Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why We Can't Have Community

From the always-interesting Irenaeus at Retractiones come some timely reflections about the FLDS situation, and the possibility that by allowing the government to step into the situation primarily as a means of preventing child abuse we're not really setting all that great of a precedent. Irenaeus links to this appalling story, about a man whose accidental purchase of an alcoholic lemonade drink for his son at a ball game led to the child's almost-immediate confiscation by CPS. The boy spent two days in foster care, and was only allowed to return home provided that his father moved out! It took a week to resolve matters, and everyone involved agreed that this was remarkably fast, possibly because one of the boy's own relatives is a social worker.

As I said before, I have no problem believing that the law should be able to take action against the FLDS group solely on the grounds that they're practicing polygamy. Unfortunately, in our current legal climate where it's not at all illegal to shack up with dozens of men or women and call each and every one of them your husband or wife--provided you don't attempt legal marriage with more than one of them--it's impossible for the law to do what I'd like it to do. The FLDS group is smart, in a sense; unlike the gay couples clamoring for marriage, the FLDS group is essentially saying, "Okay, so in your eyes I'm not actually married to anyone but Alice. But in God's eyes, according to my beliefs, I'm spiritually married to Alice, Betty, Carol, Dana, Elsie, Fran, Gert, Hephzibah...and so on, all the way to Zora--so long as I say so and they say so. And your laws can't do a thing about it, because you've tied your own hands tight with this little thing you called the sexual revolution, so back off."

Which is why the only way law enforcement could move against this group at all was to act on the basis of a phone call which may well turn out to be a phony, and claim that their intervention is about preventing child abuse. And if the powers-that-be among various liberal groups have their way, and consent laws get lowered to the point where thirteen or fourteen-year-olds will be able to engage legally in what it is increasingly ironic to call the marriage activity, there won't be any basis at all for legal action against groups like the FLDS.

What it will be boiled down to, in the end, is a legal game of Non Amo Te. We're handing the power to the government to act against groups or people we don't like, and trusting them to stay away from people we do. But that's a dangerous game to play, as anyone who has ever lived through a dictatorship could tell you.

All of this relates to something I've been pondering recently about the importance of community, and the reason why for so many conservatives talk about recapturing a community spirit or rediscovering the value of community has begun to percolate. Few of us have first hand experience of growing up in a community of shared values and shared responsibilities. Many of our parents knew what that was like, though, and watched it be destroyed during the late sixties and into the seventies; most of our grandparents took it for granted, and couldn't have imagined that things would fall apart so far and so fast during many of their lifetimes.

We can look at the various pressures and stresses that caused the disintegration of the American community if we want, but that topic has been discussed to death, and I'm not sure we're any closer to a consensus on just what happened than we've ever been. War, politics, social changes, the exodus of women from the home, the advent of television and the computer, and all sorts of similar things undoubtedly played a role, but in the end, when we look farther out at the world, I think we see that the seeds of our present destruction may have been planted as early as the First World War, when man first started to believe he had outgrown a need for God, and could find his own way, and invent his own realities.

I don't think it's possible, any more, to talk about "going back," either. We are far too fractured and fragmented for that to be a viable option. Even if we build tiny adorable towns with lovely homes and perfect porches, even if we try to build, consciously and deliberately, the community our grandparents had, we will be defeated in the end by that very consciousness and deliberation, in the way that a child, carefully memorizing the words of what he thinks a grown-up argument in his favor, will be defeated by the indisputable fact of his immaturity.

We don't, and can't, trust each other. We don't, and can't, open our homes as widely and unselfconsciously as our grandmothers or great-grandmothers did, to their neighbors all around them. We don't, and can't, know that our children's playmates come from homes even remotely like our own, with intact families and good values that line up pretty well with our own. We don't, and can't, know for sure that the people we reach out to won't turn against us, and rob from us or hurt our children or call CPS because they don't like us and want us to suffer.

We don't know if our neighbors are more likely to follow the commands of the Bible, or the plot scripts of a dozen trashy soap operas. We don't know if they have any concept of virtue, or if they have any understanding of the Golden Rule, or any intention of abiding by it.

We already live like the citizens of a dictatorship--the dictatorship of relativism. And, like those characters in books and movies we've encountered, we're more cautious and more secretive and less trusting than people who live in a truly free society. We speak in code, words like homeschooling and faith and respect for life and involved parenting, and when people like us respond in kind we start to extend the first tendrils of friendship, carefully, in case they're not what they seem to be--and they probably feel the same way about us. Just about all of us have been burned before, and none of us wants to end up like the father in the hard lemonade story, ripped from our families and forced to prove that we're trustworthy parents who mean our children no harm before we're allowed to return.

And because this is our reality, I'm starting to think that community, true community, is something that's going to be very, very hard to recreate or rediscover. We are the products of our age, after all. However much we may yearn for simpler days and shared values, those days are going to be a long time coming, if, indeed, they ever return at all.


nutmeg said...

I completely agree.... and it's so very unfortunate!

Anonymous said...

I'm not as pessimistic as you are about our future. I live in a small bedroom community outside of NYC. Our children attend a neighborhood public school that still has a Christmas Concert. We have sidewalks and children walk to and from school. My neighbors and friends will gladly mention if they saw my son downtown at the pizza joint with his friends. We were devestated by the 911 attacks (37 husbands, fathers, mothers and single people died between two towns). There was a tremendous outpouring of support for those families, and many of them have chosen to stay. I guess it all depends on where you live. But there are still good places in this country where people are God fearing and conservative; where children can play outside and ride bikes into town and where education is supported and valued by parents. Don't give up hope!

Karie, the Regular Guy's Extraordinary Wife said...


You give me heart! I wish here I could live in a similar situation. But I understand Red, it is hard to find families who have the same values as you do, we are too spread out, and if you don't have a church or some sort of group to belong to, you might be looking for a while. I am fortunate to belong to a very traditional church (Catholic) and the families there are very like my own. It is when we get together with these families that we feel we "belong".

ia jen said...

I completely agree with you. And although many people from the "cities" mock the area of the country that I live in, I wouldn't trade rural, small town, Midwest living for the world.
My children are free to play outside with safety. We have a wonderful Catholic community here and we all trust each other with each other's kids. We are family with no bloodlines. We openly support the fundraisers of other faith denominations, too. (which unfortunately is also rare)

I feel so sorry for those little girls who have grown up too fast to motherhood and sexuality. They may not understand now, but hopefully someday their children teach them to see how fleeting childhood really is. My prayers are with all the innocents who have been damaged.

Alexandra said...

I think they have got them on the statutory rape charges for the very young teens. When I worked in the system, the younger the teen, the more likely the prosecution(all other conditions being met).

You are right, if they change the law, this won't be a sticking point at all! If there hadn't been pregnant teens, I think sect wouldn't have come under the radar.

freddy said...

You've done a brilliant job of summing up my rather chaotic thoughts on this complicated situation!

I would add only: Why are so many Amish communities revered by the mainstream when these folks are feared if not for the polygamy issue?