Friday, 19 May 2017
A healthy society
It was not uncommon for children to play safely in the streets, or wander far from home, know all the neighbours, and see their second cousins more often than most people today see their brothers. By the time they were teenagers they were men and women; they found work and began a family, joined their unions and local groups like Kiwanis, the VFW, the American Legion. They showed up to city council meetings, took part in their school and parish, and occasionally ran for office. Clothes and toys were passed down through long lines of relatives, child to child, and glass jars and bottles were used over and over again for decades. My family grew vegetables in a garden, composted the kitchen scraps, canned and pickled, and shared what we had.
As a young journalist I reported from small towns across the Midwest, and in every town I could – even if it wasn’t relevant to the story I was reporting – I looked at its old newspapers. In town after town they told the same story, of clean, healthy towns with farms and factories, whose citizens endured depressions and droughts and whose young men dreamed of home when they went to Verdun or Iwo Jima. School records described students learning Marcus Aurelius, building windmills or performing Shakespeare, in towns where few people today seem to have much education anymore.
City halls boasted photos of the city band gathered around the gazebo in the town square back when townspeople took part in a city band – and old newspaper photos showed local chapters of Kiwanis or Oddfellows celebrating some now-forgotten milestone. Most of these men spent their days in crop fields or factory floors, yet they dressed up for their meetings as they did for church – back when people dressed up for church -- and the suits were as clean as the buildings.
By the time I reported from those towns, in the 1990s, they already looked like the Zombie Apocalypse had come through; boarded-up storefronts, giant holes in the roads, and walls covered with graffiti that no one bothers to clean up. Few businesses remained in town centres; the remaining companies often stayed far outside of towns, sometimes displaying signs in Spanish for their low-paid immigrant workforce, and fenced off with increasingly savage-looking barbed wire. Many of the people I met seemed functionally illiterate, surly and suspicious. Most quickly turned any conversation to conspiracy theories they seemed to have picked up from talk radio and other media, their link to the world.
That was in the middle of what the media called an “economic boom,” although it didn’t affect the red states I grew up in -- and since then, life has only grown worse. When I visit my native country, much of it is functionally the Third World; in many small towns a large segment of the population survives solely on disability payments or Social Security of some kind, and drugs and despair eat away the generations. Deaths from legal and illegal drugs have increased more than 500 per cent since these old photos, killing more than half a million Americans since 2000. Among middle-aged men – the people who would once have been pillars of the community – the suicide rate has doubled in the last ten years.
You could see the same thing in the big city; I saw black-and-white photos of my grandparents in urban St. Louis in the 30s and 40s, smiling young people smartly dressed, standing in a neighbourhood of clean houses and front lawns, ready to take the trolley to a school dance or first job. You don’t want to go through those neighbourhoods today; many of the houses are windowless shells, with pieces cut out as from explosions, and graffiti covering every reachable surface.
By the time I grew up, the healthy days of a vibrant civic life, close neighbourhoods and self-reliant, literate men and women seemed like an alien universe, even for a relatively old-fashioned family like mine. I read more books and explored more land as a child more than most of my peers, but even I can look back and see how different my own life was from that of my grandparents, and even more from that of my Irish neighbours. Young people today grow up hungry for something, feeling the absence of something they've never experienced and can't recognise. Next week I'll talk about how we might be able to regain some of what we lost.