or even not much money themselves, do.”

Go help them. Don’t invest in a system that’s ethically questionable, morally corrupting and philosophically fragile just because you think you can get economies of scale to address the problem.

Go help them. Something needs to be done, so go do it.

avatar John Médaille September 22, 2011 at 5:04 pm

“Go help them. Something needs to be done, so go do it.”

When poverty is systemic, charity is not the answer; systemic problems require systemic answers. The Patristic dictum still holds: “Charity is no substitute for justice denied.” The sign of justice denied–and of economic irrationality–is the great disparity of income and wealth, which is now at the same level it was in 1929. Hmm. I seem to remember something about that date. Don’t tell me, it’ll come to me.

avatar Anymouse September 22, 2011 at 5:15 pm

I still believe that the correct answer to our problems then and now is the one given by the 12 Southerners.

avatar David September 22, 2011 at 5:59 pm

I can’t disagree with you more John.

Poverty is always systematic. I’m not interested in an “answer” to the problem of poverty. There is none. I am interested in my hungry neighbor having something to eat. I am interested in feeding Christ.

When there was famine, St Basil went to work in the kitchens to feed the poor. In fact, he gave away his own family’s fortune to do so. He didn’t setup a wealth redistribution system or at point of sword made some folks go feed other people’s children against their wills.

I don’t come to FPR for more policy-induced fantasies of altering human nature and frankly I’m surprised you’d offer them.

avatar John Médaille September 22, 2011 at 8:16 pm

But St. Basil also campaigned against the unjust division of property, destroying in anticipo by a millennium, John Locke’s argument of first possession. Basil was unrelenting in his condemnation of wealth, calling the wealthy “theives” and “robbers” and he referred the matter to justice, not charity, and did so over, and over, and over again. Charity is the response to an injustice we cannot at the moment change; it can never be a substitute for justice, because then it would be uncharitable. And it is certainly never an excuse for indifference to unjust systems.

And to say that there is no solution to poverty is to say that God designed a world that doesn’t work, which is, to say the least, a strange view of God. Their is nothing in the nature of man, God, or nature, that dictates that poverty is a necessity; that is a choice of human systems. Given the fall, it is a choice we are likely to keep making, but to give up on repentance is to give up on both God and man.

avatar Anymouse September 22, 2011 at 8:34 pm

“Their is nothing in the nature of man, God, or nature, that dictates that poverty is a necessity;” And what is the definition of poverty? We have the greatest concentration of material comfort in history today.

Wealth and modernity is a cause of our problems, not a solution. I think it is unwise to assume that fallen man is capable of handling this cornucopia without serious degeneracy.

avatar David September 23, 2011 at 9:24 am

John, I have always had such respect for your thinking, now I am completely at a loss. Are you playing me?

You skirt the issue tragically. The key matter is that St Basil’s motivations and methods were in opposition to your own. First, he was primarily concerned with salvation and saw charity within that context, second that his methods were persuasive rather than through the use of violent force. I am no fan of John Locke these days, but we simply cannot take a billion dollars from Bill Gates and give it to the poorest Americans (who are, not actually poor, as Anymouse points out) and call that act “in accordance” with St Basil’s example or teaching.

I do not, however, forbid anyone from giving their own fortune away and then sitting outside Bill Gates door and preaching to him for his salvation.

That Bill Gates has horded such wealth is a wretched state and to be the wealthiest man in the world is such a burden on the soul I would not wish it on my worst enemy. But I do not help Bill Gates by robbing him.

Consider also, I’m talking about national policy, that is, policy of the fictitious nation-state. I’m not talking about the community. The scriptures are quite clear that some things we would consider theft (such as widows going through the fields of farmers collected grain after the harvest) are not, in fact, theft. That is a different discussion (one I am willing to have).

You assert that God did not make a dysfunctional world, but then proceed to admit the fall. I’m not sure how to respond to that. I suppose I will have to counter with a question John. How would you through policy eradicate death? Is not death the primary dysfunction in the world? God created the world good, free from death. Yet death comes to us all. So clearly there is some way that this good world God created just needs some good policy to prevent anyone from having to die.

Poverty, in America, is relative. Poverty in the world is a reality. Even in this age of unprecedented excess provided by cheap mechanical energy, the selfishness of man and his pride, prevent a good portion of the human race from eating sufficiently and drinking safely. No policy (particularly of the fictional nation-state) will rid the world of such evils, nor account for the ill-effects of well-intentioned “good” men and their “noble” policies.

The good news is that the ever presence of poverty presents every man of means a firm step on the path to salvation. Since it will always be here, I know I will always find beggars to give to, and to ask for their prayers for my wretched soul.

avatar John Médaille September 23, 2011 at 10:11 am

David, I am completely at a loss here. The issue is factual, not ideological: St. Basil either did or did not refer the matter to justice rather than charity. Basil may be right, or he may be wrong, but you cannot re-write him to suit an ideological goal. In point of fact, Basil had a very well-developed theory of property, and one that was consistent with the writings of the Fathers from Clement to Augustine. For Basil, private property was justified only to the point of autarkeia, self-sufficiency. After that, all property was to be koina, common so that others could take property from the common pool to be self-sufficient. Holding property beyond the point of autarkeia was, for St. Basil, “theft” and “robbery,” which are normally matters of law, not charity. But you say that Basil referred this to charity. I see nothing in his writings to support this view, but I am more than willing to accept correction in this matter if you can just point me to the passage that convinces you that I am wrong. I trust your integrity enough to believe that you would not have made statements about what St. Basil believed without actually having some familiarity with his writings, so I await your correction.

I am also at a loss to know what you mean by “robbing” Bill Gates, when the issue is raising his taxes. Paying taxes is not theft, it is adulthood; it is paying for what you use. Now, I have no wish to have three simultaneous wars in the Middle East, but so long as we have them, they have to be paid for. In fact, the first step to ending them is getting them financed, since as long as they are “free,” we will have as many as the “leaders” wish to have. But if they have to say, “We are fighting in X, Y, and Z, and here is the bill,” it is likely that we will no longer be fighting in X, Y, and Z.

This I find strange: You assert that God did not make a dysfunctional world, but then proceed to admit the fall. So are you asserting that God made the fall, that it’s His fault? My understanding is that the point of living in time is to overcome, as far as we can and with the help of grace, the effects of the fall in ourselves and in our societies. I don’t know what faith you are, but this is Catholic doctrine on the issue, a doctrine which binds me. Our efforts will always fall short, but the Fall is never an excuse not to make the effort at reform.

Then we come to the “poverty is relative” argument, which suggests that since we have indoor plumbing, there is no real poverty in America. But poverty is what prevents people from living at a level of dignity particular to their society, or which requires heroic efforts to live at a dignified level, efforts such as putting mothers to work in the exchange economy to make ends meet. But surely, this is the destruction of the very life of the family which we are supposed to support. But whatever one thinks of the morality, it is terrible economics; for technical reasons alone, markets cannot be cleared in the face of great disparities of wealth and poverty. The technicalities are too great to be listed in a combox, but I will note that these disparities are now where they were in 1929; I do not think that is a coincidence.

The Patristic dictum is “Charity is no substitute for justice denied (St. Augustine).” And it is always good advice to say “Listen to your Fathers.”

avatar David September 23, 2011 at 12:50 pm

I have no ideological ax to grind here John.

I am not trying to make anyone suit my model of anything. I am trying to accept the points of my betters and struggle on with my own understanding of my relationship to the polis in light of this. If I have any ideological affliction, it is that I take what I learn here and oppress myself with it first before I might, in hubris, subject others to my superior wisdom by force.

You don’t like my use of the word charity because you don’t see it appear in his writings in the fashion I describe. Fine. I call the term my own and make a likewise request:

You’ll have to quote something where he advocated either the creation of a law that enforced charity (my term, I’ll be glad to admit) or the enforcement of an existing law. Does he ever say, “Governor so-and-so, I demand you seize at point of sword the bread of those who have and give it to those starving people” or “Let the rulers make a law saying no man shall be rich while one man still starves” or something poetically similar? Heck, I’ll take a passage where he says that if you are hungry it is legal, noble, good, whatever to steal from someone who has bread. Did he ever take up a sword against his brother over bread? Did he shed blood over this?

I can call poverty, of a sort created by servitude, a crime without meaning for a law and an army to backup my preaching with political policy. I’m sure he preached mightily in this fashion. Do you not see the distinction?

I’m also concerned that you point out St Basil’s differentiation between levels of poverty on the one hand and then later in your comment retort that even though folks have met what sounds like a living standard which meets St Basil’s most grievous concern you turn around and talk about dignity. How many inches of a big screen flat panel TV is dignified?

Moreover, how about the repulsive idea that any such wealth remains in staggering injustice (your term justice, not mine) towards the slave labor over seas that provides the excesses our American poor need to be dignified?

You never address that America (or any nation) is a fable. You mock the forcible seizure of properties and imprisonment that is a very real consequence of the system of taxation by said fable. What is so adult about a foreign occupying force raiding your storehouse of grain?

Since John Locke is out the door (as he should be), compulsion by force because you control the reigns of power is suddenly justified whenever it meets your particular political goals? What if I control the government? Am I allowed to command justice by my own standards at the point of a sword? In fact, am I not (by your reasoning) required to do so?

This is the claptrap that got us into the coming political nightmare in the United States. Because as soon as you *may* use force to carry out your pogrom, you *must* use force. And we, as we are all the government in a democracy, must spend our ever-waking hours, not living life as we understand virtue to command, but seeking the reigns of power so that we might command virtues in others.

All that is left is an obsession with stopping “them” from living differently than “us”. A naked striving for power over our fellow man to suit our purposes and fuel our pride. Feh! to Empires! Global or national. An abominable waste of life.

Life has been given to us for repentance, do not waste it with lesser pursuits.

I cannot speak to the Catholic doctrine of the fall. In so far as I am a faithful Orthodox Christian (though that is debatable, I am sure). I hold to the doctrine as I was taught by my priest under the supervision of my bishop. As I can best explain in this context, my understanding of the fall and our response to it falls under the teachings of Theosis. In light of that, our goal is not so much to create a more just polis, but rather that whatever the justice of the polis we find ourselves living in we seek out our salvation by living a just life within it, in accordance to the will of God– I believe this is commonly called synergy. This may very well make the polis more just (if I have any success at being more just myself) but God may not answer my prayer by directly cooperating with me to be a more just man (after all St Paul was kept with a thorn in his flesh for the good). Either way, my responsibility is clear, to work out my salvation with fear and trembling.

I don’t see much room for a wielding a sword against my brother.

avatar Anymouse September 23, 2011 at 1:21 pm

“But poverty is what prevents people from living at a level of dignity particular to their society”
I am not willing to believe that our society’s standard of dignity is trustworthy. We have centuries for which material culture and material values were radically different, and the moral standards associated were far more Christian.
Our society believes that aborting a fetus is dignified. It also believes keeping a women on a feeding tube without care or assistance until she is dead and her brain is jelly and then withdrawing the feeding tube in bad faith is dignified.

I don’t trust it’s standards.

avatar John Médaille September 23, 2011 at 2:23 pm

David, everybody has an ideology; this is the only way to be human. The myth of objectivity is just that, a myth. We must deal with more than we know, and hence can only call on the pre-theoretical to deal most things. All human knowledge is personal knowledge. The worst thing one can do is to pretend to NOT have a ideology, which is just a way of hiding one’s self from oneself; that is, it is a way of practiced ignorance. But while we can’t be objective, we can be fair. That is, we can apply certain rules when we look at, say, texts, and apply them consistently whether or not the rule validates our pre-conceptions. Of course, following such rules always puts our ideology at risk, which is precisely what one ought to do with an ideology.

You ask if Basil ever had specific recourse to the state; that seems to be your standard. However, the Fathers would not have spoken like that, and not just because they had no access to the state. For them it was enough that they established the natural law, since it was assumed that any civil law was valid only to the point that it reflected the natural law. This is a bedrock of all Christian political theory, and is, if anything, even more pronounced in the East then in the West. In the East, after all, every Church dome is surmounted by an icon of Christ Pantocrator. Any legitimate autocrat or democrat or aristocrat can only make laws in accord with the Pantocrat. So it is completely sufficient to show that Basil thought that property was a limited right, not a natural one, to show what he thought the law ought to be.

You seem to have a very individualistic understanding of salvation, but this is even less in accord with Eastern theology than it is with Western theology, which took an individualistic turn in the last two centuries. But this is a corruption, or at least Benedict thinks it is. I strongly recommend his Spe Salvi which more than debunks the notion of salvation as a purely individualistic affair. I realize you are not a Catholic, but it’s a good read for all that. Now, I think I’ve read quite a bit of Orthodox theology–for a Catholic, at least–and I can’t recall anything in their doctrine of the Fall (which is somewhat different from Augustine’s) which would confine our actions to the individual level, and allow us to simply ignore the state around us.

Besides, I note a contradiction here. On the one hand, you don’t want me to apply Basil’s notions of justice to the law, on the other you are more than willing to state what the law ought to be. This doesn’t strike me as consistent. You say we we don’t have a goal of creating a more just Polis (this would certainly be a surprise to the Fathers) and then opine on the just polis. But I cannot think of a source for such political indifferentism. Perhaps you could direct me to one?

For the rest, I don’t see what the argument is; we mainly agree. You rail against forms of slavery, but Basil would identify the unjust division of property as the source of that slavery. When productive property is held by a few, then all must depend on those few for their livelihoods. To say they are not chattel slaves, so it is okay, is to miss the point entirely. As you say, we must live in the world we live in, and seek salvation as best we can. But some orders are more conducive to virtue than others. You rail against the wars, and so do I. But I suspect we would have fewer wars if we were actually taxed for them (the 5% income tax surcharge to fund the Vietnam war had a lot to do with ending that war.)

I gather that you object to coercion, but I know of no political philosophy, Christian or otherwise, this side of anarchy which doesn’t require that justice be enforced by the sword. And the sword must be funded. Taxes are not per se theft, even if some forms of taxation are. But whatever the justice of the system, the system must be funded, unless one just enjoys bankruptcy and collapse. And paying for the state is the responsibility of the citizens, and the more they benefit, the more the responsibility. You say the state is a fiction. Now, I’m sure you mean something else by this, and something you and I would agree on. But it is manifestly NOT a fiction, although it may be an unfortunate reality.

The problem with the poor is not the lack of big-screen TVs (why did you bring that up? Did anybody here advance that as the standard?) but the lack of meaningful and remunerative work, and the impact on family life, health, dignity, educational opportunity, etc. Some can ignore all of these things, but I personally have benefited from a reasonably well-ordered state in all of these matters. But that state is deteriorating, and it is unlikely that my children and grandchildren will derive the same–or any–such benefits. I do not believe that I can say to them, “I got mine; y’all are on your own.”

avatar Anymouse September 23, 2011 at 4:25 pm

“but the lack of meaningful and remunerative work, and the impact on family life, health, dignity, educational opportunity,”
Undoubtedly that is a problem, but I am not sure how the modern welfare state can do much about it. I would say it often exacerbates the problem, especially with such factors as minimum wage laws effectively preventing one from working.
Imagine of it was illegal to farm on land that was low yield. Many countries of poor farmers would starve.
I would also remind one that Basil thought was not written in the context of late stage capitalism and the welfare state, but in the context of a traditional agrarian society. I think attempting to transfer knowledge from one of these to the other would be like comparing an iPhone to a typewriter.

avatar John Médaille September 23, 2011 at 4:44 pm
avatar Anymouse September 24, 2011 at 12:30 am

That is pretty clever.

avatar MrsW September 24, 2011 at 8:38 am

Thank you, John Medaille, for weighing in on the side of justice and the dignity of labor. It is pretty to join with David in saying that charity should be personal and individual, but what if none of my neighbors wants to know me and none feels compelled to assist me? And why is this loathing of taxes always brought up? What was the tax structure in the US under Dwight D Eisenhower? Does anyone suggest Ike was a Socialist, because tax rates on the wealthy were higher? Why did I just read recently that the Russian economy was destroyed by privatization of education and selling off infrastructure to investors , while somehow that is acceptable here in my home state of Indiana? How did the US become great and the middle class grow? Through the sacrifices of billionaires? Oh really! I stand by my original comments and found this better exposition of them: “Our government teaches the whole people by its example. If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.” – Louis D. Brandeis (hat tip to Jesse of Jesse’s Cafe Americain) Consumer culture (as Patrick Deneen has written elsewhere) may have coarsened and demoralized people to the point where they riot and loot, but bad behavior on the part of leaders makes it more certain they will do so.

avatar JonF September 24, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Re: I would say it often exacerbates the problem, especially with such factors as minimum wage laws effectively preventing one from working.

Nonsense. The minimum wage prevents no one from working.

Consider:
1. As with all other goods and services there’s is a natural minimum price for labor: the price for its production. Just as it is foolishness to expect, say, gasoline to be supplied for less than it costs to extract oil, refine it and transport it to point of sale, so too it is foolishness to demand that labor be supplied or less than cost of what a human being requires to survive in this world. If it is legitimate for gas stations to sell gasoline at a price that meets their cost, it is equally legitimate to expect workers to demand living wages.
2. And by basic definition (one required of us by any moral system worthy of the name) all human beings have a basic, non-zero worth (and I mean that economically): what it takes to sustain them in this world. Therefore all self-supporting workers should be paid a wage equal to at least that amount. Employers can easily acheive this by pricing their goods and services accordingly. And if such pricing is in effect then the question of low productivity does not arise since everyone will be producing goods at least equal to his cost of living.

avatar JonF September 24, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Re: We have centuries for which material culture and material values were radically different, and the moral standards associated were far more Christian.

Really? What we have is centuries of societies where half of all children born did not survive to adulthood, where justice meant men with the morals of a Mafia don brutalizing whoever displeased them, where venality rotted away the foundations of the Church until it collapsed into a myriad splinters. You would call such a world Christian? I do not. It was simply self-inflated barbarism and hubristic savagery that sought to cover its bets in Eternity by building some (admittedly) beautiful churches and singing some (truly) beautiful hymns, and occasionally pausing with awe before some real saints knowing at some level how far it failed to measure up– but unwilling to correct itself. That is your Age Of Faith– and Christ is no friend to it, though He may save it too– by grace, certainly not by its merit. As of course is true for us all well.
We have done well with justice in our day– but yes, we have done worse with faith. But that is no reason to say “Let us forget about justice since we fail at faith”.

avatar Anymouse September 24, 2011 at 7:52 pm

If that is your view then I cannot see how any one can have any hope or respect for any country, because the present is simply where those who are concerned with glorifying their lust for abortion and sexual perversion give donations to the poor and talk about helping children.

At least the medievals gave lip service to traditional Christianity.

avatar JonF September 25, 2011 at 5:25 pm

Our country is not the New Jerusalem, but it has done better on matters of justice than the medievals did.
What people do in their bedrooms may be a matter of judgment over them, but not for the larger community as the larger community is not present and has no role in such things (and should have no role, any more than it should be allowed to dictate what foods one eats, or how one prays).
Abortion, I will grant you, is the besetting sin of our time, but it hardly a universal sin, and I will set against it the appalling and very general cruelty that was widely practiced in times past: the public executions that were festive occasions, the autos da fe, the acceptance of torture by everyone everywhere, the beatings administered to slaves, servants, apprentices, spouses, children and animals.
But at the end of the day I am not totally out of sympathy with your conclusion. The One Truth will never be found in mere culture, or any humanly thing, and no one will ever find salvation emanating from a legislature. (“What of it?”, quoth Our Lord. “Follow me!”)

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