Sunday, October 28, 2012

An Unpopular, Classicist Position: We Need Strong Families

Today, I read two stories, the first being the tragic story of the teenage Felicia Garcia, who committed suicide after being bullied about participating in group sex with football players.  One cannot fault her parents, as she lost them when she was younger.  Instead society had passed her around the foster care system, which is no substitute for real family. 

The second was that of mothers who turned in their sons over the murders of two girls.  In this story, Cicero's words, that one should not turn in family members to the authorities because the state needs strong families more than the need for criminal justice.  I don't think I understood what that meant really until today, and in grappling with the tragedies, and their social context, I have come to see wisdom in the words of Cicero here however much they cut against the grain of modern society.

The family household is the primary support structure for our children.  It is the structure which provides culture, moral teaching, and most importantly a sense of self, social context, and place.  Without these things, the child will lack a certain sense of security in life, even if the rest of society can make up in the other areas, which is doubtful.

The case of Felicia Garcia illustrates all too well that social machinery is no substitute for a strong family to which one truly belongs.  I don't condemn her for her suicide.  To lose her parents at a young age, and then go through the torments of modern childhood without that most basic support, the words of the Havamal reach out:

All alone there stands
A withered fir-tree
Bereft of bark and needle
So too the one who is all alone
Why should his life be long?
-- Havamal stanza 50, my own translation.

Without social context, we wither and die, like the fir tree.  This stanza tells us that just as trees often need the shelter of other trees, so too we humans need eachother to flourish, and there is simply nothing worse than being all alone in a crowd.

The corporate press of course, always on the anti-bullying crusade, seems to think with more laws, and better policies in the school tragedies like this can be averted, but this misses the point.  Trust in social machinery is the last thing we need, and I say this as one who was bullied as a kid non-stop for years.

Social machinery never works in these cases because machines lack intelligence of their own, and because they tend to  ensure that the people making the decisions simply do not have sufficient facts to determine the nature of the problem.  These problems invariably ensure that the administration of the school, when they intervene, cannot tell who really is bullying whom and consequently as often as not intervene on the side of the bullies.  The problem is a simple one.  If you see a particular student having problems with several other students, without a lot more detailed knowledge, you cannot tell if the other students are bullying or the one student is picking fights.   These things require local knowledge and they require human scale.  In the age of school consolidation and a focus on economies of scale, these things are nowhere to be found.

When I was a kid being bullied I found that teachers and the principle tried to intervene and fix the problems but they never did things right, and this was a relatively small, rural school.  The principle never really could figure out what was going on no matter what people said.  Sometimes the principle would understand and take my side.  Other times, well, not so much.  There was one time he called the bully and I into the gym, brought out boxing gloves and told us to fight it out.  The teachers, having better knowledge of what was going on, had no way to make a difference.  One of them resorted to bribing one of the bullies to leave me alone.

There were two things that made the situation bearable for  me.  The first is that I was secure in my place in my family, and in the love of my parents.  I had a strong sense of self, and was not about to let the bullies take this from me.  But beyond that I had a very strong sense that the bullies were facing problems I could not fathom.  I always knew somewhere inside and with nobody telling me, that my life was better than theirs, and that in no way would I want to switch places.  This was driven home to me when a few years ago I found out the father of one of the worst of the bullies had been arrested for molesting children, years later.

Felicia had no strong family. She had nobody who would be there for her unconditionally, loving her, and giving her a sense of self and place in what is all too often a hostile world.  Society's alternative was the machinery of the foster care system a system that gives foster kids just enough of a sense of family perhaps to know that they are missing something deep and important.  Her suicide is perhaps more a testament to the failure of foster care than it is to the issue of the bullying that will thrive and get worse as we build ever-bigger schools and more complex approaches to dealing with a problem that would be manageable if we moved back to human-scale education.

Yet, predictably, nobody wants to question the treasured myth of modern times, that we can build machines to solve any problem and that this includes social machines to solve social problems.  Instead of seeing humans as always willing to try to game any system we build, bullying is a problem to be solved simply by expanding the complexity of our school system to try to address it.  The problem, however, is that this is a result of the complexity of our school system, not the cause.

The larger problem, however, is how we view children and adoption.  It is easy to find adoptive parents for a newborn, but far harder for a young child who has tragically lost his or her parents.  People adopt for selfish reasons, because they want kids, not because they want to help kids who need it.  In a saner world, Felicia wouldn't have had foster parents, she would have had adoptive parents and they would have loved her unconditionally and helped her through the trauma of losing her parents, and on to developing a sense of self that would have prevented the tragedies that befell her in her teenage years.  She would have been wiser, more careful, perhaps less easy to manipulate, and even if she had made missteps that lead to bullying, she might have had the sense of self to get through it.  Instead, society largely abandoned her to a system that is designed to prevent us from seeing the need to adopt such older children.

On to the murders of Jessica Ridgeway and Autumn Pasquale.  the breakdown of the family is prominent here.  Austin Reed Sigg, who confessed to killing Ridgeway, is the child of divorced parents.   I haven't seen anything on the family status of Pasquale's killers, but it is worth noting that Pasquale's parents themselves were divorced as well from press reports, and from the pictures shown it does not look like she was killed in a wealthy neighborhood.

Both parties in the US have gradually turned the "War on Poverty" into a "War on the Poor" through different punishments for drug law violations, tough on crime stances that tear families apart, the rise on prison industries, and increased strings attached to welfare programs which themselves are used as a government subsidy for cheap labor.  With the decline of the family as a social institution, we expect our schools to do more of the heavy lifting regarding culture-building (and this is unfortunately both a problem on the left and right), and consequently the family is more and more marginalized and more and more eroded until today when it is a mere collection of individuals brought together by contract and accident of birth.

Crimes like those of Ridgeway and Pasquale are not perpetrated by well-adjusted individuals, secure in their places in their families and society.  They are instead products of the factory farming of children because we no longer believe in human-scale child-rearing.  Our society is becoming less and less human as we lose this, and we become more and more just parts of a machine.  I fear that as we do, we lose our highest aspirations and our potential for greatness.

Virtue is built from vice.  A willingness to work can be built from greed, marital love from lust, and so forth.  The difference is often less in substance than it is in how well ordered our lives are and how well we connect to other people.  The true alchemy of the self, then transforms vice into virtue by attaining social context, compassion, and perspective.  It is through our divine gifts that this transformation can occur but it can only do so when we have an environment built towards human flourishing.  Thus without balance we can never really make this transformation and we remain Ayn Rand's little darlings, but with the right environments, we can achieve a unity of self and virtue that perhaps few in any age achieve.  That can only happen when the society in miniature is human-scale, not industrial-scale or, as the new-buzzword would have it, web-scale.

The Norse myths tell of the end of the world preceded (as in the Irish equivalents) by a total breakdown of society.  While the Irish Colloquy of Two Sages typically inverts social norms ("maidens without modesty" for example) the various Norse references, including Snorri's Gylfaginning, and Voluspa, portray the social breakdown in terms that are more stark and also more intimate.  The fundamental breakdown is in the family.  Siblings kill eachother, people murder their parents, etc.  This "axe age" or "sword age" leads to a three year long winter, where at the end of which all spacial divisions are erased, and the great battle between the gods and their enemies commences, until a cycle begins anew.

This is of course not just the story of the end of the world, but rather (as Eliade would have it)[1][2] a story of the end of society, of social context, of the family, and perhaps a story of the death and/or transformation of the individual as well.  One pattern is much like another and these stories are infinitely re-usable, but one thing that is clear, particularly in the comparative context is that the boundaries matter and that the end of the world in this and related systems is about the collapse of boundaries.

In the myth of Ragnarok, all boundaries are erased.  The Rainbow Bridge is destroyed, the boundaries which keep the fire and frost giants from the world gone, and separation between the living and the dead erased.  This is remarkably similar to the Cornford's view of Anaximander's view of the elements paying back a primordial debt in their own destruction, which he largely derives from his framework of moira, lachesis, and nemesis.[3]  Boundaries matter and indeed they define us.  Perhaps one important lesson from the Norse myth of Ragnarok is that when the boundaries of the family are erased, society soon follows.

And so I come back to the thought that Cicero was right, that the interest of the state in strong families outweighs the interest in criminal justice because if we had stronger families, perhaps we'd have fewer heinous crimes of this sort.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and I am concerned that the expectation that we trust the social machines instead of people will lead us down a very dark road indeed.

But of course the mothers who turned their children in are not to blame.   What is to blame is the way we have systematically weakened the family in every way imaginable until crimes like this are the ultimate outcome.  It is time to start looking for how to strengthen the family again.


[1] Eliade, Mircea, "Myth and Reality"

[2] Eliade, Micrea, "The Myth of Eternal Return":

[3] Cornford, F. M. "From Religion to Philosophy"

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