Anthony Esolen: “So Where’s the Social?”

Although we moved from 20 acres in the country to a house on a city lot, I’m doing a lot more walking here in town. This seems counter-intuitive, but not when you consider that a healthy neighborhood really serves as everyone’s “front yard”.  Like much of Chico, our new neighborhood is supremely walkable. Chico prides itself on being pedestrian and bicycle friendly, and not without justice, although the reality can be a mixed bag. Here on the east side we have quiet, shady, tree-lined streets with cracked sidewalks, gardens peeking through and crawling over old fences, children playing on their lawns and riding bicycles, and a decent variety of modest landscapes all of which make for pleasant and interesting walks. A few days ago my older boys and a friend asked to walk in Bidwell Park after nightfall, because the park is spooky-looking and it was a full moon, and off they went for over an hour, loving every minute. I kept my daughters at home, over-protective dad that I am, but perhaps I’ll relent if we go in a larger group.

This afternoon I met some of our neighbors at a garage sale across the street, a retired couple who has lived there for 25 years. The old gentleman makes birdhouses and sells them to raise money for his grandchildren. We’ve only met a few neighbors thus far: most keep to themselves and seem to like it that way. Is there an invisible community here? My guess is that there does exist a community of sorts, especially among the parents of children attending the neighborhood elementary school, and perhaps among the older residents as well. But I suspect that most of our neighbors are people like us, with the majority of their social network existing well beyond the neighborhood.

Anthony Esolen, with his usual eloquence, refers to the demise of neighborhoods in his latest essay “So Where’s the Social? – Recovering Words and Culture in the Unsociety”. After reviewing an editorial in the September 1955 issue of Town Journal, Esolen reminds us of a few things – assumed by the magazine’s readers and editors in 1955 – that we can no longer take for granted in the “unsociety” of America 2012:

“His editorial presumes that there is such a thing as a town, full of people who know one another and who take pride in where they live.  For the same issue presents a forty question test to see whether you live in a healthy town, with thirty ‘yes’ answers being the standard to shoot for.  The first criterion?  ‘Most high school graduates stay in town.’  Also telling: ‘More than half the church congregations [sic] are under 40.’  Are the streets lined with shade trees?  Is there a recreation center where young people dance?  The Ike-liking editors aren’t laissez-faire economists.  They aren’t the sort of pseudo-conservatives who see devotion to the family as an obstacle to ‘progress,’ whatever that is.  They want the money to stay nearby, so that it will be spent nearby – even taxed nearby.

In other words, these are deeply civic-minded conservatives.  I doubt one could find more than the thinness of a dime between what they assume about civic duty and Catholic social teaching.  For both assume the existence of a society: people who are socii, companions, fellow travelers, neighbors.  Behold another telling criterion for the good town: ‘There’s as much interest in local as national elections.’  That can only be so, if local elections matter, and local elections can matter only if local people feel they actually have some influence upon their common life – and if there is a common life to begin with.

And here we arrive at the great fact staring us in the face.  Romano Guardini, shortly after the war, had already asserted that the people of western Europe no longer possessed a culture.  Such words as culture remain like wraiths, long after the reality they once described has passed away.  Alasdair MacIntyre, indeed, says that that fate has befallen our entire language of morality.  The word society is, I believe, in that same category.  So the riddle we must now solve is how to apply Catholic social teaching to the whatever-it-is we have, the mass of habits inculcated by bad education and worse entertainment–the Unsociety.

It will require a great deal of hard thinking, a deep knowledge of history and of human nature, and patient prayer–just the things that our electoral politics makes nearly impossible.  But it must be done, for the sake of humanity itself, threatened by the collusive interests of technocrats, bureaucrats, mediacrats, and all the other crats who burden us with their wisdom and their insufferably benignant lust for power.

I won’t recommend any particular program here.  I have an innate loathing of programs, anyway.  But any solution must provide people with the wherewithal – economic, political, and moral – to rebuild the social ties we have lost.  Consider, for the sake of argument, a young couple moving to Freemanville, with its thousand or so subscriptions to magazines like Town Journal.  They are, of course, married; notably absent from Town Journal’s questionnaire is any reference to crime or to out-of-wedlock births.  They have, then, already engaged in that most social of all actions, without the corrosive shacking-up beforehand.

The lady down the street, a member of the town’s Welcome Wagon, shows up that week with a couple of apple pies, and asks if they need anything of a practical nature – because when you move into a house there’s always something you forget to bring along, like soap or shaving cream or a broom or a dustpan.  Within two weeks you’ve met a good dozen of your neighbors, and you’ve been invited to church, or to the block party, or to the fireworks display on the Glorious Fourth.  I am not sentimentalizing here.  This is how people lived; or rather, this is how people live, if they but have the opportunity, just as dogs outdoors will run about and sniff things, and cats outdoors will sleep in the shade and hunt mice.

All of these human connections are founded upon, and imply, moral expectations … The teacher, the neighbor, the clergyman, and you might disagree on which road to pave, or which senator is the less dishonest, but your wide moral agreement will make you socii even when you do not like one another.”

That takes us to the heart of the problem: morality. Authentic community depends upon a shared moral consensus. Most Americans can no longer assume that such a consensus exists in their neighborhood, or even in their own families, and so whatever can be had of “community” is necessarily outsourced.

2 thoughts on “Anthony Esolen: “So Where’s the Social?”

  1. I finally read Esolen’s thing. He’s always quite good, isn’t he? I was depressed by the end of it though. The difference between what we need and what we have right now is so vast, I don’t know that we can ever get it back.


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