I should not eat Snickers Bars in the afternoon. While it is not yet illegal, and probably not immoral, it is certainly fattening. But I like the veneer of chocolate and by now my body has become dependent on the food-like substance of the interior and my brain dependent on the chemical additives with unpronounceable names. So I sauntered down to the diner in the first floor of our office building and checked myself into the small diner for my afternoon fix.

Diners like these are one of the last bastions of free enterprise in the country, run by the lady who owns it. No doubt some day one day it will become a branch of DineMart, and the owner-cook will become an hourly Food Preparation Specialist, forbidden by corporate policy to serve anything that actually resembles food, but for now it remains an honest establishment. It is some standard features. The upright cooler with glass doors that contains a variety of the those various combinations of corn syrup, caffeine and red dye that we imbibe in great quantities because it would be Just Terrible if we had a glass of beer or wine with lunch. It has a machine which, if you inject a little plastic capsule into it and push a button, will churn out a hot brown liquid whose taste reminds many people of coffee. A few tables and chairs, a counter with a cooler for the various salads, and a grill and cooking equipment behind the counter completes the ensemble. For a few dollars you can get a large breakfast and a decent lunch, and the menu is surprisingly creative and varied for such a small place.

I doubt if the business is all that lucrative. It is a small office building, slowly leaking tenants as the recession (now declared “over”) takes its toll. The prices are low enough that there can’t be much of a margin, and surely she lacks any buying power and pays retail for her ingredients. But it is her’s and it’s honest and forms a decent amenity for our shrinking cadre of office grinds.

But the first thing I noticed was that the candy bar rack was empty. “Hey,” I called out, “Who’s the Vice-President of Junk Food?”

“I am,” said the owner.

“Well, where are the Snickers Bars?”

“I had to put all the candy behind the counter.”

“Why?” I asked, thinking that it was some weird new “health” regulation, which are surely the bane of operations like these.

“People steal them. When I turn my back to cook, they slip them into their purses or pockets.”

“What?” I had difficulty processing this information. Who would steal from this lady? Since the clientele is mostly the office workers who see her regularly, it must be people who know her. “I’m a real estate agent,” I said, “I know how to steal. You don’t steal candy bars!”

Amateurs. There is nothing a professional hates worse than competition from amateurs.

“And I can’t keep dollar bills in the tip jar. People take them.” This is astounding. Stealing tips? It’s unbelievable.

It is in moments like these that I most fear for the future of the Republic. Trouble in the life of a nation comes as reliably as trouble in the life of a person. It is not the trouble that destroys us, but how we respond to it. That the people at the top are thieves, the people who run Goldman Sachs, for example, is hardly surprising; corruption at the top is nearly an historical constant. What holds society together is what happens at the “bottom,” as it were. All the little courtesies which make a community possible, a community where you don’t have to hide the Snickers and the tips.

For example, in the 1930’s, when the depression and the dust-bowl forced the Okies to migrate to California (“Thereby raising the IQ of both states,” as Will Rogers observed) they carried, along with their mean collection of possessions, some things of real value. Strong families, solid morals, a willingness to work. And we survived the depression in good order, in ways that Germany did not. Germany was surely a civilized country, but the breakdown of trust and decency led, as it will, to indecent actions, actions that brought the world down in an orgy of violence and hatred. High civilization is no substitute for common courtesy.

What will our future be like? If stealing tips is general enough to make us hide them, then I think there might be some dangers for us. I look at my generation, and I am ashamed. We got everything, and paid for nothing, leaving our children debts they cannot repay, and a nation that needs to be rebuilt. I look at the Tea Partiers of my age, the ones who object to socialized medicine for the young because it might compromise the socialized medicine they already have. They object to paying taxes, but object equally to cutting any services. They want their wars, their pensions, their socialized healthcare, and they want the children to pay for it. My colleagues—all supporters of limited government—are angry that the $8,000 subsidy to home-buyers is about to expire. We want what we want. We just don’t want to pay for it. And we look at our children and say, “Where did we go wrong?”

I am no better at the small courtesies. I see this lady two or three times a month, and I do not know her name. We meet in real life, not on the internet, so we have no handle, no avatar, by which to greet each other. Our relations are increasingly impersonal, which makes rudeness and theft easier. (BTW, we on The Front Porch  live in a something of a bubble in this regard. Compare the discussion of my recent post on Goldman Sachs with the discussion on the same post at “BlogsforVictory”. Scary stuff.) We need to have a real political dialog. We need to tackle the serious tasks of rebuilding the economy and society. We cannot do that, as our grandparents did it, with the morals of Goldman Sachs.

And we are all Goldman Sachs now.

Note: No promotional fees or other considerations were paid for any product placements in this blog.

But I think Snickers ought to pay me.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Depressing post. I am constantly amazed by what people will justify or simply choose not to think about. I was heartened to watch my brother convincing a movie store clerk that he needed to pay for his movie even though the system wrongly listed my brother as a member. But then “Ma and Pa raised us right.”

    I’ll add that a large part of Germany’s problem was excessive emphasis not on civilization but on culture at the expense of civilization. I would argue that common courtesy and trust and decency are foundations of civilization.

  2. I work as groundskeepers. I have worked at different apartment complexes, and have had the rather unpleasant experience of having to help evict someone. One thing that always stung me, was how as soon as we took stuff out to the curb, or set it by the dumpster{required by ordinance} people would come out of other apartments to take the evicted persons property, often within minutes of setting down. You go back for a couch, and the TV would be missing when you got back. They were often shameless about it too.

  3. Some of you have stopped by my poetry blog from time to time (you know who you are!). From earlier this week a stanza that was well-met by my readers:

    “Satan doesn’t rise by incantations
    But by a man who resets the bell-tower
    After looking to his own pocket watch”

    http://nothinghypothetical.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/anomie/

    ‘Tis the season of the great unthankful, for whom nothing is right unless it is right for them.

  4. I went to that BlogsforVictory post. The comments were unreadable; not just for their lack of civility, but for their lack of any attention to spelling and grammar. I suppose the two problems are related.

  5. I hear you. We live in a quiet old neighborhood, and nevertheless have had our snow shovels stolen, a few tulips trashed and an extension cord cut with a knife. One that would really break some hearts around here though- our neighbors had the rocking chair stolen off their front porch!

    The one thing that bothered me about that blog was the frequent insinuation that Aristotle and Aquinas are the special property of The Party and not Your Party, instead of being the patrimony of all of us.

  6. Sorry, I was being needlessly obtuse- it’s still early here!

    All I was getting at was that there were a few comments on the blog for victory you linked to suggesting that “liberals” would be somehow deaf to Aquinas and Aristotle, while conservatives, one assumes, are uniquely able to appreciate them. What bothered me wasn’t actually that insinuation, but the assumption that the work of both men- which I personally take as the pinnacle of human wisdom- could be claimed by one political ideology or denied to another. I think of Aristotle and Aquinas as the patrimony of every one of us, and that goes far beyond mere politics.

  7. Ah, I see. Valid point. However, by “liberals” I do not mean “Democrats” or even what generally passes for liberalism, but classical Liberalism, that flower of the so-called Englightenment. These days, many, if not most, of the classical liberals reside on the right, while there is much truly traditionalist and localist sentiment on the left. The labels mean less and less these days.

  8. Oh yes, I think we’re in agreement on this. I’m often struck by how often my “progressive” sister says things of which I’ve heard variations on the Porch. In general, I’d like to see truth depoliticized and democratized because the labels are failing us. Each day I translate a bit more of the Summa Theologica, and I’d be hard-pressed to think of anyone who couldn’t benefit from what’s in there.

  9. The symptoms described are indicative of a deeper malaise: the absence of a sense of community. Personal obligation / gratitude has been replaced by a measure that is specified in numbers, which in turn refer to a legal tender / fiat currency that is supported by no physical backing other than the paper it is printed on.

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