The Collapse of America’s Social Infrastructure

Our roads, bridges, and airports are crumbling, but so is our “social infrastructure”–libraries, schools, playgrounds, athletic fields, gardens, bookstores, diners, and barbershops.  Over at The Atlantic, New York University sociologist Eric Klineberg discusses the collapse of the places that build flourishing communities and a healthy democracy.

Here is a taste of his piece “Worry Less About Crumbling Roads, More About Crumbling Libraries“:

Every four years, the American Society for Civil Engineers issues grades for the nation’s infrastructure. In the most recent evaluation, released in 2017, America’s overall infrastructure score was a D+, the same as in 2013. Although seven systems, including hazardous waste and levees, received modestly better grades than in the previous assessment, transit and solid waste, among others, did worse. Aviation (D), roads (D), drinking water (D), and energy (D+), retained their miserably low scores.

The ASCE does not grade our “social infrastructure.” If it did, the scores would be equally shameful. For decades, we’ve neglected the shared spaces that shape our interactions. The consequences of that neglect may be less visible than crumbling bridges and ports, but they’re no less dire.

abandoned-library-33a1-960x720

 

Social infrastructure is not “social capital”— the concept commonly used to measure people’s relationships and networks—but the physical places that allow bonds to develop. When social infrastructure is robust, it fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbors; when degraded, it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves. People forge ties in places that have healthy social infrastructures—not necessarily because they set out to build community, but because when people engage in sustained, recurrent interaction, particularly while doing things they enjoy, relationships—even across ethnic or political lines—inevitably grow.

Public institutions, such as libraries, schools, playgrounds, and athletic fields, are vital parts of the social infrastructure. So too are community gardens and other green spaces that invite people into the public realm. Nonprofit organizations, including churches and civic associations, act as social infrastructure when they have an established physical space where people can assemble, as do regularly scheduled markets for food, clothing, and other consumer goods.

Read the rest here.

Digital Harrisburg at the 2018 AHA

DHI

I just finished chairing a session at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association titled “Placing the American Community: Lessons from the Digital Harrisburg Project.”

Here is the session abstract:

In spring 2014, students and faculty from Messiah College and Harrisburg University of Science and Technology initiated a collaborative digital project to place the entire population of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the neighboring (historically) immigrant town of Steelton, on contemporary historical maps from the early twentieth century. Through class exercises and projects, work study positions, and volunteer efforts, history professors and students input the entire population of these communities from the decennial censuses of 1900-1930, including all relevant census fields such as race and birthplace, immigrant status, occupation and industry. At the same time, and in conjunction with this work, GIS students and faculty at both institutions digitized contemporary maps of Harrisburg and Steelton. The result of this combined labor is a massive demographic database of over 300,000 names, linked to over 10,000 individual residences in a GIS. Teams have also begun to incorporate (via a unique property number) other large data sets such as church membership rolls, names and occupations from city directories, and property values for the same time span. And history faculty have mined newspaper databases and recorded oral histories to fill out the picture of the city.

The Digital Harrisburg Project has been a boon to our institutions, giving our history students new digital proficiencies in databases and GIS, and our GIS and computer science students an opportunity to tackle historical problems, while also creating real and enduring collaborations across departments and institutions. As importantly, the project has generated a new and powerful historical resource for understanding and rethinking major phenomena in U.S. urban history. The integration of multiple sets of information encoded at individual street addresses in GIS has created one of the highest-resolution digital images of an early twentieth century urban community transformed by immigration, population growth, and city planning. Plotting the population through time (1900-1930) sheds light on the dynamic patterns of human mobility and migration that were characteristic of communities at the junction of major roads, waterways, and rail lines. The datasets also have allowed us to reconsider the demographic, racial, and spatial aspects of Harrisburg’s successful urban reform movement, outlined most clearly in William Wilson’s pioneering work on The City Beautiful Movement (1989).

In this session, we provide an overview of the history of the Digital Project within our institutional contexts; outline the nature of the data sets including the geospatial framework; highlight the potential of the data for reconsidering broad issues of historiographic debate; and showcase our recent efforts to replicate the data for other cities and places through new technologies (computer vision). The goal of this session is to publicize the results of the project in anticipation of the imminent public dissemination of the demographic and geospatial datasets for purposes of research, and to highlight how others might engage in a similar project within their own communities. We also hope attendees will provide us feedback as we consider next steps.

Participants included James LaGrand (Messiah College History Department), David Pettegrew (Messiah College History Department), Albert Sarvis (Harrisburg University of Science and Technology), David Owen (Messiah College Computer Science Department), and Lisa Krissof Boehm (Urban Studies at Bridgewater State University).

Speakers focused on 3 aspects of the Digital Harrisburg Initiative:

  1. Digital Harrisburg as a collaborative venture between faculty and students at Messiah College, Harrisburg University, and civic institutions
  2. Digital Harrisburg as a pedagogical framework to help Messiah College history students develop digital proficiencies and make historical arguments with technology; and to introduce computer science and GIS students to historical applicatons of datasets.
  3. Digital Harrisburg as a public humanities project designed to engage different audiences in the city.

The audience–a combination of digital historians and Pennsylvania history experts–was small.  But they were also very engaged.  Commentator Lisa Boehm praised our work, told us to be “less humble” about it, and offered some great suggestions for moving forward.

Click here to learn more about the Digital Harrisburg Initiative.

W.H. Auden on Catholicism and Protestantism

Auden

W.H. Auden

Here is another Protestant Reformation post.  This one is stolen from Alan Jacobs’s blog Snakes and Ladders.  What follows is a quote Jacobs posted today from Auden‘s review of Erik Erickson’s Young Man Luther:

The Christian doctrine which Protestantism emphasizes is that every human being, irrespective of family, class, or occupation, is unique before God; the complementary and equally Christian doctrine emphasized by Catholicism is that we are all members, one with another, both in the Earthly and the Heavenly City.

Or one might say that, in conjugating the present tense of the verb to be, Catholicism concentrates on the plural, Protestantism on the singular. But authentic human existence demands that equal meaning and value be given to both singular and plural, all three persons, and all three genders. Thus, Protestantism is correct in affirming that the We are of society expresses a false identity unless each of its members can say I am; Catholicism correct in affirming that the individual who will not or cannot join with others in saying We does not know the meaning of I.

National Endowment for Humanities Funds Courses on “Enduring Questions”

Questions

Donald Trump’s current budget proposal will eliminate government funding for the humanities.  This means that local communities and American citizens will need to come up with other ways to fund programs like this:

In 2016, the National Endowment for the Humanities funded courses at colleges and universities across the country focused on these “enduring questions.”

What does it mean to be happy?

When should war end?

How do we grieve and mourn?

What is the purpose of art?

What is freedom?

Who is our neighbor?

What is community?

How do we think about morality as it relates to our habits and our health?

What is comedy?

What is discovery?

How should we think morally about the marketplace?

What is the relationship between the mind and the body?

How might we think theologically about race?

Is time valuable?

Why does our society incarcerate people?

What is creativity?

Learn more about the NEH’s work on “enduring questions” here.

For other posts in this series click here.

The Unraveling of White Working-Class America

grandpa

My maternal grandfather, a milkman, died 21 years ago today.

Over at The Wall Street Journal, journalists Bob Davis and Gary Fields have written a very interesting piece about the decline of working-class community in Reading, Pennsylvania. It is titled “In Places With Fraying Social Fabric, a Political Backlash Arises.”  This piece needs to be read alongside the Jedidiah Purdy piece that we posted on last week.  Populist voters are not just hillbillies and tea partiers, they are also members of the white ethnic working class–the children and grandchildren of immigrants who arrived in this country in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century.

Davis and Fields argue that “Donald Trump gets strong support where churches, civic groups and safety nets are in trouble.”  It is yet another version of the argument Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam made in his 2000 book Bowling Alone.

Here is a taste:

The buckling of social institutions fundamental to American civic life is deepening a sense of pessimism and disorientation, while adding fuel to this year’s rise of political populists like Donald Trump  and Bernie Sanders.

Here and across the U.S., key measures of civic engagement ranging from church attendance to civic-group membership to bowling-league participation to union activity are slipping. Unlocked doors have given way to anxiety about strangers. In Reading, tension between longtime white residents and Hispanic newcomers has added to the unease.

Read the entire piece here.

This makes perfect sense to me, although I can only speak anecdotally. I grew up in white working class America.  I am the son of a general contractor and a housewife.  I am the grandson of a milkman and a Teamster.  My extended family are (or were) plumbers, carpenters, police officers, linemen, mechanics, tavern-owners, beer distributors, backhoe operators, secretaries, and housewives.  My mother’s side of the family built our local volunteer fire company. Somewhere in my parents’ house is a box of bowling trophies I earned from the Saturday morning leagues I participated in as a kid.  We spent our Labor Days, Memorial Days, and July 4ths with one another–throwing horseshoes, playing softball, swimming in an above-ground pool, solving the problems of the world over hot dogs and beer, and going to parades and town carnivals that featured ferris wheels and other rides mounted on trucks.

It was a good childhood, although I now know that my parents shielded me, my brothers, and my sister from the hardships.  It was also a pretty white upbringing.  I think there were one or two African Americans in my graduating class.  I don’t remember any Latino classmates.  My elders were suspicious of newcomers who did not look like us. As a young boy this attitude was hard to ignore.  The real divisions in my community were class-based.  I lived in the older, more working-class part of town.  The other side of town was decidedly upper-middle class and professional.

The world of my childhood no longer exists.  Sure, some of my family still live in the North Jersey town where I grew up, but they will be the first to tell you that it is a very different place.  The working class community of my youth has been replaced by new housing developments–lots of so-called McMansions–filled with white collar immigrants from non-western countries.  (This is largely because the school system in my home town remains very strong).  The small Cape Cods and split-levels that still dot the landscape look like they are remnants of some strange universe that existed long ago.  Most of my extended family is gone.  My grandparents’ generation–the generation that helped build this town–has passed away.  Some of my parents’ generation is still around, but others have retired and moved elsewhere.  They probably feel the loss harder than anyone.

Most of my extended family–especially my parents and their siblings, siblings-in-laws, and friends are probably going to pull the lever for Trump in November for the same reasons that the people in Reading, Pennsylvania will be voting for Trump.  Some really like Trump.  Others are voting for him because they hate Hillary and especially hate Obama.  Many of them are Christians and thus believe that a vote for Trump will help them bring back (through Supreme Court nominations) the morality of the Christian nation that has been lost.  Or at least this is what they are told by their favorite conservative talk radio hosts.  But a vote for Trump, they believe, will also bring back jobs and in some small way restore the sense of community that they have lost.

Are You Lonely? Perhaps You Need to Go to a Springsteen Concert

Bruce at PSUEven scholars at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), that bastion of limited government and free markets, love the Boss!

Michael Strain, a resident scholar at AEI, puts his passion for Springsteen on display in a great piece at the website of The Washington Post.  Springsteen’s politics may be on the left, but his music appeals to folks of all ideologies!

Here is a taste:

I saw Springsteen and his mighty E Street Band last week, here in Washington, on a night when I needed to feel young. (Who doesn’t need to feel young these days?) And whenever I see a Springsteen show, I feel like I’m hearing music for the first time — music, and all the wonderful things that come with it.

A Springsteen concert is a celebration of community. There’s an intimacy associated with seeing those seated near you in complete abandon, and that intimacy fosters friendliness. Last week’s show offered a new spin on this familiar theme: I happened to meet the guy seated next to me a few days earlier when I sold him a couple of my extra tickets. He arrived during the third song, and we greeted each other as if we were old friends. It’s odd, but there was more warmth between us than I have with any of my neighbors. Springsteen brings people together.

Many different kinds of people. There are the veterans, who share stories of their favorite concerts in anticipation that what will happen on that stage in a few minutes will top what they’ve seen before. There are the skeptical first-timers — five songs in, and they are always mesmerized, stunned, in awe of the fact that all the hype they’ve heard for many years wasn’t hype after all. But my favorite are the kids, often with their parents — a generational handoff. My unborn son has been to two shows already.

We live in a fragmented society. People feel isolated. Many feel invisible. Springsteen is aware of this, and he explicitly tries to combat it with his concerts. For a few hours, any trace of loneliness vanishes. A Springsteen show is a balm.

Read the entire post here.

A Bookstore in Bellefonte

Bellefonte, PA

I have taught a few students from Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.  After a conversation with one of those students I came to the tentative conclusion that it must be a nice place to live.  It sounded like a charming Victorian Pennsylvania town.  And it was close to Penn State.

If my memory serves me correctly, I used to stop at a Holiday Inn off of Route 80 near Bellefonte during my seminary years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  I usually pulled my 1981 Skylark into the motel when I was too sleepy to finish the drive from Deerfield, IL to Montville, NJ.  I remember being frustrated because my room did not have a remote control for the television set.

If I wasn’t in such a hurry to get home to see my parents and siblings in New Jersey I might have taken the time to drive into downtown Bellefonte.  After reading about Jonathan Eburne‘s failed attempt to open a bookstore in the town, I wish I had been more curious and adventuresome in those days.

Here is a taste of Eburne’s Los Angeles Review of Books essay on the struggle to cultivate intellectual community in Bellefonte.  It’s a great piece about place:

I THOUGHT it would be a good idea to start a bookstore in my town. The print industry is dead, we’ve been told, from the publisher’s nose to the bookseller’s tail. But haven’t books always been at least a little dead? Coffined thoughts, in mummy cases, embalmed in spice of words. Perhaps a bookstore could marshal some of that spice toward happier ends, breeding lilacs out of the dead land. A community bookstore seemed like a small yet viable way to push back at the larger forces encroaching against so many elements of our towns and cities. Universities; museums; downtowns: sometimes everything feels under attack. A plague upon our houses! The attacks are fueled by all sorts of imperatives, a worldly sickness. Most of it, we cannot fathom how to fix. But I could imagine a bookstore, like a small bulwark against the tide. The goal was simple: to found a cooperative; to think small, to build gradually through a cohort of like-minded collaborators. That way, nobody would get hurt.
But something did get hurt. Nobody went bankrupt, mind you, and no money was lost. Yet my town and its cultural prospects are worse off than when we started. Instead of helping to build a new cultural institution, I’ve watched other institutions crumble down around me.
This is a story about that reversal of fortune.

Eric Miller on Wendell Berry’s Fiction

Check out the recent edition of The Cresset for Eric Miller‘s essay, “Technology and Human Renewal in Wendell Berry’s Port William.”  Miller focuses predominantly on Berry’s 1967 novel A Place on Earth to illustrate how “the technical advances of the West” have threatened our “deepest experience of well being.”  Here is a taste:

To begin with, in Berry’s judgment the entire modern way is premised on a manner of regarding and relating to the material world that will prove unequal to the challenge of correcting its own disintegrating course. Berry, famously, sees disaster of the greatest proportions looming. This is an argument he has made searchingly and repeatedly in his essays more so than in his fiction, and with particularly compelling force in his commentary on agriculture. “There is no longer any honest way to deny,” he wrote in 1985, “that a way of living that our leaders continue to praise is destroying all that our country is and all the best that it means. We are living even now among punishments and ruins.”
But as this judgment intimates, Berry is not simply concerned to alert us to material damage at the level of the “environment.” Rather, Berry is decrying a loss of spiritual proportions, a loss, we might say, of intimacy and attunement: the loss of intimacy with one another, and the loss of attunement to our fundamental material-spiritual condition—the attunement that makes intimacy and renewal possible. To Berry, modernity’s elaborate infrastructure, instantiated in minute and grand ways, wars against the humility we must acquire to embrace a “properly subordinated human life,” a life capable of grief and joy. Indeed, the modern pathway for him has emerged from the audacious, unseemly attempt to bypass a reckoning with who we actually are: embodied creatures rather than ethereal gods. Evading primal, ­participatory encounter with what Berry finds himself calling “the Creation,” we lose ­contact with ourselves, with each other, and so become not fruitful but barren—destructively barren.

Evangelicals, Stickers, Boomers, and Small Towns

The deeper I go into academic life the more I lose touch with the passions that led me to pursue a professorial career in the first place.  After reading Jake Meador’s recent essay in Christianity Today, a part of me wants to leave academia, move to a small town, and pastor a local Protestant congregation. I think I could be happy doing this.

In “Why We Need Small Towns,” Meador draws upon the work of Rod Dreher, Wendell Berry, and Wallace Stegner to encourage evangelical pastors to think about pursuing vocations in small places.  It’s a great piece.  Here is just a taste:

Of course, American Christians know something of the little way. The evangelical movement has always had its share of what novelist Wallace Stegner famously called “stickers.” In the words of Wendell Berry, a student of Stegner’s, stickers are people who “settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.” America’s first great theologian, Jonathan Edwards, spent much of his life serving in a single small parish. Presbyterian theologian B. B. Warfield spent nearly his entire adult life in Princeton, New Jersey, where he taught at the university and cared for his sick wife. The late Dallas Willard taught and ministered in the same philosophy department for nearly five decades. Just recently, my pastor interviewed a dozen fellow pastors who have served in Lincoln, Nebraska, for over a decade. All of them are committed to staying at their churches indefinitely.

But, like so many Westerners, we don’t always practice the virtues of the little way in our communities. Evangelicals are a people of megachurches, national conferences, city-centric thinking (which often comes with derision for small-town life), and ever-expanding religious empires, be they church-planting networks or the Twitter feeds of celebrity pastors. Consider just one example: the rise of video preaching and podcasting, and the cultlike following they have generated around certain leaders.
The point is not to demonize cities or the prominent ministries that grow out of them. God does work through these and other large endeavors. Indeed, if stickers have always been a part of American evangelicalism, so too have their more ambitious counterparts, the “boomers.” In Stegner and Wendell Berry’s use of the term, boomers are people driven by dreams and ambitions. They are always moving to the next project, always imagining a new idea or movement to pursue. If Ruthie Leming was a sticker, Rod Dreher is a boomer (or has been for much of his life, at least).
Boomers have a long tradition within evangelicalism as well. George Whitefield was our first celebrity preacher, traveling all over the country to lead revivals that drew hundreds to thousands of attendees. Much of 19th-century evangelicalism was marked by the spirit of revivalism, a boomer movement if ever there was one. And today’s U.S. megachurches—which have exploded in number in the past few decades—certainly reflect a boomer ethos, and their bigness has its value. For example, the 6,000-person congregation has resources that my 350-person one could never dream of. It would take us years to raise a mercy fund that the megachurch could raise in one week. Impressive buildings, major missions campaigns, and citywide revivals all have their place.

Does "Staying Put" Cultivate Community?

For the good folks at the Front Porch Republic the answer to this question seems to be an unqualified “yes.”  And anyone who reads this blog carefully knows I am sympathetic to the Front Porcher’s understanding of “place,” especially as espoused by writers like Wendell Berry and Christopher Lasch.  (I actually wrote a few things for the Front Porch Republic website a few years ago).

But Ross Douthat’s recent column at The New York Times complicates the relationship between “place” and “community.”

Here is a taste of his argument in “Place is Not Enough.”

It’s easy to assume that America’s current crisis of community — the fragmentation of family life, the retreat from civic and religious engagement — is related to people being too quick to pull up stakes and leave their existing communities behind. But the surprising reality is that the recent weakening of social ties has coincided with a decline in mobility. Here are the relevant Census figures:

The percentage of people who changed residences between 2010 and 2011 ─ 11.6 percent ─ was the lowest recorded rate since the Current Population Survey began collecting statistics on the movement of people in the United States in 1948, the U.S. Census Bureau reported today. The rate, which was 20.2 percent in 1985, declined to a then-record low of 11.9 percent in 2008 before rising to 12.5 percent in 2009. The 2010 rate was not statistically different than the 2009 rate.

Now Americans are still a more mobile people than most. But if you’re looking for a straightforward link between staying in place and the health of America’s communities, this is not the trend you would expect. We are staying put more than we did in earlier eras, and yet outside of the upper class it isn’t translating into the kind of personal and familial stability that communitarians want to cultivate.

I am sure Patrick Deneen is on the case.

Quote of the Day

I have talked about community as being a work of the imagination, and I hope I have made clear my belief that the more generous the scale at which imagination is exerted, the healthier and more humane the community will be.  There is a great deal of cynicism at present, among Americans, about the American population.  Someone told me recently that a commentator of some sort had said, “The United States is in a spiritual free-fall.”  When people make such remarks, such appalling judgments, they never include themselves, their friends, those with whom they agree.  They have drawn, as they say, a bright line between an “us” and a “them.”  Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy of respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem to the “us” who presume to judge “them.”  This tedious pattern has repeated itself endlessly through human history and is, as I have said, the end of community and the beginning of tribalism.

–Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books, p. 30.

Introducing "Reckless Historians"

Whenever I teach The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin I spend some time talking about The Junto–Franklin’s club for mutual improvement.  Here is how Franklin describes the Junto:

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, [1727] I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

Several years ago I suggested that we need more Junto’s in our colleges and universities. Here is part of what I wrote in that post:

I usually teach the Autobiography once a year and I always make a point of emphasizing this passage. I ask my students to consider the possibility of leaving history class and joining a group of fellow students in an extended conversation about the ideas discussed that day. Most students have never really pondered such a concept. The thought of going back to their dorms and discussing the impact of industrialization on rural life in the nineteenth century is an absurd one. For them college is about getting a degree or developing some kind of practical skill that they could use to make a living. In such an economic climate as the one in which we live today, to suggest that students should spend time discussing ideas in a Junto-like fashion seems useless or at least a bad use of one’s time.

My Junto sermon ends by explaining to my students how a truly liberally educated person needs to be engaged with the world of ideas. I expound on how ideas have social consequences and can be useful in real life. Ideas can often motivate people to serve others and the common good, a thought that I hope has some appeal among my Christian students. I then, in good Puritan homiletical style, hit them with the “application” by exhorting them to start a Junto of their own. I reinforce the message of this sermon throughout the semester. Whenever we run across a big idea (which is basically every class period), I finish class by telling the students to “continue the discussions in their Juntos.” The remark usually gets a laugh as students pack up their books, but that is about it.

Is it too much to ask that students take the ideas they learn in class and make a conscious and deliberate effort to converse about them away from the classroom? I know today’s students are extremely busy, but Franklin and his Junto managed to put aside a small amount of time each week for this kind activity. Students can find plenty of time for Facebook, Myspace, weekend road trips, and video-games. Why not ideas?

I know of several groups of students who have formed Juntos after reading the Autobiography.  During my first several years at Messiah College, a group of students met weekly in the college snack shop.  Another group of students at Northwestern College formed a Junto that read, among other works, The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  And over the years a few more Juntos were created by Messiah history majors.

The latest Junto is made up of a group of sophomore history majors at Messiah College.  They call themselves “Reckless Historians” and have created a blog by the same name.  If you are an undergraduate historian, a history major, or simply someone with a passion for learning more about the past, I would encourage you to check them out.

Humanities and Civic Life

Paula Krebs is the dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University (MA) and a member of the board of directors of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.  In a recent piece at Inside Higher Ed, she reflects on the relationship between the humanities and the cultivation of civic and community life.  Here is a taste:

Through my role in public humanities, I have come to understand that the humanities are what allow us to see ourselves as members of a civic community. Public history, public art, shared cultural experiences make us members of communities. This link has not been stressed enough in defense of the academic humanities. It’s past time to make this important connection — to help our boards of trustees, our communities, and our legislators to know what the humanities brings to civil society and gives to students as they enter the workforce.

Gun Culture and Rights Culture

Greg Weiner, a political science professor at Assumption College and author of Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule, and the Tempo of American Politics, believes that the only way to curb gun violence is to curb the “rights culture” that defines American public life.  He argues that our obsession with rights “isolates the individual from considerations of the common good decided upon by deliberate majorities.”

Here is a taste of his piece at The Front Porch Republic:

Advocates of gun control, most of them on the political left, are justifiably pointing to the excesses of rights talk today.  But Newtown provides an opportunity for bipartisan reflection on the false absolutism and hyper-individualism of the rights culture. In this matter, liberals are not innocent.  It is the left that, for near to a century, pioneered the tactic of pressing claims of rights—understood as exemptions for the individual from the authority of the community—in the courts, short-circuiting the slow but sure political processes that require engagement with one’s neighbors and consideration of their views.  “We talk a lot around here about voting on rights,” said Rachel Maddow on an MSNBC broadcast.  “Basically, rights are rights because you are born to them; you don’t vote on rights.”

But there is a right to own guns, and it is difficult to see how it can be limited without voting on it.  The problem with the absolutist line is that it assumes politics has no role to play in determining what all rights have: namely, boundaries.  The framers of the Constitution recognized only one absolute right: the sacred liberty of conscience, and that only because it resided in an internal realm and was therefore literally impossible to regulate.  All other rights—from speech to guns—had public repercussions and were consequently subject to public limitation.

Elsewhere in the piece, Wiener mentions abortion rights:

Thus when the citizens of the District of Columbia decided their city would be safer if it banned handguns, the Supreme Court—in the case of D.C. v. Heller—told them they could not.  One need not resolve the wisdom of such a policy to see the revolution worked by the judiciary trumping the deliberate sense of a community in resolving the boundaries of rights. The resort to the courts to overturn the Affordable Care Act resulted from the same mentality.

But so does the use of the judiciary to overturn majorities on abortion or any number of other priorities prized by the left. That is not by any means to equate those issues with what happened in Newtown.  It is, however, to say there is an inescapable linkage in the absolutism surrounding rights that characterizes both sides.

Each claims its priorities are exempt from the judgment of the community.  Each is quicker to turn to the courts than to democratic persuasion.  Each claims its rights are absolute, without boundary, isolated from regulation, indifferent to the opinions of one’s neighbors.  Each amounts to a claim to do whatever one wants, whenever one wants, regardless of what others want.  And each is part of a culture of rights that, every bit as much as a culture of guns, must change if another Newtown is to be deterred.

So here is the question I am grappling with after reading this piece: What is the difference between the conservative defense of the right to own any kind of gun and the liberal defense of a woman’s right to an abortion? Guns have the potential to end lives.  Abortion does end lives.

The Internet Can’t Fix the Potholes

Anthony Esolen defends town life.  Here is a taste:

The watchword, of course, is efficiency. A large factory may be able to manufacture plastic bowls at a cheaper rate than can two small factories. I defer to economists to tell me whether this is always true. But a human being is not a plastic bowl. We require goods on a human scale. If you spend a year with twenty people, chances are good that you will end up with a rival or two, and ten or fifteen friends. If you spend that same year with two thousand people, it is entirely possible that you will leave with the same invisibility and anonymity you had when you entered. If you can walk from one end of your town to the other in an hour or so, and you actually care about the potholes in the roads or the semiliterate textbooks in the elementary school, you stand a decent chance of knowing someone who might help you do something about it. And that very knowledge gives you a stake in the locality. It is almost impossible to feel at all responsible about anything when the influence of your single vote is exiguous—is but the weight of a hair on a twenty-ton scale…

 …I know well that the internet has made conversation, usually of a perfunctory sort, possible across the world. But this pothole is not going to be filled in by the internet; these fourth-graders are not going to be taught English grammar by a Facebook chat (to be honest, they are not going to be taught English grammar at all, but that is a complaint for another day); this restrictive zoning law is not going to be repealed by satellite. To the extent that small political paramecia like Enfield and Sackville are swallowed up in the amoeba of the HRM, to that extent do people lose the experience of self-government, regardless of how often their residents, no longer townsmen, vote.