When my acquaintances here in Ireland see images of Ferguson, they marvel at the ordnance—here most police don’t even carry guns—but they also tell me Ferguson doesn’t look poor. They grew up here when this country had a fraction of America’s wealth—again, GDP-per-capita—but also a fraction of its crime rate. Like people in many countries or historical eras, they were poorer than Americans today, but also less fearful.
Why they weren’t afraid has many possible answers, but I can suggest a few. Most people knew their neighbors, including local police, and that web of trust cushioned the weight of the world. They enforced most community standards through social pressure, without police. Young males were usually occupied with physical labor rather than mischief. Guns were unknown except for hunting in season.
Most people had the skills and infrastructure to provide the rudiments of life or themselves, rather than being financially dependent on strangers. People’s perception of each other was shaped by their interactions, rather than a sensationalist mass media.
I use traditional Ireland as an easy example, but you could say all the same things about most traditional societies, or most American communities as recently as several decades ago. Such communities—poor but scraping by, close-knit, self-reliant—are the rule in human affairs; they are what normal looks like.
Most Americans I talk to live far from family and do not know or trust their neighbors. Most went deeply into debt to afford an education, car or house, and must travel long distances to buy food or get to jobs. Their economic relationships—the means of getting food, water, clothing, warmth, and shelter—are vertical, to strangers in distant and possibly unaccountable institutions, rather than horizontal, to others nearby.
via Ferguson Falls Apart.
What he wrote is true of me. I grew up in the 1940s in a small town on the Potomac River in which nobody locked their doors, and, if you left something valuable on your front porch overnight, it would still be there in the morning. Very few people were actually poor, but most of us had few material possessions by the standards of today. My parents raised my brother and me in a house that is smaller than the one I now live in by myself.
While my memories of that era are happy memories, I don’t think African-Americans my age would feel the same. Schools and many other public institutions in Maryland were segregated, and lynchings in the South went unpunished. White police treated black people no better than they do now, if that. Maybe family and community ties were stronger; I wouldn’t know.
Anyhow, that’s not what Kaller is writing about. He is writing about why we white people feel the way we do.
This weak social infrastructure makes most Americans highly vulnerable to crime, and they know it. In working-class neighborhoods like Ferguson, neighbors look with dread at the violence and social breakdown of places like East St. Louis, and fear it coming to where they live. [snip]
Fearful and mistrusting people respond in all kinds of counter-productive ways. They move further and further away from urban centers, to places where they are even more isolated. They absorb themselves in specialized media that appeals to their fears, and their preparations for emergencies tend to involve guns. They demand more and more from governments they trust less and less, and surrender legal rights to police that are (a) heavily armed, (b) frequently attacked, and (c) human. All of which could work out just fine, as long as nothing ever goes wrong.
via Ferugson Falls Apart.
I think that’s true. Hat tip for the link to Rod Dreher.