Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Illusory Village

On Sunday Rod Dreher wrote this blog post on his "Crunchy Con" blog, in which he talked about his experience as a speaker at a Russell Kirk conference this past weekend. I was struck by Mr. Dreher's mention that he intends to center his next book around the idea of intentional communities of like-minded people who want to resist the prevailing culture. Specifically, I found myself musing on this section of his post:

"But if you raise your kids to be wide-open to the culture, you’re setting them up for ruin. We talked for a bit about how the children of affluent homes, even ostensibly conservative homes, emerge with values shaped more by the hedonistic and materialistic culture than by the tradition of faith and virtue....What is the answer? Humans were made to live in community. It really does take a village to raise a child. But what happens when, as Caitlin Flanagan wrote, you’re doing everything you can to keep the village and its values away from your child?"

I must confess to my irritation at the Hillary quote. Many conservative writers more able than I have corrected this "it takes a village" nonsense, pointing out quite accurately that it doesn't take a village at all; it takes parents. Preferably two of them. Of opposite genders. Committed to each other for life, and willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary for the good of the child. Including actually making the child's raising enough of a priority to make at least some attempt for at least one parent actually to interact with the child on a time-intensive, daily basis (no, the hour in the car between picking the child up from the sitters and stopping by the dry cleaners and the grocery store doesn't count). In other words, to raise a child it takes a MOTHER and a FATHER.

But beyond that objection to the Hillary quote lies another one, which may impact Mr. Dreher's point. Even if you read the "it takes a village" quote to mean that it's far easier for committed parents to raise their children when the wider community supports the general values and virtues the parents wish to instill in their children, which is certainly true, there's a vast difference between having the village support the parents who live within its confines in this way, and rejecting the 'organic' village in hopes of creating a synthetic village of people who will support your values and your desire to raise virtuous children in a moral environment.

Because even if you do that, sooner or later your children will have to encounter the world.

They may encounter it on a day like today, when the ugly news from Virginia fills the airwaves. They may encounter it in a smaller way, when you have to have 'stranger danger' talks with them, or when you don't let them play any further away from your home than you can physically see them. Even if you get rid of your television, they will find out somehow what the 'cool' toys are, or see a poster for a movie you'd rather they didn't know existed. Though you can, and should, limit these influences in their lives to the extent that you can and as long as you can, you can't keep them away from your children forever, though only you know when your children are ready to handle such things. But you can be sure of this: the values of the prevailing culture will seep into even the most intentional of communities, the most pristine of villages.

Because from time immemorial the world has been fallen, and prone to evil and sin.

And the village is the world.

We may, in our concrete and asphalt neighborhoods, from our big-box stores and strip-mall nightmares, dream of a Village. We see it as a quaint old-fashioned place, where people still care about each other, where families gather for weekly celebrations and neighbors know each other by name. We may imagine it like an old-world European village, or like a very British one, or even like this one, but our romantic imaginings color the Village with all our idealistic longing for something Other than what we have now, with all its seeming unloveliness, all its gray and formless mediocrity.

And in a way, we are right to long for this. But in a way we're in danger of forgetting something that must not be forgotten.

The Village doesn't really exist. Even if we could spend a pleasant morning wandering the quaint streets of a dear but tiny place, even if we could pause to place an order with the organic butcher, fill our basket with the wares of the artisan baker, and admire the latest creative innovation from the kiln or pewter molds of the painstaking candle-maker, we wouldn't really have the whole picture. In a real village, the baker's wife may be notorious; the butcher may weight his scales; the candlemaker might retire to a secret back room to remove the "Made in China" stickers from his 'handcrafted' taper holders. There would be a village drunk and a village idiot. All the petty sins and hideous evils of the city are present in the village, too; the only difference may be the extent to which the villagers will go to pretend that the evil isn't there, instead of glorying in evil like their city counterparts.

If the Village doesn't exist, though, then can't we just make one? Can't we create a whole village of people who think and care and feel and desire as we do?

Aside from the fact that there's no surer way to disaster than to gather in a relatively small space a whole group of unrelated people who have absolutely no disagreement on the big issues, there remains the worst objection of all: creating such a village is an act of artificiality, a deliberate selection of one's neighbors and one's community in what becomes the ultimate act of hedonistic consumer choice. It's not really a village at all; it's a glorified clique, a gated community where the gate is invisible, but no less real.

And deep within this artificial village, have the 'villagers' created a safe place for themselves and for their children?

Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of the Red Death provides a poignant answer to that question. The revelers at the Prince's masquerade in Poe's story had shut themselves away in his palace to avoid the plague that ravished the countryside; the plague, or Red Death, was found among them, and their stronghold became their prison and their grave.

We are not free from sin. How many children raised in good Catholic homes have suffered when their parents divorce? How many children whose parents were the pillars of a much more virtuous society in the past knew parental abuse, parental drunkenness, or parental indifference? How many children encountered these things or even worse, in the community around them, even if they had good homes and good families?

In the end, we can try to transcend the evil in the world, with the help of our Church, our families, our friends, and those who share our concerns about the effects of evil on our children. We can't run away from evil, or seek to exclude it from our neighborhoods, or pretend that it's someone else's problem. Evil doesn't just come from outside of us--it marks our souls, the result of our first parents' attempt to come to terms with evil by eating the fruit that would give them knowledge of it. And any solution to the problem of evil in the world today which isn't realistic about that fact is doomed to fail.


4andcounting said...

I agree. Aren't we called to be salt for the earth too? If we all retreat to our "villages," how we will bring God's word to the world? Very well said, as usual Red.

Red Cardigan said...

Thanks, 4andcounting! :)

Maria said...

After growing up in a very small, rural, and almost entirely Catholic village, all I can say is "Amen"! Too often people overly romantize the idea of a small, Catholic community - and have even stronger rose-tinted glasses on when looking at agrarian life!